I am an emotional masochist. I’m the kind of person, who, when I’m already going through a bout of nostalgic melancholy, will decide to read old journal entries or look through old photographs. The kind of person who, when it’s three a.m. and I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about what loves have come and gone (to borrow a phrase from Edna St. Vincent Millay), will get up and Google search those loves. I am the kind of woman who, when I’m already sad, will listen to an album that devastates me. I have a long list of albums that it’s almost too painful to listen to, albums that remind me of such specific times in my life that listening to them takes me right back to where I was then. A different person would purge their record collection and iTunes library of such albums, but, like I said – I am an emotional masochist. On lonesome evenings, after a couple glasses of whiskey, nothing sounds better to me than spinning one of those records (or queueing up one of those playlists). This is one of those lonesome-whiskey evenings, so won’t you join me in indulging? We’re listening to Crooked Fingers’ Dignity and Shame.
From the first sparse, haunting notes of “Islero,” I am transported back in time to the summer of 2005. God, that summer. That terrible, wonderful summer. I’d fucked up my life the year before, and I thought that would be the summer I’d fix it, except all I did was fuck it up even more. God, that summer. That March, I moved away from Chicago after living there for five years. I planned on moving to Milwaukee come autumn, to start fresh in a fresh town. In the meantime, I moved back in with my parents. I wasn’t home, much. Nights, after work, I went to one of the two bars in Kenosha where all my sad drunk hoodlum friends hung out. On days off, I walked in the woods – the heat was relentless, and the canopy of trees offered cool green comfort. Or I drove to Chicago to see shows and drink with my friends and try to remember why I’d left; drove to Milwaukee to scope out neighborhoods, sit for hours at the Hi-Fi Cafe, go record and dress shopping. On one of my record shopping expeditions, I bought Dignity and Shame. It was on the Staff Recommendations shelf, and I liked the cover art, so I took it home with me – and it was serendipity, it was exactly the album I needed at the time.
As soon as I got home, I set it spinning on my turntable, and the first track – “Islero” – gave me goosebumps. The second track – “Weary Arms” – made me cry. It had sad cellos and a lonesome cowboy guitar, and Eric Bachmann’s voice was a raspy baritone: Beware of strangers knocking at your door. Old lovers, too. Don’t think for one second they’ve forgotten you. Oh, oh, oh. By the time the final, hidden track played, I’d melted into a puddle of tears and goosebumps on my bedroom floor. The album destroyed me, and it spooked me because so many of the stories sounded like things right out of my life, both from that year and six or so years before it. It was like Eric Bachmann had read my diary and set it to music. I wanted to write him a letter and say: “Get out of my head, god damn it! Get out of my aching heart.” It’s impossible for me to write about Dignity and Shame, or about the summer of 2005, without descending into hyperbole, sentimental poetry, and melodrama. My God, that summer was hyperbole, sentimental poetry, and melodrama. I was still young enough that it was acceptable to feel things that intensely, acceptable to talk about a sunrise over Lake Michigan by saying things like: “When the light shot through the horizon in streaks of peach and gold, it was the most god damn beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” Dear diary, listen to me.
My “Weary Arms” wrapped tight around so many lovers, that summer – four of them, plus a handful of brief flings. Later that year, I lamented that I hadn’t had as many wild love affairs as I’d had in years past, which, yes, says something unflattering about me. And Eric Bachmann sang: You have many enemies, for reasons no one’s certain of.
One night, while I sat at one of the bars and waited for my friends to arrive, a girl approached me. I didn’t know her, but she knew me. She sat down across from me and lambasted me for sleeping with a guy she’d been dating at the time…two years before. She called me a slut, and some worse things. I wanted to buy her a drink, to appease her. I couldn’t understand why she hated me so much. When I slept with that guy, I had no idea he had a girlfriend. So many enemies, so many lovers, but could a jaded girl like me heed an uptempo “Call To Love?” In that song, Eric took the role of a particular one of my lovers, and said: Won’t you hear my heart? I’m transmitting a call to love. On a night when the moon was orange-red and luminous, that lover said: “The moon is the color of your hair.” Another night: “You were born in the wrong era, Jess.” And, though I was a sucker for sentimental poetry, my guard was up. Lara Meyerratken answered for me: Don’t need my heart kicked ‘round the block no more. You may be smooth-talking, daddy, but I’ve heard it all before. I traded gossip with the “Twilight Creeps.” In this sweet-sad song with the bright piano and the shimmering backup vocals, I was both the singer and the sung about. I could have sung it to one of my lovers, should have said to her: Flower, don’t dig so deep so you don’t go anywhere. But the words were also about me: You say someday you’re gonna float away. Take yourself some kind of holiday. I often told my sad drunk hoodlum friends, the twilight creeps, that I needed to get the hell out of town. “If I could just get gone for more than a few days, go somewhere more than a few hours away…there ain’t no use in trying to make me stay.”
