Fires in the Belly

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Ghetto of Your Eye

A Veteran's Day Remembrance I wrote this song back in the winter of 1989 in the dining car of a steam driven train, somewhere along the Trans-Siberian railway, after meeting a group of Russian soldiers fresh from battle in Afghanistan—that poor country that has been a...
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Life Ain’t Hard; Its Just a Waterfall

You say, hey,
who are you to say that you’re the one
to go telling me just where I’m coming from.
You can have your cake
but don’t frost me ‘til I’m done.
I can’t be fixed and I can’t afford to stall;
because life ain’t hard it’s just a waterfall.

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Metamorphoses

It’s something I‘ve hardly ever thought of:
this simple and rattling old diesel
has always gotten me there and then some;
and so at first I think this sputtering
is just some clog, and easily explained:
some bad fuel maybe, from the new Exxon,
or just shortsightedness on maintenance.
I’ve always driven in the red before,
and these have all been straight highway miles —

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Garden Woman

I woke today and had my tea
and at the window spent the morning:
the same scene I’ve seen so many times
is each day freshly born;
from the ground I turn each spring and fall
come the flowers sweetly blooming;
you disappear among the weeds—
you are the garden woman.

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Zenmo Yang Ni

I lost the time I hardly knew you,
half-assed calling:
“How you doing?
Laughing at my hanging hay field;
I never knew the time
that tomorrow’d bring,
until it brung to me.

Yuan lai jui shuo: “Zenmoyang ni?”
Xianzai chang shu: “Dou hai keyi”;
Xiexie nimen, dou hen shang ni.
Xiwang wo men dou hen leyi
Dou hen leyi

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Ghetto of Your Eye

I wrote this song back in the winter of 1989, in the dining car of a steam driven train, somewhere along the Trans-Siberian railway, after meeting a group of Russian soldiers fresh from battle in Afghanistan—that poor country that has been a battleground for way too long.

We stare together hours the snow whipped Russian plain—
rolling in the ghetto of your eye.
We share a quart of vodka
and some cold meat on the train—
you know too much to even wonder why;
I see it in the ghetto of your eye.

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Searching for an Alibi

Here I am out on the road again
and it feels longer than it was back then;
when I was younger, man, it saw me through—
now it don’t do
what I want it to—

Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I—
I’m just out searching for an alibi
Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I
I’m just out searching for an alibi.

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Essex Bay

This house makes funny noises
When the wind begins to blow.
I should have held on and never let you go.
The wind blew loose the drainpipe.
You can hear the melting snow.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.

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Many Miles To Go

I see it in your eyes
and in the ways you try to smile;
in the ways you whisper—I don’t know—
and put it all off for a while;
then you keep on keeping on
in the only way you know:
you’re scared of where you’re going
and who’ll catch you down below.

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Trawler

Leave the fog stillness
of a cold harbor town;
cup our hands
in the warm diesel sound—
leave while the children
are calmed in their dreams
by light buoys calling:
“Don’t play around me.”

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Winter in Caribou

I know your name. It’s written there.
I wonder if you care.
A six-pack of Narragansett beer,
Some Camels and the brownie over there.
Every day I stop by like I
Got some place I’ve got to go;
I’m buying things I don’t really need:
I don’t read the Boston Globe.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye.
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you ….

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Last of the Boys

Come on over here
and I’ll buy the next round:
cold beer and some shooters
for the boys on the town;
Darby ain’t drinkin’
so let’s live it up
‘cause he’ll drive us all home
in his company truck

Jesus Christ, Jimmy,
man you say that you’re well;
I say we drive into Boston
and stir up some hell;
put a cap on the weekend,
a stitch in the night,
watch the Pats play on Sunday
and the welterweight fight.

That’s all she wrote boys,
there ain’t any more;
that’s why we’re standing here;
that’s what it’s for.
That’s why we all go on working all day
busting our ass for short pay:
~Hey…

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Shane

It’s been too long feeling sorry for myself.
It’s been too long with my life up on the shelf.
Sometimes wish that I was Shane—
shoot Jack Palance, and disappear again;
don’t have no one
don’t want no one
don’t miss no one:
living lonely with a saddle and a gun.

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Somewhere North of Bangor

Somewhere north of Bangor
on the run from Tennessee.
Lost in back scrub paper land
in section TR-3.
It’s hit him he’s an outlaw
a Georgia cracker’s son,
who killed a man in Nashville
with his daddies favorite gun.
It’s hit him with the loneliness
of wondering where you are
on a long ago railway
stretched between two stars.

