Beautiful Despair. The great country-and-western singer-songwriter, Rodney Crowell, was passing through town on a bitter cold February day, and I got a chance to talk to him about “beautiful despair,” which is also the title of a song on his forthcoming album, The Outsider.
He’s one of the masters of that singular emotion, that elusive, seductive, mournful and redemptive state of mind that is beautiful despair, and after he got back from a photo shoot out on the frozen North Fork, I met him in his room at the Parker Meridien.
You know Rodney Crowell, right? Author of one of the two or three greatest country-and-western songs ever written, in my opinion-“‘Til I Gain Control Again”-along with countless other classics. You know him if you read this column, since I’ve spoken about him in my ceaseless (but probably doomed) attempts to get Northern intellectuals to recognize how good the writing in country-and-western songs actually is, at its best. How, if you detach yourself from conventional hierarchies of genre, some of the best American writing of any kind is being done in that form.
And-I guess it’s impossible not to mention-you probably know him as well as the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, another genius of beautiful despair. He was the producer on some of her most beautifully intense works. (Listen to Seven Year Ache and weep.)
And you know beautiful despair, don’t you? Is there anyone who doesn’t? You’ve felt it, even if you haven’t named it that. It’s not depression; it’s not mere melancholy, lovely as melancholy can be. It’s something both sentimental and spiritual. You know it, for instance, if the sentimentally spiritual novels of Graham Greene are as much a guilty pleasure for you as they are for me. (They’re about “guilty pleasure,” come to think of it. Or guilt and pleasure. As are most country-and-western songs.)
Indeed, in a great cross-referential coincidence (true story!), the day I met Rodney Crowell I came across a remarkable sentence, the epigraph to Greene’s The End of the Affair. It’s not my favorite Greene novel at all; I’m more of a Heart of the Matter guy. But there it was, something I’d completely forgotten or never noticed until I saw it cited in Christopher Hitchens’ essay on Greene-the epigraph (from Leon Bloy) at the beginning of The End:
“Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.”
Yes! Graham Greene is the country-and-western songwriter of sentimental Anglo-Catholicism. Rodney Crowell is the country-and-western singer of Northern loners like myself. Mapping out the terra incognita, the terrifying loveliness of loss, the beautiful despair that didn’t even exist, didn’t come into being until he wrote those songs.
He’s a Southerner, Houston-born, but the frozen North Fork setting of his photo shoot made sense: As with Greene’s work, there’s a stiletto of ice in Rodney Crowell’s best songs that pierces to the heart of the matter.
Heading uptown to meet with him, I somehow felt compelled to record, on the tape recorder I was bringing, a tinny version of the Rodney Crowell song I’d been playing ceaselessly on CD at home. Using the “repeat mode” function (this should be made available only by prescription), I think I’d listened to “‘Til I Gain Control Again” more than 50 times, searching for its secret, never tiring of it. The song is a mystery to me-its majesty and humility, beautiful in its simultaneous redemptiveness, spiritual suggestiveness and undertone of despair.
I guess some people react more strongly to songs in general than others, and some react to particular songs in ways that seem excessive even to themselves. Perhaps it has something to do with the circumstances in which I first heard “‘Til I Gain Control Again.” It was at the beginning of one of the best weeks of my life, the night when I began traveling through the Gulf states with Willie Nelson and his band. It was at some giganto beer hall outside McAllen, Tex., I believe, down near the border.
At the close of the first show, the rowdy crowd sat in stunned silence (as did I) as Willie did a scorching, indeed almost permanently scarring version of “‘Til I Gain Control Again.” I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the beautiful despair of that moment.
It’s one of those songs that are strong enough to change your life. In some ways, ever since I heard it, I’ve never been the same; I’ve never really “gained control” again. It’s as if some powerful hypnotic spell activated by the opening chords will always have a strange paralytic power over my mind and heart.
It’s the unusual phrasing of the verses that turn them into something rich and strange, yes, but really it’s the chorus that’s the secret hypnotic signal:
Out on the road that lies before me now,
There are some turns where I will spin.
I only hope that you can hold me now,
‘Til I can gain control again.
I don’t like to make categorical statements (not really true), but if you haven’t heard it, you really don’t know beautiful despair-not in this particular key.
Anyway, as it turned out, Rodney Crowell was quite amenable to spending a little time talking about songwriting and such matters that evening. (He even revealed he’s writing his memoirs, which I’m ready to read now.)
And he told me the story of the origin of “Beautiful Despair”-the song, and then the emotion.
The song had its origin at a late-night party in Belfast where he’d just played a gig (the Irish know the poetry in country music better than most Easterners in America). He was surrounded by revelers, sitting in the midst of the festivities, listening to a Dylan song with an Irish friend of his who was drinking too much. And his friend said, “You know why I’m an alcoholic? Because I can’t write like Dylan.”
“That’s beautiful despair,” Rodney said.
Apparently, he’s felt it himself. Here’s the opening of the song that emerged, the one on his new album:
Beautiful despair is hearing Dylan when you’re drunk at 3 a.m.
Knowing that the chances are no matter what you’ll never write like him.
Beautiful despair is why you lean into this world without restraint.
‘Cause somewhere out before you lies the masterpiece you’d sell your soul to paint.
Interesting: I actually think Rodney Crowell has written songs that can hold their own with Dylan’s. (My despair-I hesitate to call it beautiful-is that I’ll never write a song half as good as Rodney Crowell’s.)
Then I asked him about “‘Til I Gain Control Again.”
He told me that it came from very early in his career, shortly after he arrived in Nashville, and that “I wanted to get the attention of Townes Van Zandt,” the legendary Texas singer-songwriter and author of the classic ballad of beautiful despair, “Pancho and Lefty”.
