Wednesday, July 14, 2010

If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot/Johnny Cash

"I just don't get it."

As much as we try to figure out the events of our lives sometimes we just have to admit to ourselves that there are things beyond our understanding.  We question the logic of life when things don't go our way and the feeling of helplessness, accepting what we can not make sense of is one of the hardest things in life.

Gordon Lightfoot's 1971 unforgettable hit "If You Could Read My Mind" is about this moment. 

I recently came to this song through Johnny Cash's cover:

On February 26th, 2010 seven years after his death, Johnny Cash released his last album, American VI: Ain’t No Grove. Like the five previous albums produced by Rick Rubin, this was a simply produced album combining popular hits along with Cash’s own compositions. The most popular of these song was “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song (which I discussed in this earlier post) was on the previous album American IV: The Man Comes Around. While Cash’s own compositions on this album are stunning and unforgettable, his interpretations of other songs are truly remarkable.

There is something unforgiving and dark about this song. Here is a man trying to explain how he feels initially relating himself to a trapped ghost then in the second verse a fallen hero. Even when there’s hope in the third verse and he admits how his queen that brings “all the good things out in me.” He admits, “let’s be real, I never thought I could act this way.” Then he gives up.

And I got to say that I just don’t get it.
I don’t’ know where we went wrong,
But the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back.

Lightfoot displays incredible song writing craft and he builds tension towards the end of each rising in melody and speeding up the rhythm of the words. The setting of the words reflects the natural pulse of the words. The way the words against the constant pulse of the guitar that just tears at your heart.

Now Lightfoot’s performance is great, but Cash takes it to another level. Slowing down the tempo and singing with his battered baritone, Cash doesn’t so much sing but emotes straight from the dark corners of his heart.

Cash's voice carefully and deliberately steps through each note. No, his voice is not as agile as it was when he was younger but it’s the slight strain, the struggle, the shake in his voice transforms this song from a reflection of a pain to the actual event of a heart breaking.

When Cash sings “I just don’t get it,” you believe he truly doesn’t.

Admitting this to ourselves is one of the most painful and helpless things we can do.  And no, listening to Cash fall apart doesn't make us feel better when we just don't get life.  That's not the point of sad music.  Sad music helps us feel better about the pain in our lives, it reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles and that as hard as our moments in our lives are, just like this song, eventually it will be over.

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