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Joshua Sawyer

I doubt I’d ever have taken this road
had I known how fallen it really was
to disrepair: driving comically,
skirting ruts and high boulders, grimacing
at every bang on the oil pan.
I tell you it’s the old road to Wendell —
that they don’t make them like this anymore.

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Don’t Let Go of Your Soul

Sometimes yeah.
Sometimes no.
Sometimes it’s somehow somewhere in between.
Sometimes it’s somewhere that no one has been–
no, nobody, nowhere, no nothing can end.
So don’t you let go and hope you’ll find it again.
Don’t you ever let go–

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Fires in the belly OriginalForeward

    When I first met John Fitzsimmons in 1989, I thought the Old Man of the Mountains had shaved off his beard, picked up a guitar, and was trying his luck as a folksinger. He was a bit late, covered with small pieces of dirt, and apologized tersely for his condition, saying he’d just finished building a stone wall for a neighbor. He shook my hand and I knew he wasn’t lying, but I wondered what kind of a man prepared for a recording session by handling rough boulders. Several hours, and now several years later, Fitzy still makes me wonder, but I find I’m more often amazed than amused.

His songs seem to come from deep within the New England earth. Sometimes burning with fire and rage, sometimes warm and gentle, but always honest and clear. In a voice that’s equal parts granite and brandy, John etches unsentimental portraits of real people facing life’s struggles and joys the only way they know how. Sometimes the characters manage to find some distant light, but it’s the journey, not the journey’s end, that’s important to John.

What makes this disparate collection believable is the road traveled by the writer. Over the past twenty years John has worked as a sailor, farmhand, logger, woodcarver, musician, storyteller, teacher, wrestling coach, and other jobs he refuses to talk about. For the past twelve years he’s held forth every Thursday night in the back tavern of the Colonial Inn in Concord, (once home to Henry David Thoreau’s family) and the place to go if you want to meet some real swamp Yankees, people who lived in these towns before the yuppie exodus made them suburbs. You’re sure to find these folks there: listening to the music, singing along, sucking down brews, and giving Fitzy a playfully hard time.

The other “voice” on this recording is the inspired production and musicianship of Seth Connelly, who plays far too many instruments far too well for a mere mortal. Seth has worked with John Gorka, Catie Curtis, Ellis Paul, Geoff Bartley and others: and when John hooked up with him a couple of years ago, these songs took on new colors and dimensions. they both share a complete trust in each others vision, as well as a friendship as strong as the songs they’ve created.

So I want you to listen to this friend of mine, John Fitzsimmons. His songs give voice to things we all can hear. Put this on, sit back, and hear for yourself…

Eric Kilburn
12/28/95

I doubt I’d ever have taken this road
had I known how fallen it really was
to disrepair: driving comically,
skirting ruts and high boulders, grimacing
at every bang on the oil pan.
I tell you it’s the old road to Wendell —
that they don’t make them like this anymore.
We’re bound by curious obligations,
and so stop by an old family plot
walled in by piles of jumbled fieldstone,
cornered to the edge of what once was field.
The picket gateway still stands intact,
somebody propped up leaning on a stick,
an anonymous gesture of reverence.
Only nature disrespects: toppling stone,
bursting with suckers and wild raggedness.
A gravestone, schist of worn slate, leans weathered:

   Joshua Sawyer Died Here 1860

Another stone, cracked, has fallen over.
I reset the stone, and scrape the caked earth
as if studying some split tortoise shell,
and have keyed in to a distant birth —
His wife Ruth died young; so I picture him
stern with his only daughter, only child —
speaking for a faith which could defy her.
There’d be no passing onto when she died —
twenty-two, more words beside her mother.
Still these stones and fields you kept in order,
long days spent forcing sharp turns on nature,
accepting the loose stone and thin topsoil.
A Wendell neighbor must have buried you
whispering a eulogy which is as lost
as your daughter, your wife, and this farm:

Joshua Sawyer

I’ve never been down this road before
I would like to speak with you of faith.

Sometimes yeah.
Sometimes no.
Sometimes it’s somehow somewhere in between.
Sometimes it’s somewhere that no one has been—
no, nobody, nowhere, no nothing can end.
So don’t you let go and hope you’ll find it again.
Don’t you ever let go—

Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Things they got ways
of slipping by unless you hold—
so don’t you ever let go
of your soul…

Sometimes, man I’d wish
there’d be snakes in the trees,
and I’d just keep this big space between them and me—
I’d say no way Jose’ that ain’t how I’ll be;
but between right and wrong there’s this large mystery;
it makes freedom so hard, so hard to be free.

Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Things they got ways
of slipping by unless you hold—
so don’t you ever let go
of your soul…

Sometimes when I hear that fate’s back in town,
and it’s working the strings of the prophets and clowns;
and you’re hung and you’re strung
and you’re brung and wore down,
and you hear, Fitz, man, don’t worry,
‘cuz here’s what we’ve found:
fate’s got a chance
when you’re soul’s out of town.

Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Don’t you ever let go of your soul.
Things they got ways
of slipping by unless you hold—
so don’t you ever let go
of your soul…

 

Somewhere north of Bangor
on the run from Tennessee.
Lost in back scrub paper land
in section TR-3.
It’s hit him he’s an outlaw
a Georgia cracker’s son,
who killed a man in Nashville
with his daddies favorite gun.
It’s hit him with the loneliness
of wondering where you are
on a long ago railway
stretched between two stars.

Two weeks shy of nineteen
in 1992,
she got tickets with her girlfriends
for that new band coming through.
She got tickets for the show,
she said, “go on and have a night on town.
I’ll meet you in the morning at
Frannie’s Coffee Ground;”
but she met a backstage roady
from that traveling country band,
and now it’s hard to slow the pain that grows
inside a hurtin’ man.
I took one of Joe’s old Rugers
and the law into my hand.

I borrowed Lance’s Mustang
and a Mobil credit card.
I drove every pot-holed backroad
they’ve got in Arkansas.
By now there was an all points
on a Georgia crackers son
who left on Sunday morning
with his daddies favorite gun.
I heard the church bells ringing, pleading,
pulling on my soul.
I almost turned back—I couldn’t bear to go.
Twenty years of praying
and doing what I was told.

They played three shows in Nashville
and Johnson City for a night.
Two air-brushed old greyhounds
under marquee neon lights.
I followed them to every show
until I found the man
with a tattoo of Geronimo
on the back of his right hand.
I asked him about a gal he met
at Saturday night’s show;
she says that you get kind of rough
and don’t understand no.
I thought that I’d find out myself
just if that be so.

I heard you like to think
you lead your life out on the edge.
You say the way we live our lives
we may as well be dead.
But now that you believe
that you’re the God of your own land
you’ve got to walk a higher road
than any other man.
You’ve got to toe a higher line
and somehow make it real;
you’ve got to learn in disregard
to think hard as you feel.
He pulled his knife,
I took his life—
you’ve got to pay for what you steal.

Now I’m somewhere north of Bangor
on the run from Tennessee.
Lost in back-scrub paper land
in section TR-3.
No more an outlaw
than a Georgia crackers son
you will not play the renegade
trapped or on the run;
and you love the strange wild loneliness
of knowing who you are—
you love the way the patterns lay
stretched between the stars;
and you know that when they find you
they won’t know who you are.

It’s been too long feeling sorry for myself.
It’s been too long with my life up on the shelf.
Sometimes wish that I was Shane—
shoot Jack Palance, and disappear again;
don’t have no one
don’t want no one
don’t miss no one…
living lonely with a saddle and a gun.

Some men just want to walk behind a plow.
Other men find a different way somehow.
Wish that I could be like Shane:
come this way once
and never come this way again;
don’t have no love
don’t want no love
don’t miss no love:
hell below and the stars above.

Shane, come back Shane.
Prairies dried up
it won’t rain.
You’re a technicolor cowboy I know
but I sure do hate to see you go.

Sometimes I look back and I wonder why
I can’t touch the ground or reach the sky.
Shane would come but he wouldn’t stay.
He’d empty his pistols and ride away;
don’t have no star
don’t want no star
don’t miss no star:
no destination is too far…

Shane, come back Shane.
Prairies dried up
it won’t rain.
You’re a technicolor cowboy I know
but I sure do hate to see you go.

It’s not easy living here this way.
I watch the sun come up and go down each day.
Sometimes it helps to ease the pain
to shout ‘Shane, come back Shane.’
don’t have no one
don’t want no one
don’t miss no one
not trying to undo what’s been done…

Shane, come back Shane.
Prairies dried up
it won’t rain.
You’re a technicolor cowboy I know
but I sure do hate to see you go.

*Written by Jimmy O’Brien ©

(I’ve sung this song so much that it feels like a part of my life.  Thanks, Jimmy!)

 

I know your name. It’s written there.
I wonder if you care.
A six-pack of Narragansett beer,
Some Camels and the brownie over there.
Every day I stop by like I
Got some place I’ve got to go;
I’m buying things I don’t really need:
I don’t read the Boston Globe.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye.
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you ….

You’re new around here, but in a quiet way.
How long you gonna stay?
Your baby sleeps by the porno rack
And you car’s got Michigan plates.
Winter here’s a lonely time:
snow piles, and generally a pain.
I blew the tranny on my pickup truck,
So I’m driving that rusted-out Fairlane.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye.
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you ….

