My mother is a musician, singing is her passion. I can see the impact her talents have had on just about everything I do. She has a songbook of her own, a disgustingly huge thing, bits of paper inside older than I am. On every piece of paper is a song that makes her emote, make her reach some intangible happiness, through the melody and lyrics.
I am not like that. I usually don't identify with a song's lyrics on some overthought, quasi-facetious and unknowledgably spiritual level, except on the rare occasion where the music is as beautiful as the poetic artistry presented. Mom hits upon these lyrics more frequently than I do, in part because she's forty-ish and has experienced more music; also because I am not mature enough to totally click with whatever it is I am listening to. Thus, my mother's songbook is a lot thicker than mine.
My songbook is a hideous and deformed binder which barely allows me to flip pages. I blame physics for all the torn pages which cannot be mended, and I blame myself for being too lazy to get a new binder. Of course, mom deemed it necessary for me to have a songbook of my own, and graced me with her old songs which she'd reprinted. Her own binder got very thick, and she found many duplicates; I got those. (Hooray! I've got three copies of The Boxer!) Over the course of, oh, twenty-five years or so, she's accumulated many songs.
The day is coming when I will be forced to clear out all the songs that she likes and I despise. I appreciate the gesture and all, but Emmylou Harris, while talented and wonderful, is just not me. I'm not a country guy, aside from the real men of country, like Hank Williams, George Jones, and Johnny Cash. A lot of the songs mom gave me were old folk-country songs that I have little interest in. But as with any music, there are often gems in the flotsam, waiting to be found. My love of gentlemen like Gordon Lightfoot and Steve Earle comes from my mother, just as with Hank and Johnny. Many of the songs that I sing and play I have never heard a recording of, just my mother's powerful and direct voice, soaring above her guitar accompaniment. She can play, but never saw it necessary to develop beyond four or five chords. She has years and years of play to draw upon, but her guitar playing goes behind her voice. Her singing takes center stage.
This song's by Eric and the Animals. I've heard it perhaps six times over the course of my life.
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy
Dear God, I know I'm one.
Songs should be designed and written with a particular goal in mind. To enrage or provoke emotions in a person; to make the listener cotton to and understand the situations mentioned within. Some songs are so simple--yet elegant in that same simplicity--that they just make us want to dance. Some songs unleash unpleasant memories, and some unique others do all the above. With its undertones of remorse, the sad situations described, House of the Rising Sun covers all your musical bases. And, it's terrifically fun to bellow while drunk.
My mother had a horrific childhood. Paedophilia is as ancient as humans themselves, and it will continue until we're all dead. The sad truth is that I was molested as a child as well, and those experiences have left their marks (brands?) on me, however subtle or strong. There are precious few songs out there that deal with events like these in a straightforward, literal fashion. House of the Rising Sun talks about a whore and her experiences in a brothel, and how it has affected her. The gender may change between the artist that performs this classic, but the underlying idea remains unchanged: mother, tell your children / not to do what I have done. I have heard countless tales of my mother, and her siblings', lives as a result of the sexual abuse, and tales about enforced prostitution were not prevalent, but they were there. But who's to decide, really, what "prevalent" is?
My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin' man
Down in New Orleans
There are many other stories I've been told, maybe more than I'd like. I think they were to prepare me, over the years, to face the reality of why my mom is so messed up inside.
"You have to be careful," she'd tell me. "You have to watch out around these people." Because they hurt me, she'd say, more than you could know. I wondered about that.
I don't know about the working class, but I do know about the non-working class. In retrospect, it rather seems that my whole family was unemployed and collecting welfare, or in and out of jail. This last verse, especially my mother was a tailor, speaks to me in a way that's nigh impossible to describe. I guess that my family were, on the whole, unable to attain employment, having been convicted for crimes including, but not limited to: drunk driving, hit and run, assault, robbery, extortion, rape, sexual assault, battery. Need I continue? There was so much alcoholism that it was difficult to know what was more real, sobriety, or drunks. My mother tried to shield me as best she could from that life, but she was known as being quite the party animal when I was kid. I can remember some of her parties. Bodies all about my house, drunk Lucie sleeping in my bed. Someone telling me to call her "juicy Lucie", and she crying about it.
Amidst all this insanity, I recall music like House or the Rising Sun, songs with their own stature. Picture a song standing with poise in a room filled with people, a spotlight man doing his best to focus. There were others, too. I knew The Eagles from a super-young age. Not the overspun songs like Hotel California. How about songs like Tequila Sunrise? How about Wasted Time? How about Timothy B. Dalton on vocals for I Can't Tell You Why? Mom calls them "the songs that still matter". I believe her.
Throughout her life she had to hide the trials that scared her because she was ill-equipped to deal with anything besides pain. Music transcends these things and allows us to experience emotion safely; to be sad without being scared.
(I feel it necessary to point out that the first song I learned to sing, with perfect clarity, goes like this: Forty below / And I don't give a fuck / Got a heater in my truck / And I'm off to the rodeo. I was no more than three years old, and I was invited to take centre stage at any of my mother's parties and sing this one with her. I seem to recall singing well, in tune, bellowing the song as loud as my tiny voice could muster. I had already found a love of music. I remember being very small and knowing the lyrics to Rising Sun, Copperhead Road and Can't You See?. Even as a little guy I knew the lyrics like gospels, as if they were Biblical Canon and my mother's parties were Sunday school. The Biblical Canon is not up for debate.)
Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time he'll be satisfied
Is when he's all a-drunk
My mother was eighteen years old when she gave birth to me. She was a kid. I'm older than that now. We can talk about kids having kids, but let's take a look at this for a second: when the world's fine upstanding people were brighteyed and finishing high school, my mother was pregnant and waitressing in a bar called Whistler's off Gerrard St. in Toronto. When these societal averages were out completing their education to be a corporate toady, my mother was out busting her ass in a law firm for her four-year old son. Twenty-two years old, and when you were playacting your university learning, party life, she lived in a hellish town called Newcastle, New Brunswick. She was still young, and did party, and in retrospect I am glad that she had at least that small reprieve.
Mom could have been one of those mothers we see every now and then, tiny offspring whipping about her legs, not knowing where they're going, but being redirected by a firm hand. She could have easily ended up the type of mother who had no business being a mother, the kind with the beaten-in face and tired hair. I've lived where I've lived, and I've seen what I've seen, and I have known these types. My mother was all I had, but whenever I think of the sad story this song tells me, I always think of her, and the life I could have had.
Pay attention to this song. The version I've always heard, out of my mother's mouth, repeats the first verse again. What of that? I gladly admit, I don't know why. Repetition, in poetry, drives a particular thought home, jabs it into your skull. But I am quickly reminded of the "circle of abuse" I heard about in this lousy self-help-for-the-abused pamphlet I once read. The abused person abuses. We live the mistakes and make the mistakes our parents made. My mother has four sisters, who were all sexually abused by their father, and abused further by the mother and step-father they had after that. I do not want to imagine those things; I have enough sleepless nights as it is. I don't need more. I always associate this song with those parts of myself. The portion of me that will always be dedicated to my estranged family. I don't want to remember it sometimes. But the song's pretty good. And though the technique of interspersing lyrics throughout the body of one's work is over-used, the best I can do for you is to leave you the last verse. Same as the first.
There is a house in New Orleans
They call The Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy
Dear God, I know I'm one