Time marches on
Time stands still
Time on my hands
Time to kill
Blood on my hands
And my hand in the till
Down at the 7-11
How to tackle the subject of time without resorting to a boring dissertation and philosophical rumination best confined to academia? Yes, of course, time can be studied – historically, geologically, in conjunction with space, divided up into years, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and musically – the beat of a musical rhythm. And it is this musical connection that holds the most interest for me. Not that I’m antagonistic toward a literary exploration of time, are you kidding me? Remember Proust? Jack Kerouac once proclaimed him “an old tea head of time”. Graham Greene called him “the greatest novelist of the 20th century”. His major work being the novel In Search of Lost Time consisting of seven volumes. Memory also figures prominently in his works.
And while Proust’s voluminous work is worth investigating, I feel constrained (or liberated) in discovering some cosmic truth about time through the lens of various songwriters – usually in the span of three minutes. I find it more emotionally impactful. And to find a song with “time” in the title or featured in its lyrics is as easy as it is to find as one that mentions “love”. Even at three-minute intervals, there are still a lot of musical selections to select and listen to. After all, there is only so much “time” available when exploring the concept of time. So, the task is quite subjective and in this case is dependent on my predilections and the way I see the world with the help of musical muses. To narrow it down even further, I look for these elements: racing against time, turning back time, accomplishing something within a given time
frame, and the ravages of aging. Being able to achieve this feat in three minutes…well that takes real talent.
One of my favorite “Time” songs is called just that – Time. Written by Michael Merchant in the 60’s, the song has a lazy, breezy feel to it with bittersweet lyrics evoking reminiscence and reverie. It also asks the question posed by us all, “time where did you go”? It was covered by many including the Pozo Seco Singers and Cher in her younger folk hippie period. She would later record If I Could Turn Back Time.
I wondered where time had gone myself as I recently watched an interview with the witty singer-songwriter John Prine. It seems like it was only yesterday when I saw Prine playing a concert in Austin, Texas. When I did the math, I calculated it was back during the late 80’s. Ouch! While I have kept up with the recording output of arguably one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, seeing him lately made me realize how the ravages of time have taken its toll. But while Prine looks a little worse for wear (he’s endured two bouts of cancer), his writing skills have not diminished as witnessed by his latest record, The Tree Of Forgiveness. Two of Prine’s songs come to mind as it relates to the subject at hand – Hello In There and Crooked Piece of Time. Hello In There reminds us that over time, trees get stronger and rivers get wilder, but people only get old and lonely, staring at you with those “hollow, ancient, eyes” But it could be that you “were born too late, died too soon. Anxiety’s a terrible crime. If you can’t come now, don’t come at all. ‘Cause it’s a crooked piece of time”. Steve Forbert is another favorite singer-songwriter of mine who expresses the feelings of many in his song, I Blinked Once. Childhood, adolescence, the prime of life, a career, loved ones…seemingly gone in a blink of an eye. Bob McDill’s hillbilly singer in Amanda is shocked as he looks in the “mirror in total surprise” at the hair on his shoulder and the age in his eyes.
Of course, no discourse of time and music would be complete without a contribution from Bob Dylan. There’s no surfeit of material when it comes to the 2016 Nobel Prize winner in Literature. So, I will limit it to two tracks off Dylan’s revered Blood On The Tracks album – Shelter From The Storm and Tangled Up In Blue. Lyrically, Dylan has the uncanny ability to go back and forth in time. In fact, Shelter from The Storm begins “in another lifetime”. With symbolism and imagery, he conjures up a world where a lover can save him from a tumultuous life. But somehow, he “took too much for granted and got his signals crossed” which leads to the last verse’s haunting epiphany only gained through the perspective of time: the ability to turn back “the clock to when God and her were born”. Tangled Up In Blue remains
one of my favorite songs period, the time element notwithstanding. The song represents an incredible journey starting with the initial meeting, breakup, and attempted reconciliation between Dylan and a lover. The lyrics being ambiguous suggest the journey could be one of a few years or it could be one of centuries. But in the end, Dylan (and even now at 77) is out “on the road, heading for another joint”. The singer-songwriter’s job is never done, it’s an eternal task.