Home / Random Shuffle: Natalie Merchant, U2, Ryan Adams, The Grateful Dead

Random Shuffle: Natalie Merchant, U2, Ryan Adams, The Grateful Dead

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After an incredibly long break, the Random Shuffle is back. Each week (or whenever I darn well feel like it, apparently) I put my music collection on shuffle mode and talk about the songs that come up.

I'm less interested in giving a simple review of each song than I am in the personal emotions and memories these songs conjure. I prefer to talk about music as an experience rather than something to be measured scientifically.

“Wayfaring Stranger” – Natalie Merchant
From The House Carpenter’s Daughter

I don’t talk about my religious views much, if at all, in my writing. Partially, this is because of the old saying about never talking in public about religion and politics. Never has that adage been clearer than on the Internet. Rare is the blog that talks about either of those two topics without quick and severe muckraking from all sides of the sphere.

House Carpenter's Daughter CoverLook no further than the comments section of Blogcritics to see what I’m talking about.

But I also don’t talk about religion because matters of the heart and soul are so deeply personal to me. I simply can’t talk about them here. I can only share so much of myself in the random openness of the blogosphere. Religion and spirituality isn’t some commodity to haplessly toss about. It isn’t something I can fit onto a t-shirt, or inside a necklace or into a simple post.

It is too big. Too personal. Too important.

It is difficult, then, to write about a song with such spiritual significance. “Wayfaring Stranger” comes from a long line of old religious and spiritual songs. Songs from the hills and the plains. Songs from the people. Folk songs.

What I love about this song is how that even though it is a religious song, and even a specifically religious song, it is at the same time nearly universal.

Certainly there are words and imagery that people of the Christian faith hold dear. Words like “I want to wear a crown of glory” and “I’m going there to see my savior” seem to adhere to a certain brand of religion.

Yet other verses and words are more vague, and thus more universal. In the end, aren’t all of us wayfaring strangers? Aren’t we all simply wanderers on this world for a little while?

We have all lost, or will lose, people close to us. I suspect it is comforting to think that we will meet them again once we “cross over Jordan” whether in some spiritual plane or infinity.

And that to me is what makes this song so special. Better than some specific description of my own personal religious experience, “Wayfaring Stranger” can speak to us all on some level.

“Two” – Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
From Live in Louisville – 07/11/2007

I was supposed to be at this show. I was meant to be there, heart extended full to my sleeve enjoying every note of this beautiful concert. Instead I sat home, watching boring TV. Instead I downloaded the show off of the Archive a few days later. It is an amazing show, full of magic and beauty and wonder. It is the type of show you return from changed. Or so it seems from the tapes. I’m both utterly pleased that I can at least listen to the music even though I wasn’t there, and completely downtrodden that I had to not attend.

This is especially true after my last experience with Ryan in the same venue.

The reasons for me not being there are long and complicated and still so raw that I simply cannot talk about them. What I can say is that it involved a very good friend, one who was at that previous Ryan show. One whom I cared for very much. One whom I lost.

In my life, as I supposed everybody’s, friends have come and gone. Sometimes this is due to simple changes in behavioral patterns. In college often folks I had become friends with and enjoyed spending time with suddenly disappeared when the semester was over and the daily companionship through class was gone. Sometimes I have lost contact with friends because I have moved away and through time and distance we lost touch.

Sometimes friends have been lost through stupid actions either by them or me.

Sometimes friends have left my life for no good reason at all.

I miss each of them. I grieve for the loss of their friendship.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Ryan Adams can break my heart. His songs consistently reach down inside me and resonate with something deep inside. This is no more true than on “Two,” Ryan’s semi-latest ode to broken hearts.

This live version is just shattering. His vocals blend into the Cardinals, his backing band, and the interplay between guitars and piano render me helpless and fractured. It reminds me of love, and loss, and not being there to see it live. But mostly it reminds me of lost friends.

And that hurts.

“In God’s Country” – U2
From The Joshua Tree

There was a time, long ago, when I thought myself a poet. I was young and full of life and lust and zeal for artistic expression, especially language. I loved the way words were spoken and sung and written on the page. I was mesmerized by the way an artist could write and speak and manipulate words to move and change lives and the world.

In some ways that is still true. I still adore words, but I have long since lost the belief that I am a poet. But in those days I filled notebooks with my words. I was constantly writing bits of stories and lyrics and poems. I had fire, you see, and that surely meant I had something to say.

One day, when I was about seventeen, I decided to share a little of my poetry with someone else besides the bedroom door. I wrote my mother a poem for Mother’s Day and left it for her, along with a single red rose, for her to find when she awoke that Sunday morning.

It was entitled “Desert Rose,” a name I lifted from lyrics to this U2 song. It struck me then, as it does now, that a rose in the desert would have a hard time surviving, and if it did so then it must be a thing of resilience and beauty. You can probably see where my teenage self went with that thought. I declared mother as my desert rose, surviving long, dry seasons of raising three children.

