The Memoir Collection: Playlist

Songs or any kind of writing may seem to be about something “out there,” but they are always about the writer’s experience or impressions of that thing. So in that sense they are always personal. Some of my songs over the years have been overtly autobiographical — even if couched more in mythic than literal terms. So this collection is devoted to most of those songs.

We begin with a song about my childhood, “The Dude” (2017, from Man of Irony). Just as the song tells it, this was the nickname my older brother, “Ace” (Mike) gave me at a young age. The name stuck among the family, even into my adulthood. But if the name suggests a man of the world, then it was bestowed with a good-natured sense of irony. “Was he a mystic or a space-cadet?” sums me up pretty well. I had a happy childhood, but it was spent mostly in my own world. The mournful tone of the song just turned out that way. Either my childhood wasn’t as happy as I think, or I wish I were that happy now. Or maybe it’s just an extra topping of irony.

The Dude

I went to college thinking to be a zoologist, because I loved the natural world. But that plan was interrupted by a call to ministry (a change of kingdom, you might say) completely out of the blue one evening in September 1968, alone in my dorm room. Nine years later, I wrote my first song about that experience. “Knock-Knock, Who’s There?” (1977, from Chronicles of Babylon, Vol. 2) established my approach to songwriting. It mixes those old “Knock-Knock” jokes with Jesus standing at the door in Revelation 3:20, and with some musical inspiration from “Sweet Virginia” by the Rolling Stones. The song mythologizes the dorm-room scene in country & western terms. It isn’t one of my best songs, but I’m still fond of it and I can’t leave it out from this collection.

Knock-Knock, Who’s There?

Since I’ve introduced my first song here, this might be the time to tell “The Legend of the Brothers Doug” (2020, from A Musical Personality Disorder). The story begins in the subjunctive — they couldn’t, shouldn’t, and wouldn’t be — but then blurts out their tawdry story, albeit in legendary terms befitting their shadowy existence. Poe’s raven tries to stop them, but “how can they repent of it till every Doug agrees?” They tried to stop with their next CD, Every Doug Agrees. But that still wasn’t the end of it.

The Legend of the Brothers Doug

“A Messenger of the Lord” (2016, from Man of Irony) was written on a bus, on my way home from some teaching in England. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the first inkling that the long years of ministry since my call in 1968 were moving toward an end. The song relates in some ways to “The Dude (“a mystic or a space cadet”), in that I had little sense of aim or objective in ministry. I simply tried to be a messenger of what was given to me. Thus, “guided by a gentle hand, with no thing toward,” “I had all the answers to questions nobody asked, I was an ironic romancer in love with a pointless task.” I trusted that the Lord had some purpose in the messages I was given, even if I didn’t know it. There are no regrets here, just perplexed gratitude.

A Messenger of the Lord

“I Didn’t Have to Stand in Line for This” (2019, from Moments of Truth), isn’t overtly about my vocation, but about the singular life it led me to live. There was no template that seemed to fit — “I had to find my own way home.” I think the title must have come to me subliminally from Moby’s “Extreme Ways” (2002), which contains the line, “I would stand in line for this.” That song accompanies the credits at the end of the Jason Bourne films. My life has been “like Jason Bourne in slow motion . . . in the mystery of who I am.”

I Didn’t Have to Stand in Line for This

When I was a boy, the barber’s electric clippers sometimes bogged down as they went over the top of my head. But my mother had a lot of bald uncles, so my brother and I knew from an early age our follicular destiny, and we embraced it. But I can still enjoy someone else’s hair — “better there, where I can see it.” Thus, “Hair Envy” (1997, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon).

Hair Envy

“The Fever” (2019, from Moments of Truth) reflects on another side of all my unknowing, the sheer drivenness of my itineracy over the years. By 2019, after a year or more of retirement, I had some perspective on it. In this song, I immerse myself again in those decades of “heat-waves on my brain.” “Some old cat named William James” makes an appearance at the end.

The Fever

“Am I Tragic Yet? (2002, from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon, rerecorded 2022) came to me in my fifties, those “long, strange years of middle age,” where you begin to wonder if you’ve lost the plot somewhere. I’d also been studying Greek tragedy with its sense of divine providence, and the growth of wisdom through tragic events. The tone here is melodramatic, but only half-humorous.

Am I Tragic Yet?

I had retired at the beginning of 2018, to return to Richmond, Indiana and help support my demented mother through her last eleven months of life. Not having made provisions for retirement, I was surprised to discover that I could just about make it on Social Security and subsidized housing in a town like Richmond. “Baby, I’m Retired” (2019, from Moments of Truth) has the air of someone who has begun to feel a bit irrelevant to the younger generations with their different concerns. “I guess it’s time to take my rest, I wish you all the very best.” The song takes some inspiration from “Look for Me, Baby” by the Kinks (1965).

Baby, I’m Retired

Not surprisingly, much of The Last of the Brothers Doug? is taken up with aging and mortality. Two songs from that CD will suffice here. “Better with Age” (2021) is a pulsating soul stomp with plenty of conviction, but an undercurrent of irony. I think I’m channeling the great soul shouter Levi Stubbs here.

Better with Age

“Down the Hall” (2021) is based on a dream I had in 2019, where I leave some rooms full of people and am walking alone down a hallway. I can see that it ends in nothingness, but I go ahead and walk off the end. I then see my dead body lying on concrete two or three floors below. An angel chorus accompanies me here, “as I walk on down the hall.”

Down the Hall

Finally, in 2005, as I watched my parents move through their 80s and my mother drift further into dementia, I wrote “Time Is Like Wine” (from The Best of Chronicles of Babylon). We get drunk with time as the years roll on faster and we’re “really gulping it down.” Now in my 70s, it seems all the more true to me — though “Pandemic Haze” (see the Pandemic Collection) has accelerated the process.

Time Is Like Wine

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