Pretty soon, she knew my name;
She’d say, “Hey, John-O, how ya been?”
I’d bring her toys that I’d whittled up
To hang over our little baby friend.
I felt myself all changed up somehow,
And I worked like I’d never worked before,
Dropping trees and bucking logs,
All the while thinking of that store.

But I, I think that I
Caught the corner of your eye
But why, why can’t I try
To say the things I’ve got inside
To you ….

But it all ends up kinda’  like you think it might. I got all spiffed up and headed on over to the store. I get there a little later than I usually do. I’d been home whittling up this Canada goose— little thing with wings that flap, so we could hang it over the baby’s crib and she should slap at it—and it would look like it was flying.

Anyways, I get there and Frank is behind the counter reading one of them magazines, all of a sudden I felt myself getting real small, and kinda drifting away. I could hardly even hear him saying, “Yeah, that’s too bad about Carol. She was a real good girl. But I told her not to worry none, that there’s plenty of folks around looking for work, but it would be hard to find one just like herself. Fact is, John-O, she was waiting around here for you to show up; but seeing as how you were so late in coming, and that fellow she was with kinda looked like he wanted to get going, she just wrote down this here note for you. Asked if I’d give it to you here….”

“What’s she say, John-O?”

“Not much, Frank, It just says, …
Dear John-O,
Thanks a lot for everything you did for me this winter. It really meant a lot to me, and I really do wish we could have gotten to known each other better. But life just takes quiet, crazy turns sometimes, and you never know.”

No address. Michigan somewhere, I guess.

So I stuck my head in a Field & Stream magazine so Frank wouldn’t see me. But, like all the folks around here, he knew. It just all seemed kinda weird: Frank, over there, behind the counter saying “Hey, John-O, check out this one over here….”

Damn, damn it I
I had the corner of her eye.
But I…
I didn’t try.

 

 

Come on over here
and I’ll buy the next round:
cold beer and some shooters
for the boys on the town;
Darby ain’t drinkin’
so let’s live it up
‘cause he’ll drive us all home
in his company truck

Jesus Christ, Jimmy,
man you say that you’re well;
I say we drive into Boston
and stir up some hell;
put a cap on the weekend,
a stitch in the night,
watch the Pats play on Sunday
and the welterweight fight.

That’s all she wrote boys,
there ain’t any more;
that’s why we’re standing here;
that’s what it’s for.
That’s why we all go on working all day
busting our ass for short pay:
~Hey…

Wally there thanks
for the call yesterday;
Yeah, I do need the work
but those people can’t pay;
they’re all pie in the sky
with their heads in the clouds:
the high-talking yahoos
that fill up this town.

Fill up this glass
one more time there old man;
sneak one for yourself
I know that you can.
Nick man come here;
come on tell me it’s true—
you won the college bowl pool
and the trifecta too.

That’s all she wrote boys,
there ain’t any more;
that’s why we’re standing here;
that’s what it’s for.
That’s why we all go on working all day
busting our ass for short pay:
~Hey…

Rogue what you say,
come on tell us the one
about the dog and the bull
and the ministers son;
you told it to Willy,
who told it to me,
who told the whole team
down the alley last week

Well it’s hard to believe
you’ve been married since June.
It seems just yesterday
we’d go piss at the moon—
piss at the moon
and somehow we’d get by
with a pocket of cash
and a piece of the sky.

That’s all she wrote boys,
there ain’t any more;
that’s why we’re standing here;
that’s what it’s for.
That’s why we all go on working all day
busting our ass for short pay:
~Hey…

It seems kind if strange
the quiet of the room;
everyone had to be
leaving so soon.
It seems kind of strange
they got families at home;
I’m the last of the boys;
I’ll have one more alone.

One more rye Howie;
straight up is fine;
I’m okay to drive home,
I’ll just take my time;
keep all the change.
You treated us well;
I’m just trying to figure
if this is heaven or hell.

Heaven or hell
or some pitstop for man,
where we all just pull over
to do what we can.
You do what you can,
and you hope that your right:
I’m the last of the boys
to tie one on tonight.

That’s all she wrote boys,
there ain’t any more;
that’s why we’re standing here;
that’s what it’s for.
That’s why we all go on working all day
busting our ass for short pay:
~Hey…

 

I see it in your eyes
and in the ways you try to smile;
in the ways you whisper—I don’t know—
and put it all off for a while;
then you keep on keeping on
in the only way you know:
you’re scared of where you’re going
and who’ll catch you down below.

