Friday, February 17, 2006

"I know life is more than just survival, but that's all that I can see"

Heartbreaker #4: I'm Still Alive Tonight by Bob Bennett on Songs From Bright Avenue.

In my family, it's traditionally the menfolk who get assigned to the wakeful sprats. That's turning around somewhat in our house, given our chosen "role-reversals", but I grew up expecting my father to answer during the midnights of my soul. I'm not sure who established this precedent, but my father often talked about how his father would sit next to the bed and talk to him as he suffered through leg-aches and growing pains. And I'm told my grandfather also took the night-shift for the family's one colicky babe.

My father took this example to heart. My brother suffered from leg-aches, and it wasn't uncommon for me to wake up in the night and hear him and the old man murmuring to each other like a couple of conspirators. I don't recall my childhood nights being especially troubled, but that could be a case of selective memory. However, I do recall the night when that seemed to change for once and for all.

I was 12 years old. One of my mates put me up to it. We were talking about Star Trek, and comic books, and freaky-deaky adventure stories, when he suddenly said, "Have you read The Book of Revelation?"

No. What was it?

"It's the last book in the Bible, man! Aw, you should -- it is, like, totally wild!"

I didn't take my friend up on this challenge right there on the spot; I let the suggestion fester for a bit. I was intimately familiar with the rest of the Bible -- the narrative books, at least. The last book of the Bible was an epistle -- a letter -- and while I'd read a few epistles (Philemon was popular Sunday school material, what with it being about a runaway slave and all), they seemed dusty and arcane in their concerns. How far removed from this template was the final letter likely to be?

But the inevitable finally occurred: a Saturday with nothing to do. I picked up my Bible and flipped to the back. I read The Revelation from beginning to end. I returned to the beginning, and read it again. I read it a few more times after that -- for a total of 12, actually, because I was beginning to get the idea that numbers were important. This was all the same day, of course: the scales were torn from my eyes, and I now realized there was nothing more important than figuring this book out so that my family could cobble together some plan of escape.

Sleep was a distraction. Not for me of course -- no, sleep was something I didn't have to worry about anymore. It was a distraction for my father. He needed to explain to me all those concepts he'd dealt with in seminary -- eschatology, parousia, ekklesia and all those other five-dollar words you aren't allowed to use in Scrabble. This being the summertime, I stuck to his side and pestered him with questions during the daylight hours. He did what he could to provide answers, but the more pressing questions seemed to occur about two or three hours after I crawled into bed. The poor man, his eyes red and deeply rimmed (had he been crying?), struggling desperately to shift my pre-adolescent perspective from This letter, like the rest of the Bible, has been written to me: what does it mean? to This letter was written 2000 years ago by someone within a particular tradition to a specific recipient within the same tradition: what did it mean to them?

So, yeah: that interrupted our mutual sleep-pattern for quite a stretch. And I think once a child's sheltered perspective of things gets blown wide open by apocalyptic winds, that pretty much affects a person's sleep pattern for life. It has mine.

And so we come to this song, the final number on a "Divorce Album". We don't need to take a sophisticated po-mo approach to these songs -- there isn't a "singer" or "unreliably unreliable narrator" or some other "meta-narrative" to concern ourselves with. There's just Bennett, alone in a shitty apartment:

No one is sleeping down the hallway
No one is here beside me now
And the loneliness, like a fever
Is hot upon my brow

In the middle of this desolation is a striking metaphor: I see an image of my Father / And he bids me: "Come and sleep" The reference is to our "heavenly" Father, of course, and that's fine enough. But to this listener the image speaks directly to an intensely personal memory. It all fits together, and you don't have to experience divorce to recognize the power of the song's final sentiment:

I'm still alive tonight
And that's good enough for me

Heartbreaker #3


Bob Bennett said...

The best part of writing, recording and performing is knowing that sometimes listeners can find their own place inside something you've done. The song don't only mean what I intend to describe for myself ... they also mean what you "hear" when you listen to them. Thanks for listening. Take care, Bob Bennett (Costa Mesa, CA)

Whisky Prajer said...

How kewl is this?! Ladies and gentlemen: Bob Bennett!!