My lovers all wanted to make me stay. The flower-girl, I’ll call her Valerie. The one who spoke poetic words to me, I’ll call him Jack. And there was Lon, and Carmine. In different ways, for different reasons, they each wanted me to choose them over all the rest. Even a few of the week-long flings and one-night stands, older punk guys or younger hippie girls, said things to me like: “How did I get so lucky as to meet a girl like you?” Or: “So, are you my girlfriend now?” And when I said no, they called me a heartbreaker. A “Destroyer.” It’s a woebegone cowboy of a tune. Doleful drums, piano that tinkles like ice cubes in a bar glass, and a lap steel guitar – which, as far as I’m concerned, is the aural equivalent of an anti-hero walking off into the sunset. The song is all about how the singer is going to make someone his, and then he’s going to leave them behind. When they called me heartbreaker, I wanted to sing it: Lay down, just let it come, and resign your heart, today, to get blown away. “Valerie,” well, that’s why I’m referring to that lover as Valerie. Much like me, she was a punk rock girl turned heroine of a Tom Waits song (heroine of a Crooked Fingers song). She had thriftstore dresses and jailhouse tattoos and self-inflicted scars. “Valerie,” the song, has a sanguine strut, is a besotted love song, and I thought of Valerie, the girl: Red roses, silk, you in your sleek summer dress. You were light, revelation, oh, I love you the best. But she and I kept our love unspoken. We both had other romantic complications, and only touched each other on long hot nights after too many bottles of wine and too many pills. “Sleep All Summer” was my song for Jack, the young ex-goth whose mouth was pink and pouty like he’d been sucking on a strawberry popsicle. Our love was either all the good songs and kissing ’til our lips were raw, or it was screaming matches and hangover headaches. What bliss is this, and then he’d get attention-starved and whiny, and I’d burn hot and cold and say nasty things, and we’d say: “This is it, we’re through.” But – There ain’t no way we’re gonna find another, the way we sleep all summer. Why won’t you fall back in love with me? And we’d run into each other at the bar, and faster than our friends could say I told you so we’d be tangled up in the backseat of his car or rolling around by the lake, and the whole thing would start all over again. He’d play the martyr, and I’d say: I would change for you, but babe, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a better man.
And “Coldways” kill cool lovers. Lon was a folk singer from the north woods. He’d been one of my best friends for years already, and when we started dating I was so tired of complicated, fiery relationships that I mistook comfort for True Love. My heart still hurts when I think of how I hurt him. He wanted me to marry him and I just wanted to be drunk and in love, to listen to “Coldways”’s thrumming, swelling sound. To sing along: Come out, come on, tonight the city’s alive. “Wrecking Ball” has a jaunty, punchdrunk piano, and the piano had been drinking, but so had I. God, I drank so much that summer. On the rare night I spent at home, I holed up in my room, wrote long, sad, tales of people in the legend of my life, and drank blackberry brandy mixed with Sprite. Something like that would taste over-sweet to me now, make me shudder, but maybe the same part of me that craved sentimental poetry also thirsted for sugary drinks. And most nights, I wasn’t at home. Most nights, I changed clothes in my car after work. I swapped my reeking-of-pizza button down shirt and black slacks for one of my vintage dresses. A mint green confection, or a pink and white sundress. Something from the ‘50s, blue with red and white polka dots, or a slinky black number that a ‘30s jazz singer would have worn. And I sat at one of two bars, drank whiskey and Coke, or brandy old-fashioneds, or gin and tonics all night long. I waited for my friends to arrive, and I drank and smoked and entertained myself with one of the items I always had in my bag – a book of poetry by Dorothy Parker or Edna St. Vincent Millay, a deck of Alice In Wonderland tarot cards. And sometimes, someone would find me intriguing. I swear, I wasn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but… I was a redhead in a retro dress (usually with a strand of fake pearls, too) sitting in a dive bar, smoking pastel-colored cigarettes, reading sonnets and tarot cards. Christ. Often, someone found me intriguing, chatted me up, and I wound up with yet another lover. I was a destroyer, destroying myself with booze and love. I was a wrecking ball. Eric Bachmann, accompanied by that barroom piano, sang: And you laughed and you danced, and it let you feel fine for a while. Hanging out with the kids who you knew soon would fall out of style.
I’ve left two songs out, dear diary. I did it on purpose, because they are the two that hurt the most. They are also the two that heal the most. The kind of songs that make me weep, then tell me to dry my tears. “You Must Build A Fire,” oh, it is one of the saddest songs. It begins with only two guitars (a finger-picked lead and that god damn lap steel again), and Eric’s voice is so plaintive, sounds like it’s about to crack, and he sings: Oh, gracious love, you were so kind to me. You only broke my heart, let my arms and legs stay strong. So I could swim upon the open sea, searching for another love. Floating along aimlessly. I haven’t told you about Carmine, yet. Carmine was a musician who looked like a magician from an old-time carnival. The year before, he’d ruined me in a worse way than any other lover ever had. (As a friend put it, he was one of the ones who fucked me up so bad I was pretty much ruined for anyone else.) He ruined me, but I let him back into my life. That summer, we got together. It was supposed to be closure, but of course it just opened everything up again. He said: “I want to be with you. I want to try again.” I said: “Okay, yes, let’s start over. I want to be with you.” He said: “Only if you break things off with all your other lovers. I want to be your only.” The nerve, giving me an ultimatum like that when he was even more of a notorious libertine than I was. And the song sang: I had someone, a love I thought was true. But sometimes you just get tired, and you must try not to die. And give your love, though no one may receive. You must build a giant fire, for the whole wide world to see. It sounded like that whole heartbroken, hot summer. Oh, where are you, love?
The title track, “Dignity and Shame,” is a piano ballad that told me: To be sure, there ain’t no cure. There could be no one to save you. It is the track I return to over and over, more than any other track on the album. Though my life has calmed down a lot in the decade since that summer, sometimes – that feeling comes, you’ve been here once before. That wicked feeling you don’t want to feel no more. And then, Eric Bachmann (get out my head, god damn it!) sings: You’re not the same as the day that you came. You can choose dignity, or shame.
I choose dignity. I carry my broken heart like a torch in the night. Little keeper of light, burning deep, burning bright in the dark.
Jessie Lynn McMains is a writer and zine-maker currently based in southeastern Wisconsin. She writes about nostalgia, desire, identity, music, wild girls, and her misspent youth.