We walked down to the river
to the maples hung from shore
where we talked and laughed
and skipped the stones
that spoke of something more:
five skips for tomorrow,
six skips make a year;
ten skips and forever
there will be nothing left to fear.

And it’s one step and you turn;
two steps and you know
there’s many steps that make a mile
and there’s many miles to go.
There’s many miles before us,
and there’s many a hard won day
and too many lies that tell you why
and keep you from your way.

We dangle over darkness,
over depths we’ll never know:
making faces at reflections
and wondering where to go—
and wonder where the river goes,
and where it all began;
or to just jump in and sink or swim,
for we both know that we can…

And it’s one step and you turn;
two steps and you know
there’s many steps that make a mile
and there’s many miles to go.
There’s many miles before us,
and there’s many a hard won day
and too many lies that tell you why
and keep you from your way.

So don’t fall for your reflection,
for what should be left behind;
a day has never come and gone
without giving back some time:
there’s time for what we know,
and there’s time for moving on;
but this ain’t the time to let slip by,
for it whispers and it’s gone…

And it’s one step and you turn;
two steps and you know
there’s many steps that make a mile
and there’s many miles to go.
There’s many miles before us,
and there’s many a hard won day
and too many lies that tell you why
and keep you from your way.

We leave the fog stillness
of a cold harbor town,
and cup our hands
‘round the warm diesel sound—
leave while the children
are calmed in their dreams
by light buoys calling:
“Don’t play around me.”

The kids think their daddy
is so sure where to steer;
they throw in our holds
what they catch from the pier—
they throw in our holds
their after-school days;
what our nets couldn’t drag
will still be okay.

Okay keep your head up
and take care of the home;
I’ll call you next week
on the radiophone.
You say: “Yo, Captain Joe,
on the Marilyn Joe.
Make a beeline back home
on the Marilyn Joe.

Creaking and groaning
play it for me.
We’re the whitecapped and crazy
slaves of the sea—
haul away
heave away
keep what you will;
with a fire in your belly
the holes that you fill.

We leave the bay shallows—
be a waste of our time
to drag empty waves
for a pure lucky find.
We leave the bay shallows
for the edge of the shelf
where the warm waters slide
to a cold deeper self.

There on the edge
we drift nets in the night;
we winch and we pray
and bitch for the light.
We  winch and we pray
and bitch for the day—
“Hook on to the rail
and get out of my way!”

“Get out of your bunk’s mates,
and get up from below.
Get into your oilskins—
she’s coming up slow:
We’ll say: ‘yo, Captain Joe,
on the Marilyn Joe.
Bring her into the wind:
Oh, the Marilyn Joe.”

Creaking and groaning
play it for me.
We’re the whitecapped and crazy
slaves of the sea—
haul away
heave away
keep what you will;
with a fire in your belly
the holes that you fill.

We gut all the night,
and pack all the day;
count down to each man
this feast of the waves.
Some take it back
to some love they have found;
some like the wind
they’ll just blow around town.

Six days on the Banks,
our eyes heavy as stones,
we chart a course
that will take us back home.
Docked at the pier,
with our kids by our sides,
we bitch about haddock
the market won’t buy.

We’ll sing: “Yo, Captain Joe,
on the Marilyn Joe:
when will we go
on the Marilyn Joe?
No I don’t mind the rain,
or the wind or the snow—
We’ll set out the trawl
on the Marilyn Joe.”

Creaking and groaning
play it for me.
We’re the whitecapped and crazy
slaves of the sea—
haul away
heave away
keep what you will;
with a fire in your belly
the holes that you fill.

This house makes funny noises
when the wind begins to blow.
I should have held on and never let you go.
The wind blew loose the drainpipe,
and you can hear the melting snow.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.

I should call you and tell you
how the frost heaves were this year.
You’d laugh and say, “Keeps the riff-raff out of here.”
You’d laugh and say, “In a funny way,
the whole place is kinda queer.”
You know, the State’s finally begun to thin the deer.
Yeah, the State’s finally begun to thin the deer.

And I know the way the tides,
they come and go and flow,
and I know the Essex River
and the clam flats down below.
But there’s something I don’t know
about living all alone
without you …

I sold the lot that looks out,
that looks out past the bay.
Just a pile of sand that’s worth too much to save.
We said we’d beat the greenheads
and build a dreamhouse there someday;
but I got three times the price I had to pay.
Yeah, I got three times the price I had to pay.

