As Thanksgiving approaches, winter is slowly creeping in to New Jersey. The dead leaves rustle on windy streets under slate-gray skies turning dark much too early in the day. It is time to hunker down and prepare for months of cold and darkness, something I was spared the last three years while I was living in Texas.
Seasonal changes tend to spark powerful memories associated with similar times in the past, which often brings me to music I associate with certain moments in my life. I first listened to Richard and Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight at the start of a typically unrelenting and bleak west Michigan winter a few years back, and since have used this album as a cold weather soundtrack. I originally stumbled across it by accident, checking it out from the Grand Rapids public library's prodigious music holdings almost as an afterthought at a time when I was exploring Richard Thompson's original group, Fairport Covention. I was immediately transfixed by the interplay between Richard's lyrical guitar playing and Linda's haunting voice, and then spent about two months listening to it almost every day. Like the space heater at the foot of my bed in my freezing apartment, it was a nice little emitter of warmth in a cold and forbidding winter.
It really plugged into my state of mind at the time, as a visiting assistant professor just scraping by desperately applying for full time jobs. The title track was a kind of Friday afternoon theme for me, one that I would sing on my way to the bar to escape my day to day worries and slide into oblivion. Another tune, however, deals with the theme of escape via alcohol in a much less celebratory fashion: "Down Where the Drunkards Roll." This song's melancholy mourning is more indicative of the album's mood that the more upbeat title track and "When I Get to the Border," which seem to have been added in to keep the listener from jumping off a bridge in despair.
Case in point on the sad song front is "The End of the Rainbow," where a father tells his newborn child that the world it has just entered into is a wretched and cruel place. According to the lyrics, "there's nothing to grow up for anymore." That pessimism may have reflected the fact that the album was cut in 1973 amidst an energy and economic crisis in Great Britain, a time when the future looked bleak indeed. For me, it should go down as one of the most brutally honest songs about life ever written. Working in a job that parodied my academic aspirations and facing constant rejection on the job front, it really resonated with me at the time, as well as the quite depressing "Withered and Died." On really bad days I would listen to the latter song as I drove into work, singing along with the key lines, "my dreams have withered and died."
I am a lot happier today, in large part because I finally let my old dreams of academe wither and die so that I could go on to live a better life. When I listen to this album it is no longer to wallow in depression but to enjoy the music and reflect on an earlier stage in my life. In this Thanksgiving week, I am certainly thankful my life has taken that turn.