What’s In Gillian Welch’s Hope Chest

I keep thinking of my two Americas, which may or may not align with Edwards’, though I doubt it, because, for all of Edwards’ faults, he’s sincere and not at all pained by being so.  My two Americas are Walt Whitman’s America versus The America of Dudes With their Blow-Dried Full Heads of Hair Parted on the Side.  Pretty much, if you see a dude with a full head of hair cut just so, blow-dried and parted on the side, he is the enemy of truth and beauty.  In fact, if you see him at all, you’ve probably caught him in mid-lie.

I don’t know if there’s anything good in the America of the Dudes with The Haircut.  Maybe there is.  My question is, even if it’s good, how can you know if it’s real?  It’s like being fed a steady diet of Special K.  It’s just crunchy air.  It’s not bad for you.  But I don’t know that it’s going to cure what ails any of us.

I finally finished The Devil in the Shape of a Woman and at the end of it, the author is talking about the possession of the Salem girls and how, regardless of what you view as the cause of their behavior, it’s hard not to notice that their bodies seemed to be acting out a rage they were helpless in the face of, a rage they could not express in real life.  I wonder what it says about me that I cannot handle open spaces combined with heights.  On Monday, I couldn’t see out of my left eye.  It was just full of junk and it seems to have cleared itself up (in other words, it wasn’t my eye itself that was the problem.  I wasn’t blind.  I just couldn’t see through the crap over it).  But it was playing funky stuff with my perceptions as my right eye tried to compensate and I was getting weird blindspots and from a certain angle, it looked like the dog only had one eye.

Maybe I should have taken that as a friendly warning.

Anyway, I was looking around the internet for a good discussion of Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway” and I don’t see any.  I don’t know if that’s because it’s so obvious to everyone or if it’s because it’s so obscure.  I think of this song as a kind of cataloging of what’s in Gillian Welch’s hope chest, her meandering walk through what she loves in the Walt Whitman America, like her “Wrecking Ball” but with less obvious anger.

I really love it, though, I’m not sure what it all means.  I think any discussion has to start with the allusions, just to make sure everyone’s on the same place on those terms.

So, shall we start there?

The John who’s kicking out the footlights is Johnny Cash kicking out the footlights of the Opry

The Grand Ole Opry did get a brand new band right before this song came out and folks were outraged that so many loyal old musicians were displaced.

So you might say that the first verse is about the Opry and the whole ongoing conflict between what’s new and “how things have always been done.”  In a nice twist, the verse doesn’t settle on one side of the debate.  In the case of Cash, we think of “how things have always been done” as stifling the outlaw genius. In the case of the brand new band, we’re supposed to lament the passing of “how things have always been done.”  And yet, if you didn’t know that, the verse is written so that John’s kicking out of the footlights seems to be in direct protest of the Grand Ole Opry getting a brand new band.

Well, clearly, this is Dream Time.  Effects can be felt years before causes cause them.  We start, though, in Nashville.

Then, we’re thinking about moving down into Memphis.  Since we started talking about music, and we’re listening to a song, it’s tempting to read this verse also as being about music.   But who is the hatchet man who forked the speaker’s tongue?  A hatchet man is usually a term used to mean a hack.  I used to think he was Elvis, but maybe he’s Sam Phillips.  Whoever he is, he taught our song bird how to speak (tongue forking is a way to make crows speak).  We haven’t left for Memphis yet, though, we’re laying around waiting for the wagons to come.  What wagons?  Fuck if I know.

Next verse, (though I must say, I think it’s important that she’s positioned herself as a crow, as a psychopomp–we’re traveling here, not just across America, but back and forth from the living to the dead), she’s escaped Nashville and is headed now to Memphis (a three hour drive/a three hour jones).