And I know the way the tides,And I know the way the tides,
they come and go and flow,
and I know the Essex River
and the clam flats down below.
But there’s something I don’t know
about living all alone
without you …

This house makes funny noises
when the wind begins to blow.
I should have held on and never let you go.
The wind blew loose the drainpipe.
You can hear the melting snow.
I’ll fix it in the morning when I go.
I’ll fix it in the morning;
I love you every morning;
I still miss you every morning when I go …

 

Jonathan McCarney of 37 Brookside Lane
lived for forty years with his wife Elaine;
retired now for twelve years,
he spent his waking hours
wondering if she’d ever be the same—

The same as before
as the pictures by the door.
The same as before,
Christ, I’m asking nothing more.
Then there came the days
when your mind begun to haze,
and you couldn’t remember
the little things no more.

It came on kind of slowly;
the doctors they all told you:
“Not to worry Dear,
it’s just a part of growing old.”
I’d laugh and say: “My sweet dear,
don’t cry and spill your warm tears—
we’re just a pair of old coots all alone.”

Then one day you went down
to the pharmacy in town;
two days later they found you
wandering around.
I put new locks on the door
and swore forever more
I’d never leave you
or let you come to harm.

So for five years I have cared for you—
cradled you and bathed you
and though my eyes are gone
my heart keeps racing on.
I know I cannot blame
but if just once you’d say my name;
My God, I dearly love my poor Elaine.

Then one cold October morning
they came taking you away—
“We’re sorry Mister McCarney,
you can’t care for her this way.”
They took her down the road—
just another aging load.
I swore that I would be with her each day.

Your home is now on Balls Hill,
the state pays your bed bill;
my pension helps to buy you a single room.
I sit down in the chair—
so far away I cannot dare—
Elaine we’ve got to be together soon.

Then Elaine I went home
and I prayed with all my might;
I don’t know if he’ll forgive me,
there’s just so much more wrong than right.
It fit well beneath my coat—
there’s no need for any note.
I’ll turn down the heat
I’ve no use for tonight.

Jonathan McCarney, and his dear wife Sue Elaine,
were waked today at their home on Brookside Lane.
Father Clark prayed on their grave,
Mrs. Blodgett cried and waved—
wondering if they’d ever be the same

I lost the time I hardly knew you,
half-assed calling:
“How you doing?
Laughing at my hanging hay field;
I never knew the time
that tomorrow’d bring,
until it brung to me.

Yuan lai jui shuo: “Zenmoyang ni?”
Xianzai chang shuo: “Dou hai keyi”;
Xiexie nimen, dou hen shang ni.
Xiwang wo men dou hen leyi
Dou hen leyi

Dust has blown and snow has covered.
Shorter days been passed by longer.
Poplar trees have dropped their flowers
And spread them on the ground
And then the leaves unfold
Just like I told you so…

Yuan lai jui shuo: “Zenmoyang ni?”
Xianzai chang shuo: “Dou hai keyi”;
Xiexie nimen, dou hen shang ni.
Xiwang wo men dou hen leyi
Dou hen leyi

Love you, damn you, see right through me.
Eyes are scared, a soul is healing.
Paint yourself a wall of feeling
And bring the world around
To the way you are.
It would be a better start.…

Yuan lai jui shuo: “Zenmoyang ni?”
Xianzai chang shuo: “Dou hai keyi”;
Xiexie nimen, dou hen shang ni.
Xiwang wo men dou hen leyi
Dou hen leyi

Knowing time’s no great arranger
It’s getting hard to ‘see you later.
I’ll never meet another stranger
knowing there is something
that we all could know—
you got to let it go…

Yuan lai jui shuo: “Zenmoyang ni?”
Xianzai chang shuo: “Dou hai keyi”;
Xiexie nimen, dou hen shang ni.
Xiwang wo men dou hen leyi
Dou hen leyi

This is my somewhat rough translation:

[Early on I just said, “How are you?
Now I always say, I’m doing awesome.
Thank you, both of you, you are in my heart
I hope we will always have happiness.]

 

Thoughts…

The folks in this song were a couple named Li Xin and Zhang Hong Nian. They were both artists in Beijing in the early 1980’s where I was attending the Beijing Teachers College. During winter break I tried to visit the parents of a friend of mine. They lived on a commune outside of Shanghai, but, as so often happened back then, my bus was stopped by security forces and I was not allowed to continue, as we were traveling through a “restricted area.” At that time in China, there was only a handful of Americans in the whole country. I didn’t have a lot of money to start with, and most of what I did have I spent on things like cigarettes, whiskey, peanut oil, and fabric to give as gifts. Since the police would not let me go to the commune, I foisted my huge bag of gifts on an old man who had met me in in Shanghai and was to be my guide. The Chinese passengers on the bus (mostly peasants and factory workers) harassed and berated the security men for being rude and petty and for not allowing me to see the all important state secrets: like how many water buffaloes they had in their district.

