40. For A Dancer – Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris
As I’m closing in on the end (of writing about 42 records of personal significance, not “the end”) then I thought I should lighten up proceedings by sticking together a few words about death. You know, just to take the edge off all those pieces about depression and anxiety and all that laugh out loud fare. If there are a set of recurring themes in my writing then uncertainty is certainly one of them – this, however, is one point of certainty: we’re all going to die.
The irony, of course, in thinking about death is that it quickly becomes thinking about life. It’s reasonable when confronted with mortality to give some urgent thought to how you’ve lived, how best to spend the time left, and to wonder what it’s all about. That hoary old chestnut. Nothing like a midlife crisis to bring on a sudden search for meaning.
In some respects my chosen position on a couple of things, namely a belief that this is all there is, no second chances, no afterlife, and that there isn’t a higher, guiding force in the universe, can lead to some on-the-face-of-it bleak conclusions. The point-of-it-all may well be that there is no point. Particles reacting and colliding predictably, governed by the immutable laws of physics, but the major events in your life governed arbitrarily; order and chaos, humans with free will running amok amid those immutable rules. I think the tension between the two is important – there has to be a belief that you’re the master of your own destiny else you either give up or write everything off to fate or surrender yourself to something ineffable. At the same time there’s too much evidence of chaos to ignore: planes crash, people blow themselves up on trains, maniacs run into schools with automatic weapons. Tell the innocents in each of those scenarios that they were masters of their own destiny.
So, in my version, perhaps meaning is found in those moments of balance between the chaos and order; in control whilst things are out of control. Perhaps it’s more an acceptance that things are out of control and the prospect of that is so terrifying that it’s at the heart of that loose conglomeration of neuroses and mental health issues that I like to wrap up as “my problems”. Wiser people than me have grappled with it. The broad consensus, secular position seems to be that fully experiencing the individual moments of life, being very present in those moments, is probably as good as it gets, probably as much as there is. Teenage Fanclub’s “Ain’t That Enough” (number 26 previously in this series of posts) and Po Girl’s “Take The Long Way” (number 31) cover this territory far more eloquently than I have here.
Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer” fits within that family of songs albeit it’s the only one of the three that ponders life through the lens of death. The version of the song that I know is the one on Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’ “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions” album which, in turn, I’d come to via their brilliant collaborations with Dolly Parton. In truth this is more or less a solo Ronstadt record with Harris adding harmonies (is there any less selfish singer than Emmylou Harris ?) and given the news that she won’t sing again having being diagnosed with Parkinson’s it has acquired further poignancy for me. Chaos up to its arbitrary tricks again.
The song is sung from the perspective of someone saying goodbye at a funeral and reflecting on what it all means: I can’t help feeling stupid standing ‘round, crying as they ease you down. My direct experience of such events is, fortunately, very limited but in all cases Browne / Ronstadt’s next line rings true in spirit to me: ‘cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing, dancing our sorrow away, no matter what fate chooses to play.
The solemnity and sorrow of each occasion was no real reflection of the life that had passed and that we were mourning. That’s not to say that there isn’t and wasn’t value in soberly giving respect to the loss of loved ones but there seems to me to be a difference between that ceremony and the one that the dead might choose for themselves. Do we mourn for ourselves, for the space in ourselves left by the one that is gone ? Speaking on behalf of my future dead self then I’d far rather everyone was dancing. Not some sombre shuffle either: give it your best Jagger strut and, aging limbs allowing, pull a star jump and remember me.
The dancing in “For A Dancer”, of course, doesn’t have to be literal, it’s just a metaphor for living. Browne extends it to wonderful effect in laying down advice from the dead to those left behind:
Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone
There’s no belief here in certainty (pay attention to the open sky, you never know what will be coming down) but you’d best meet the chaos as well as you can (keep a fire burning in your eye). There’s also something stirring and deeply moving in the unflinching lack of sentimentality in the song’s overall message:
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound
Essentially we’re in the same place, with the same conclusion, as “Ain’t That Enough” and “Take The Long Way”. This is it. Experience it, savour it, try to enjoy it and maybe, just maybe, there doesn’t have to be a point to it all. Embrace the chaos.
So you can play this song at my funeral during the sad bit before everyone gets drunk and strikes some poses on the dance floor. It’s about as close to anything in a four minute pop song that gets at the big one: what’s it all about ?
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know.