You Believe in Dreams in a Dream-Forsaken Land
Roseanne Cash in The New York Times
The Ear of the Beholder
“I have spent a lifetime in the service of creative fiction, as well as non-fiction ornamented by fiction….The “truth” (or “honesty”) and the “facts” are not necessarily the same, they are not necessarily equal and one often requires the suspension of the other. This may not be the case in higher math or on Wall Street (or, actually, it may work there as well, but I’m clueless about that) but it is an immutable “truth” in art and music that facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience.
The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy-glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels – all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.
The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything – these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury, and when you are working in rhyme, it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room. You are better off moving the furniture than you are directly analyzing the furniture maker. This is to say nothing of the fact that the lyrical content of songs is by definition wholly entwined with melody, rhythm, tone and possibly a backbeat, and these carry their own authority.
Recently, I wrote a song with Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Costello. It was a wild idea I had while I was lying around recovering from surgery this past winter. They are both friends – I’ve known Kris since my childhood – and Elvis and I had just written a song together by email. …. I asked them separately if they would be interested in recording together, the three of us, and they were both game. We started talking about this in February. We found that the only day in a six-month window when the three of us would be in New York at the same time, without obligations, was April 5th. I booked the studio, not knowing what we would do. As the date got closer, I started to get a little nervous and thought maybe my initial idea of recording old songs of ours together might not have the fresh energy and originality I was looking for. Elvis and John Leventhal, my husband and frequent collaborator and producer, kept mentioning that they hoped we could write something together that day, but that also made me anxious. It seemed too much pressure for one day.
I had a song that was incomplete, but a great idea, that I had started writing when I was halfway through recording Black Cadillac. It never really worked, and last year John picked it up again, streamlined it musically and suggested some lyric changes – actually lyric deletions, as he thought it was too wordy. I pared the first verse down to this:
You want love
But it’s never deep enough
You want life
But it’s never long enough
You want peace
Like it’s something you can buy
You want time
But you’re content to watch it fly
I loved the song, but it was still incomplete and didn’t seem to have a home. John thought this would be a great song to write with the gents, and so I sent the first verse by e-mail to Elvis and to Kris (by way of his wife, Lisa, as Kris doesn’t do e-mail), to see if they would be interested in finishing it with us. Elvis responded immediately, and within a couple days had e-mailed back a second verse, and some ideas for bridges. I loved his verse (“You want imagination but you cannot pretend…“), and we began a dialogue about where it should go. Nothing from Kris, who was touring in Europe.
On April 4th, the day before the session, Lisa sent an e-mail saying, “Here are his thoughts so far…” and a verse from Kris that raised the hair on the back of my head and brought instant tears to my eyes. I sent it to Elvis, fingers shaking, and he wrote back within minutes, his excitement and exclamation points jumping off the screen.
It was perfect.
It all came together seamlessly the next day, in a way that I’ve seldom experienced in 30 years of recording. It was like alchemy. It was eight hours of magic (and I never use that word). Elvis tinkered with his verses a bit, we divided up the vocal parts and the three of us stood in a circle with the three musicians – John, Zev Katz and Joe Bonadio – and recorded the song. It still doesn’t have a proper title, or a home, but it is a thing of beauty. (Regarding the title, I suggested “Free Will,” Kris suggested “Faith and Free Will,” and Elvis was concerned that anything with “free will” would remind people of a movie about a whale; so right now we’re calling it “April 5th,” because that’s when we recorded it.) A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either. There are no “facts” in these lyrics, no literal references to our lives, beyond our combined assimilated experience and unstated values.
A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either. There are no “facts” in these lyrics, no literal references to our lives, beyond our combined assimilated experience and unstated values.
We are so deeply limited by language, and so ennobled by it. Songs are the attempt to convey what is under and behind language, and so it is counter-productive, if not counter-intuitive, to clutch at exactitudes of circumstance that retreat further in meaning the more desperate we become to quantify them.”
You Want Life, But It’s Never Long Enough
Twilight’s Ambiguity: Vagueness and Possibility
Rosanne Cash spoke about how some persons have reacted to hearing this song by saying that, “A few people who have heard it have said that even though the lyrics are uplifting, even elegiac, the song makes them cry, and they are not sure why. I had the same experience, and I’m not sure why, either.”
Just what is it about the lyrics of this new song that evokes the uncomfortable feelings relating to ambiguity and uncertainty? From my own perspective, the feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing, reflects the shadowy, twilight realm known as unformulated experience, which is so often characteristic of our greatest longings, as well as our desperate need to have them “heard.” Rosanne Cash’s wonderful contribution intentionally focuses upon some of our deeper emotional experiences: love, life, peace and time (to live). Sadly, those very wishes too often engender unbearable sources of frustration, the wishes seeming to be either unfulfilling or not obtainable.
Elvis Costello’s verse,”You want imagination but you cannot pretend,” poetically reveals the distressing sense of paradox that is inherent to the nature of our deeper emotional wishes, which can in turn serve as a barrier to maintaining a sense of and attaining our objects of benign hope. Kristofferson’s verse, “You believe in dreams in a dream-forsaken land,” is a similar reflection of life’s fundamental, ongoing and painful sense of paradox, with many-layers of potential meanings. In many areas of life, especially those mentioned in Roseanne Cash’s lyrics, the struggle to achieve a genuine sense of independence and maturity similarly means being able and willing to sustain the essential, complex tensions of paradox until one can achieve a new understanding, supported by a view of experience as emergent. All of these, in turn, call upon a wide-ranging capacity to recognize and appreciate multiple perspectives.
And be not afraid of courting surprise.
Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson: “April 5th”
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