So, I had to go back to Beijing to a virtually empty campus. The great irony for me is that this rich American was pretty much broke with three weeks to kill (and survive) before school would start again.  With no one to hang around with at school and precious little money to spend, I became something akin to a vagabond wanderer meandering the cold streets of Beijng in the winter. I remembered meeting a young a couple named Zhang Hong Nian and Li Xin very briefly earlier in the fall. They had an apartment in a concrete building just north of our campus. I found them, and they took me in with huge open arms. And so I hung out with them and their artist friends for the next couple of weeks.

It was a pretty cool time in my life: I helped Li Xin’s mother—a still fiery follower of Mao Zi Dong— open a hot dog stand; the first one in all of China. She railed against the communists who had lost their spirit. She told me passionate stories about her and her husband and The Long March. She took me to a secret disco she had organized in the warehouse district where a huge crowd was waiting for me (who would much rather be listening to Woody Guthrie) to show them how to dance disco style. I think it was my first experience in performance art. With my new friends, we walked the cold, dusty, and coal smoked streets of Beijing, eating yams cooked over fires in barrels and haggling for scarce chicken and cabbage. I met Chinese poets and writers and thinkers who somehow managed to survive and smile amidst a completely humorless political system. I sat with Zhang Hong Nian for a complete day as he changed a scene in one of his paintings from farmers with sun baked faces to coal miners loading coal into carts (smiling of course). The party officials who had commissioned the painting thought the sun baked faces implied that the farmer’s lives were too hard.

I lived enormously because of their friendship. Li Xin had a wisdom and sincerity that remains unmatched by any other in the thirty years since I spent that time in China. She knew—she simply always knew. It was never that she had an opinion about something. She just spoke directly from her heart— softly, humbly, with a smile if it needed to be tempered, or with an icy directness if it was a truth that had to stand.

I apologize if a native speaker of Chinese hears me singing the chorus of this song. As it was, I had a hard enough time speaking a full sentence much less find a way to make them rhyme. I spent an awesome and inspiring year in China from 1981-82. I went back again in 1989 and spent a good part of the winter in Beijing, but left a couple of months before Tiananmen. Things had changed. I had changed. Li Xin had died from cancer. Zhang Hong Nian moved to New York.

It was eerie for me as I knew that the whole scene in Tiananmen would end badly. I learned from my artist friends eight years earlier about the tenuous balance between freedom and survival. I knew that the same leaders were still in power, and that they would not flinch in the face of a challenge. But political leaders seldom listen to artists. If they did, it would have ended differently:  Li Xin would have found the middle ground and pointed to the truth all around them. Zhong Hong Nian would have painted flowers bursting out of the guns. It might have ended differently.

If any of my old friends from those days find this song let me say: Xiexie nimen; thank you all again.

Here I am out on the road again.
It feels longer than it was back then;
when I was younger, man, it saw me through—
now it don’t do
what I want it to—

Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I—
I’m just out searching for an alibi
Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I
I’m just out searching for an alibi.

Drinking tea in some dirt village square,
I start to wonder what I’m doing there;
in hard worn skin and gentle peasant eyes
there’s nothing left that I can idolize…

Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I—
I’m just out searching for an alibi
Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I
I’m just out searching for an alibi.

I tease the children and drink with the men,
and we’re all glad that I’ve come back again;
and we all laugh about our crazy lives—
I feel the woman—just to feel alive.

I’ve got no time ‘til the train is gone,
I’ve got no time, but I can’t get on.
I know there’s no way
to check the speed;
but, I know the motion
is all I need…thinking—

Where were you
when you had the chance?
or do you shrug it off as circumstance?
Where were you when you felt inside
some other soul you could realize?
Where were then—
where are you now:
looking back forgetting how?
But look into the eyes of other men—
everywhere the same thing happening…

Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I—
I’m just out searching for an alibi
Too ra loo ra loo ra lady I
I’m just out searching for an alibi.

~Southern China, 1989

I wrote this song back in the winter of 1989 in the dining car of a steam driven train, somewhere along the Trans-Siberian railway, after meeting a group of Russian soldiers fresh from battle in Afghanistan—that poor country that has been a battleground for way too long.

We stare together hours
at the snow whipped Russian plain—
rolling in the ghetto of your eye.
We share a quart of vodka
and some cold meat on the train—
you know too much to even wonder why;
I see it in the ghetto of your eye.

