Posted by: Bob McMichael | November 3, 2010

Last Train to Clarksville

I was on the treadmill at the YMCA today and this song came on my Shuffle. For some reason it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Why? I’d heard Cassandra Wilson’s cover before, but never in inescapable circumstances like this. Earphones. Long stretch of time ahead. Getting nailed by music has always been a perk of life for me, but it has been a while. Today was as good a surprise as any. But still, why this song?

As so often happens with this the kind of surprise attack, today I was able to get sucked deep inside the sound. With each beat, I felt the syncopated brushes and distorted guitar washes and Wilson’s scattish vamping crossing the bridge of my nose from the center of my skull and out both ears with the same pulses going down the solar plexus. Yeah, feedback, reflection, penetration, fulfillment, joy. I caught myself smiling from ear to ear, and soon I was laughing as I pounded the belt on the treadmill and staring at the mothers floating their babies in the swimming pool. I love getting taken this way. Hit and run.

The Monkees’ debut single and number one hit in August 1966, the tune resonated with soldiers heading to Vietnam. They wanted to spend their last possible hours with their loved ones, unsure if they’d survive the war. As a child, hearing and watching the Monkees do this on their Saturday morning show, I had no idea. Today I didn’t, either, until I got home and looked it up. But something in me must have known. Collective memory?

I used to write about music a lot. I haven’t for over a decade. This song is too good. It brings some stuff back that got too hard for me to deal with. Most difficult is the discovery that emotionally provocative songs (we all have our own) paint visceral images of an ideal world. I could speculate on why this song got me today (the day after the mid-term elections went sour for the Democrats), but it doesn’t matter. The toughness of this – which partly led me to stop writing about music – is that the ideal world you get in the ecstasy of music is only that, and usually it’s painted in stark opposition to reality. The irony of the joy I heard in the Clarksville song today is obvious, and what have we learned since Vietnam?

So what? Keep listening and be nice to people.

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