He told me that he wrote “‘Til I Gain Control Again” in “a kind of three-day trance.”
In fact, he said, “I have formed the opinion that with some songs, they exist complete in another dimension, and that my job is to get them from over there to here. It’s almost like a visitation.”
I was interested in the spiritual language in which he spoke of his songwriting. What realm did his beautiful despair come from?
“My parents’ despair wasn’t beautiful,” he said. “It was from poverty-they were dirt-poor, and there was a lot of anger. In me, I think it got translated into sadness. I didn’t want to hurt anybody from anger; I preferred to hurt myself. And I found ways to do it.”
He made an oblique reference to “a Muse I was writing for, a woman who thought I was a shitheel”-the implication being that he hurt himself by hurting her. I guess we’ll have to wait for the memoirs to learn who she was.
“If you look at some of my early songs, ‘Ashes by Now’ and ”Til I Gain Control Again,'” he said, “there’s a lot of unworthiness, and I can sort of watch my struggle with unworthiness. Man, the feeling of unworthiness is a shitty place to start.”
“Hey, it’s a worse place to end up,” I wanted to say. Instead, I asked him about a line from the chorus of “‘Til I Gain Control Again”:
“‘There are some turns where I will spin.’ Meaning where you’ll-“
“It’s gonna happen again, yeah,” he said.
I thought of a Graham Greene character that Christopher Hitchens mentions as a bit over-obvious: Dr. Czinner. “There are some turns where I will spin”: There are some turns, Graham Greene might say, despite (or because of) our best intentions, where we will sin. We will become Dr. Czinner. Now I understand why I’m drawn to both writers: despair over unworthiness.
And then he tells me something remarkable: the explicitly spiritual origin of his sensibility. He told me about the way he grew up in a family of Pentecostalists. “Two cuts away from snake handlers,” is the way he put it. And that his mother would fall down in church and start speaking in tongues. And how “the pastor would go over to her, lean down, put his hand on her forehead and translate” the unintelligible words pouring out of her into what he said was a message from God.
I thought of this when Rodney Crowell was talking about songwriting, how some songs came to him whole from another realm and he just wrote them down. Translated something from the realm of the unintelligible to something beautifully, sometimes spiritually intelligible. One song, he told me, came to him complete in a dream, and “I only changed one word.”
A couple of surprises emerged from my questions about the origins of his songs. Two of his most powerful recent ones, songs I thought were about love, turned out to be about death. Or the way love is always shadowed by-inseparable from- death.
There was “Stilll Learning How to Fly,” from his last album, 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand, which turned out to be a song he wrote for a friend who was dying. And “Adam’s Song” from that same album-a song with a killer refrain about “learning how to live with a lifelong broken heart”-turned out to be a song he wrote for another friend whose son had died in childhood. Well, in a way, they are love songs. Almost a reminder that in all the great country songs, the death of love is but a reminder of something even more inevitable and final.
And remember that song he spoke of that came to him in a dream and he only changed one word? The high point of our discussion of songwriting had to do with a single word in one of his best-known hits, “Shame on the Moon.”
If you know the song at all, you probably know it-as I did for a long time-from the Bob Seger cover. You remember: “Blame it on midnight / Shame on the moon.” But I hadn’t heard it as a Rodney Crowell song until I listened to a version from one of his early albums and finally paid attention to more than “Blame it on midnight / Shame on the moon.” In fact, it’s one of his best, believe me.
It’s one of his best, but he can’t stand to hear it-in fact, he refuses to sing it. It’s not about Bob Seger; he liked Bob Seger’s version, he said. He likes the song, he said. Except for one word-one word he feels, as a songwriter, that he failed to get right, and this has ruined the song for him forever.
Or has it? I asked what word, and he said it was in the last stanza.
But first he told me the origin of the song-an origin which perhaps has put a curse on it for him. “I started writing that when I was watching coverage of the Jim Jones thing,” he told me. “The Jim Jones thing”: the now almost forgotten mass suicide in Guyana of some 900 disciples of the charismatic psychotic preacher, Jim Jones. The sad victims whose main legacy now is a somehow wildly inappropriate catch phrase: “They took the Kool-Aid.”
The song doesn’t seem to reflect the tragedy explicitly. But it does seem to have something to do with the inability to know, to really know another human being.
One verse, for instance, about what it’s like being “inside a woman’s heart” concludes:
Some men go crazy,
Some men go slow,
Some men know just what they want,
Some men never go.
But it’s the final verse, a word in the last line, that drives him crazy:
‘Cause until you’ve been beside a man
You don’t know who he knows.
Who he knows. That’s what bothers him: “who he knows.” He feels it was dashed off and doesn’t mean anything and that it fails, that it undercuts the entire song with its mediocrity. Unusual for an artist to feel that strongly about one of his most successful songs. The beautiful despair of a writer who can’t call his flawed creation back. But he’s told singer-songwriter friends that if they can come up with a better line than that, they can use it.
“But nobody has,” he says.
Well, fools rush in …. “Why not make it ‘You don’t know what he knows’?” I asked him. My reasoning: That’s the mystery, isn’t it-how different people know the world in different ways, ways that cut us off from each other?
When I said “what he knows,” I could see-I’m sure!-there was a slight pause. He didn’t say “Yeah, you got it,” but it gave him pause (I thought). I can’t believe someone else hadn’t thought of it, but he didn’t say anything more; he just moved on.
So here’s the deal: I think I fixed the song. I think he should realize it. I think he should start singing it again. Record a new version again with my one-word change. In the scheme of things, it’s just about a single word. But a single word I contributed to a Rodney Crowell song! Come on! No more beautiful despair for me; I’ll be content. It won’t be long before I start calling him my co-writer.