He turns to me and asks
if I’ll play a song about our war.
I know the war,
no need to tell me more—
asking with the ghetto of your eye.
So I play the most of Sam Stone,
in words he cannot understand;
still the tears fall as from a man—
falling from the ghetto of your eye.
I pass to him my guitar:‘Man, I know you’ll play a song;
something where nobody plays along—
no, nobody play along.’
His friends they gather ‘round
and put their arms around
the shoulders of the soldiers of the war,
their cold and crazy mountain war.

His song is barely spoken;
it’s more a whisper in the night:
whistles blow, trains pass each other by—
riding in the ghetto of your eye.
And Pasha, the young soldier,
whose strange and childish smile,
breaks down wailing like a child:
He tears his shirt; the shrapnel is all gone:
“Pasha, boy, the shrapnel it’s all gone—
Pasha boy, the shrapnel is all gone.”

Drunk to hell I leave,
and then I lay awake all night
waiting for the sunrise on the plain—
cold and snow-whipped Russian plain.
Songs of love and brotherhood
blow like rags of empty wind—
blowing through the ghetto of my eye;
building the ghetto of my eye;
staring from the ghetto.

I woke today and had my tea
and at the window spent the morning:
the same scene I’ve seen so many times
is each day freshly born;
from the ground I turn each spring and fall
come the flowers they are blooming;
you disappear among the weeds—
you are the garden woman.

Long ago you learned to know
the passing of the moons:
to pull the seeds before they’ve sprung
squirreled in bowls around the room.
I laugh to think how many times
I’ve tried to coax a dying flower
to give one more unfolding
to return some precious hour.
I love the hand that weaves the land
from sunshine knits to flowers;
who waters rows of thirsty souls
until they find their hidden power;
but the roots will hold and time will grow
and leave moss upon our stone;
and with every passing season
the mosaic of a home.

When you disappear the sun will bear
how the wind has shaped your beauty;
how in long walks through ancient woods
we stepped both sides of cruelty.
But the tree’s that lean all mean to fall
to give space to free the breathing;
and working through the tangled land
where hope is filled with meaning.

Yeah, I woke today and saw the way
you see the light of morning;
from the ground that pulls us down
there’s a new life freshly born in.
From the ground I turn each spring and fall
let bloom with beauty blooming
the blessed weeds and bowls of seeds:
I love you garden woman.

It’s something I‘ve hardly ever thought of:
this simple and rattling old diesel
has always gotten me there and then some;
and so at first I think this sputtering
is just some clog, and easily explained:
some bad fuel maybe, from the new Exxon,
or just shortsightedness on maintenance.
I’ve always driven in the red before,
and these have all been straight highway miles —
(Except for that short trip out to Zoar Gap
to catch the last of the late season trout,
surprised to find them still rising, sipping
my high hackled Humpy’s and Coachman’s
from dark pools in glazed and shimmered twilight.)

But that was nothing and of no account.
I drove Tuesday down to the town meeting,
and argued about the new town landfill
and proposed cutbacks in school athletics,
and then to Sears for a fifteen amp fuse.

At any rate there is no way around it.
I can only smile sheepishly, glad
that I’m really not in any hurry.
Still I feel like a fool out flagging trucks,
gesturing for help I can’t give myself,
hoping that my lines don’t need to be bled,
and I would have to spend that time thinking
of some way to explain this empty tank
to someone who probably knows better:

You know I always thought that maybe
something like this could happen to me —

but not now, not yet…

You say: “Hey,”
I’ve seen your handprints on the wall;
you’re so damned afraid it’s going to fall;
then you let it go and it didn’t move at all;
and you find life ain’t hard, it’s just a waterfall

You say, “Hey,”
who are you to say that you’re the one
to go telling me just where I’m coming from.
You can have your cake
but don’t frost me ‘til I’m done.
I can’t be fixed and I can’t afford to stall;
because life ain’t hard it’s just a waterfall.

Sometimes it happens we,
we like to play the one-eyed fool,
so we can act like we don’t know what to do—
but it’s a sad-eyed mask
and it’s never really true;
I’ve seen you backstage at the hall,
trembling before the curtain call,
and you know life ain’t hard; it’s just a waterfall.

And you feel it how
it’s coming at you now;
and you feel it how
it’s all around you now—
and you’re loving and you’re feeling
maybe mixed up,
maybe stealing
a little time
I’m just amazed
that somehow we keep dealing…

You and me we spin, we drift,
we’re daring to be free:
in a mirrored calm time echoes
like a sneeze—
and just when you think it’s all a dream:
and everything you are has already been
just when you think you’ve seen it all
a boiling wind comes screaming in a squall
and you say life ain’t hard,
it’s just a waterfall—
yeah, life ain’t hard; it’s just a waterfall—
life ain’t hard; it’s just a waterfall.

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