We’re not allowed to review songs at Popula but these three songs are all from more than four decades ago so I figure I can get away with it. They are all sentimental songs. One appears in the most sentimental scene of a sentimental movie called Running on Empty. It’s a good movie but you know. It’s about a family on the run; well before the movie starts, the parents bombed a napalm factory, accidentally blinding a worker. It’s obviously based on the bombing of Sterling Hall at University of Wisconsin–Madison that killed a researcher who happened to be working through the early hours of the morning. That bombing was done by a group called the New Year’s Gang, but the parents in Running on Empty are also purportedly stand-ins for Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn of the Weather Underground, the children of the Port Huron Statement and dynamite. It is hard to see them in Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti but that is sort of the point.
Anyway, there they are, nowhere in particular. Every time they feel the heat, real or imagined, the family moves on, new town, new identities, new schools, and it’s hard on the kids, especially the coming-of-age™ boy, played by River Phoenix. In their latest stop, Phoenix, a talented pianist, falls for Martha Plimpton the music instructor’s daughter. (It pains me to write that sentence; even the good movies can’t resist a cliche.) He commits the cardinal sin of inviting her to his birthday party, dates of birth being a matter of significant secrecy. It’s like he’s doxxed himself and the parents are not happy about this; they see that romance is the enemy of hermeticism and the latter is the key to their safety. But they also see that River deserves a life, and they warm to her during the party, I told you it was sentimental, and eventually Dad gets a little wild and like a madman he puts on some James Taylor, soundtrack to domestic terrorism.
Did Weather listen to James Taylor? Ask Obama. But somehow the implausibility of this makes it sweet. It’s the dismal “Fire and Rain” but like a good movie scene can do it gets you to hear the song as if new. (The noblest example of this phenomenon is the “Golden Years” sequence in A Knight’s Tale which I am not going to link because you really need to see the whole movie immediately.) The song is entirely translated. “Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone,” it begins, and rather than feeling demoralized by the Seasons-in-the-Sun-tastic pathos of premature death, you suddenly hear it as being about someone who has gone underground, the vertiginous mystery of it, “I always thought that I’d see you again” etc. etc., no goodbyes, no last coffee dates, just . . . a void where that person was, even though they are somewhere, or so we assume. Not a biological disappearance but a social vanishing. For two minutes the song is interesting, maybe for the first time.
As soon as one hears this it is everywhere. It haunts, faintly but I think clearly, one of the more famous songs of Bob Dylan, perhaps you have heard of him, he is like a male Joni Mitchell which is to say not quite as good. Weatherman took its name from a Dylan song when they formed in Ann Arbor and about a decade later Dylan came back like a boomerang. “Tangled Up in Blue” is an impressionistic which is to say slightly confusing travelogue, town to town, shifting identities, does that sound familiar? It features a romance between the singer and one or more women and it passes through the hot spot of 1968 and environs, indeed, it is all about the various ways people have been damaged by that conflagration, the drifters, the dropouts, the Dante readers, and eventually we arrive at the moment where our main characters are literally underground, “in a basement down the stairs,” music, revolution, the lost world.
The song was first recorded in 1974, four years after Weather went underground. The last verse features like all epics a return, not to Ithaka but maybe to Brooklyn. In this return everyone who went straight (as they used to say) is of no account, and because it’s Dylan it’s sort of sexist, he doesn’t give a fuck about the wives of carpenters and neither does he care about mathematicians, which is a weirdly specific choice, maybe he just needed two trochees, but maybe it is worth mentioning that the Sterling Hall bombing was meant to annihilate the Army Mathematics Research Center. Be that as it may, back he goes, looking for the one person who has not gone straight, and consequently cannot be found. That is the structure of tragedy after all. But there are enough indications along the way for us to find in the story something else, a tale from the underground. It concerns the particular way that the people who cannot reconcile themselves to the defeat of a revolutionary moment disappear.
Dylan once told some guy he wrote the song after a weekend spent listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and maybe so. Certainly that is the great record of 1971 and most other years. Joni is always on her way somewhere, this flight tonight, she is on a lonely road and she is traveling, and when the album turns toward 1968 and its aftershocks it mostly turns away from them, living on Crete, heading for Amsterdam or Rome, sitting in a park in Paris, France, reading the news from home and it sure looks bad.
This distance collapses in the final moments of the record. The last song on side B is, as they often were in those days, a sort of throwaway. It may aspire to the pathos of “Fire and Rain,” you can sort of hear the desire in the maudlin piano intro, but it never gets there. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is pure bathos in the formal sense, a descent from the sublimity of the preceding nine songs into a sort of vulgarity, a magnificently low song both in its style and its setting. I mean, it’s in a dark cafe, we suspect it’s a basement down the stairs. Joni’s got friends in low places. The barmaid is wearing fishnets and a bow tie and when Joni used to sing it live she did the barmaid in a comical voice which if we are cracking on Dylan for his bad gender habits that funny voice is to be honest maybe not Joni’s greatest moment of class consciousness. But OK.
It’s an anecdote song about exactly what the title says, she says it again in the first line, “The last time I saw Richard it was Detroit in ’68.” There’s one account where it’s about her ex-husband Chuck but that is the worst kind of interpretive laziness. In the anecdote Richard who was a cafe drunk vanishes into the brightness of the straight world, you can tell because he gets not just married but a coffee perculator and Joni never sees him again. That is another kind of social vanishing, disappearing by going aboveground, as it were. But even this is haunted by its inverse. Joni really did live in Detroit then, just down the road from Ann Arbor, just down the other road from Port Huron. The song’s world is divided at the end into overground and underground and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and insist that a song written around 1970 that concerns itself with seeing someone for the last time in Detroit in 1968 cannot help but invoke the presence which is to say the absence of political militants gone underground.
I do not write this to romanticize Weather. I do not think they had the right revolutionary strategy, though I think I understand how they ended up where they did. I write because it all seems so strange. There is a hole into which people disappeared, a social vanishing, that was called going underground. It was a moment within armed struggle. It is a thing that happened within that political milieu, a lived experience that people knew and understood, intimately if imperfectly. All understanding is imperfect.
And then there is a second hole, which is the hole in our knowledge of this. It is no longer available to us how this phenomenon haunted song after song, transformed them, even songs that didn’t seem to be about this became about this, not because of some special artifice of the songs but because of the actual lives that people knew and the lives they led.
Which is to say this is a story about the present. Songs take their meanings from the lives we live around them. I think the familiar complaint about the lack of revolutionary music these days is foolish and also, like, shit white people say. But there is not much contemporary tradition about going underground because it’s not a thing that happens much anymore. Listen to a few songs from the early seventies and it is hard not to become fascinated with the loss of that tradition, about what it meant and how it came to disappear. The idea of armed struggle is lost to us now, and so, lost to our music. But I do not think this will be true forever. Nothing is.