I am a little embarrassed by my poetry now, and would prefer if it never saw the light of day. My mother, however, decided on the day she read “Desert Rose” that I was one of the world’s greatest poets. To this day that poem, along with the long since dried rose, hang in a frame on the wall in her house.

She still often refers to it, and encourages me to do more writing. I think she truly believes I could be a great poet, and a successful writer. Though I tend to avoid looking at that old poem hanging on the wall, and groan when I think of all the people who have read it, I don’t really mind too much that it is there.

It is nice to know someone believes in you. Even if it is just your mother.

“Brokedown Palace” – The Grateful Dead
From American Beauty

“Going to leave this broke-down palace
on my hands and my knees I will roll roll roll.
In my time, in my time, I will roll, roll, roll.”

Over the last two years my grandmother has lost two of her sisters and her husband of nearly 60 years. She has been mugged. She has taken several big falls. She has been in and out the hospital consecutively over the last 12 months.

On this last visit to the hospital she was given two options. Either she could stay there for a few weeks to recuperate and then be sent home, only to have to return within a couple of months in an endless cycle. In and out of the hospital she would continue until her body finally gave out. The doctors expected she might last another year with this method. Or she could choose to go home right then and prepare to die.

She chose to go home.

They expect she won’t last the month.

I cannot begin to fathom having to make that decision. I cannot imagine what it would be like to go to bed every night not knowing if I would wake up in the morning. None of us truly know whether we will make it through the night or not, but chances are pretty good I'll be seeing the dawn rise again. For her there is no certainty. Not even a good chance.

My grandmother has lived a long, full life. She has traveled across most of the country. She helped build the atomic bomb that struck Nagasaki during the Second World War. She had a good husband for many years, four children, eight grandchildren, and more great-grandchildren than I can count. By all accounts she was a good woman, and a happy one.

She is also a deeply religious person. As long as I’ve known her, she has never missed a church service when she could possibly, physically be there. There has always been a big family Bible sitting next to her chair in the living room and many's the time I would see her reading it, marking passages and studying.

After she had made her decision and gone home she called her only surviving sister. “I’ve got bad news for you” she said, “but good news for me.” Such is the strength of her faith.

I suppose it is not all that surprising that she chose to come home and await her fate then. She has suffered great loss these last few years. Her body is tired and full of pain. She misses her parents, sisters, and husband. She’s ready to finish her race and claim her reward.

Just before we moved to China, my wife and I paid her a visit. She had just returned from the hospital and was still recovering. The doctors had given her a walker to use, and made her promise to use it. I’ll never forget watching her walk across her house, walker in hand as promised, but never letting it touch the ground. She carried it with her like a bag she had to carry. She was slow moving, but still full of spirit and enough spite to not have to be burdened with some walking helper.

It is sad that I cannot visit her now before she passes. But that’s not a bad memory to keep of her. I hope I have the same spirit when my time comes.

“Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river’s sweet, sweet song
To rock my soul.”

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About Mat Brewster

  • Poet: One who is especially gifted in the perception and expression of the beautiful or lyrical

    This column certainly illustrates that.

  • wow.

    i mean, there’s nothing left to say…

  • Mat, you and I have harassed each other from afar and I’ve edited more than one of your pieces. I’ve always considered you a fine writer and a hell of a funny guy.

    With this, you’ve bounded into BigBoy terrain. This is your finest hour as a writer and that’s saying something.

    Very moving, Sir Brewster.

  • duane

    Great writing, Mat.

    I think the Desert Rose is used as a symbol for America as seen in the idealized hopes of a young man anticipating emigrating from Ireland (during the period of Irish immigration waves). As later revealed in the song, the dreams turn to disappointment in the face of the dominant materialistic culture, which is sort of ironic, since that culture is what provides the opportunity in the first place. Burned by the fire of love.

  • very nice Sir Mat.

    You make me want more. That’s always a good thing.

  • Thanks everybody. I have to admit this isn’t exactly a real “random” selection. I’ve been listening to a lot of songs about faith, life, and death since learning about my grandmother. I wanted this piece to reflect those songs. I wanted this to be something of a tribute to her.

  • Wonderful stuff Mat, the humanity flows from every reflection, spoken with impeccable eloquence. I knew that Oriental cuisine would have a positive effect at some point!

  • Thanks sir fleming. I had a boastful Italian meal this evening, so who knows what prose will flow forth tonight. Probably pompous drivel as usual.

  • save

    I too lost a few loved ones these past few years. Very spiritual stuff your words, give Dylans “Buckets of Rain” a quick listen. Or, try “Long Distance Love” by Little Feat. “Razor Love” by Neil
    Young helps some. Finally, “This Weight” Van Morrisons lament on Healing Game will make your distance a little less daunting.

  • Thanks save. Music definitely helps. I’ve got all those songs but the Little Feat one. I’ll have to see if I can find a version of it.

  • Beautiful stuff, Mat. So glad to have you back!

  • Thanks Holly. There were lots of reasons for the long break, but I think I’m through them and am going to try hard to keep it going now.