Next verse, she’s picked up Jack of Diamonds–unless he’s the rattling bones in her empty wagon.  Who’s Jack of Diamonds?  A drifter a female singer says, “I know you of old You have robbed my poor pockets of silver and gold.”  Welch’s narrator indicates they’re playing some ancient game with well-defined parts–will Jack of Diamonds be the one who goes or the one who stays?  The one who dies and becomes a legend or the one who’s left behind with the legacy?  Welch suggests that it’s Jack’s turn to stay behind and her turn to become legendary.

But what does it mean for her to be legendary?  Thinking of herself as a legend, as “something to write home about,” she doesn’t know who she is.  I think that’s what this next verse is about, her studying the television, looking for some model she can follow in order to figure out what kind of legend she can be.

Then she turns back to Jack and brags about the self-destructive things she’s done and how he should give her some of what he’s having, his poison, his place in history; it might be poison, but she can take it.

Then, bam, we’re not on the road to Memphis any more.  We’ve traded that for another liminal space–a bathroom and we’re hung over and it’s too bright.  But the weirdness isn’t over.  It’s not just there hanging some place between Nashville and Memphis.

It’s also in a diner where you can watch a waitress for a million years until you have a Biblical vision.

I don’t know why Lazarus is hiding behind the window shade but I appreciate that, just as the singer seems to be slipping back and forth between living and death and living again, she would welcome the company of a man back from the dead.

And then, in the last verse, of course, no matter how profound this shit is, you can’t ever hold onto it like you want to.  The knowledge is so hard to hang onto, to know it in your bones and keep it there.

Could This Day Be Any Weirder?

Well, so the reason my luggage hasn’t arrived is that my key worked, just once, but once is enough to let me in, in room 1920.  I am staying in 1921.  So, there I was, over in 1920, going to the bathroom, trying to order room service, just basically waiting around for the panic to subside and I was in the wrong room.

What the fuck?

So, I’m in 1921 now, but I can’t get room service or the bell folks to pick up so I’m without dinner and without luggage, but really, what the fuck?

How strange is that?

So, no one one the quiz, the answer to which was “Because I couldn’t figure out how to dial my phone, like a damn fool.”

Don’t they have socialized medicine in Canada?  Maybe I can have a doctor come check me for “utter foolishness.”

The Only Bright Spot in this Day Was My Vodou Practicing Cab Driver

Let’s have a quiz. The first person to answer correctly gets to come here and get me right the fuck now.

Okay, here’s the only question on this quiz.

1. Why didn’t the Professor get a frantic hysterical call from me in the Montreal airport?

So, where to start?

First of all, fuck you to the architect who designed the whole steel and glass airy open philosophy of airport building. If I wanted to feel open and airy and like I was just hanging above the earth on a prayer, I’d walk across more fucking bridges.

Second, some dude has my luggage. He’s supposed to come up here and help me get situated in my room. I don’t really need situated in my room. I need to know that there are some god damn elevators in this god damn hotel that don’t have glass backs that open out onto the city scape. How, exactly, am I supposed to get down from here?

I want to drink. I want to drink so much that I am crying. But I can’t charge booze to the job and paying cash would involve leaving this room and I just don’t have the ability.

I hate it here so much and I want to come home right now. Even though it means going back to that god forsaken airport.

I would rather quit my job than have to navigate that fucking elevator again.

The Montreal airport was a nightmare to which I will have to return. I had a breakdown and couldn’t get to Customs. The jackass at Customs was all like “What’s the problem? You’re on the ground.” Well, fuck you, buddy, you’re about two seconds from being on the ground yourself.

This is worse than San Diego.

I don’t know if I can do it.

I just do not fucking know.

Maybe I’ll just stay here until Sunday and then let them call security to carry my ass out of here.

God, what the fuck?

What the fuck is wrong with me?

It doesn’t matter. There’s no point in getting philosophical about it. Whatever the problem is, I’ve got to find a way to work around it. Crying hysterically is not going to work, so I’ve got to do something else. I can’t figure that out, yet, but I will. I’ve got to. I’ve got to get down from here eventually.