I’m not a crier. Never have been. And yet, every now and then, a song on the radio will catch me off guard and get me all verklempt. With New Year’s fast approaching, maybe I’ll pour myself a glass of ancient Irish whiskey and crank up the waterworks with the tearful tunes below:
Redemption Song/Bob Marley – If you read any of my books, or at least my list of favorites, you’ll see that redemption is a continuing theme. There’s something endlessly appealing — and touching — about broken people down to their final chance who somehow find the strength to triumph against the longest of odds. Marley’s world-weary voice has a way of reaching into my heart and giving it a squeeze, especially when he says, “All I ever have . . . redemption songs.”
Pancho and Lefty/Willie and Merle – It’s just a sad, sad tale of loyalty and betrayal. One character winds up dead, the other spends his final days in a freezing Cleveland fleabag hotel room. No hope, nothing left to cling to except the lived-in voices of our narrators. A reminder, as John Mellencamp once said, that “Nothin’ matters and what if it did.”
Ooh La La/The Faces – A bittersweet tale of love and regret and lessons learned, as passed down from a mythical grandfather to his grandson who, as is always the case, will have to find out for himself. I prefer the raggedy Ronnie Wood offering to the more polished Rod Stewart effort; it seems to fit the sentiment better. As a grandfather of an 18-year-old boy in his first real relationship, I connect with this song on every level. I’m sure he will, too, when he’s my age.
Angel from Montgomery/John Prine – I could choose a dozen songs from the legendary and still under-appreciated Prine, but none better than this masterpiece about an old couple playing out the string. I love Bonnie Raitt’s version, too, but no one captures the pain and loneliness like the guy who wrote these words: “Just give me one thing that I can hold on to; to believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
Love is the Answer/Utopia – Such a simple, universal theme, but in the hands of Todd Rundgren, it becomes a soaring anthem that builds and builds to a crescendo of tears:
And when you feel afraid, love one another
When you’ve lost your way, love one another
When you’re all alone, love one another
When you’re far from home, love one another
When you’re down and out, love one another
All your hope’s run out, love one another
When you need a friend, love one another
When you’re near the end, love one another
We got to love one another
If you’ve only heard the slicker England Dan and John Ford Coley hit, I urge you to give this a listen instead.
Hallelujah/Leonard Cohen – If you’re in the mood to kill yourself, cue up Cohen’s “You Want it Darker.” But if you’re longing for a sliver of peace, “Hallelujah” makes the cut, with its skillful blend of metaphor, parable and cinematic imagery. Reportedly Cohen wrote 80 original verses, which you can no doubt find somewhere on the web. But the popular version is just right for me.
Just Us Kids/James McMurtry – James inherited his father’s fabled storytelling skills; “Just Us Kids” chronicles an entire life in a little over five minutes, a novel disguised as a song. From a relatability standpoint, it helps that James and I are roughly the same age. For good and for bad, we’re card-carrying Boomers to the core, dealing with the disappointment and loss that comes with the territory.
Just us kids hangin’ out today
Watchin’ our long hair turnin’ gray
Not so skinny maybe not so free
Not so many as we used to be
American Tune/Paul Simon – Rhymin’ Simon’s tribute to the America that should have been makes me long for the America that never was. I think we all wonder what went wrong.
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong
Honorable mention to Simon’s “America,” and especially this line:
“Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Spirit in the Night/Bruce Springsteen – And while we’re on the subject of lines:
I said, “I’m hurt,” she said, “Honey, let me heal it”
The beyond-cool hipster riff doesn’t hurt, either.
Sweet Baby James/James Taylor – This modern cowboy lullaby penned and sung by Taylor for his namesake nephew is so beautiful I bet they play it in heaven. Damn.