Monday, January 14, 2013

Tom Waits and Dancing Outside the 99 Cent Store: "A Song in the Key of a Fallen World"

Tom Waits wrote a song called “Hold On” (different from the Wilson Phillips song). It used to play on the college radio station at Truman State University. I’d only hear it in the background while I was meeting someone at the on-campus café. I asked around and discovered the song’s name and artist, information I filed away in my brain. A few years later, it became one of the first songs I bought through the internet.

itunes says that I’ve played it 332 times, but the only “play” I remember predates that official count, since it was on a CD that I had burned, and not through a device synched with itunes. It was around Christmas time about 6 years ago, and we were driving to Rockford, Illinois, to visit Beth’s family. It’s a pretty easy drive, but for some reason, I got turned around and ended up having to take some two-lane highways to make up lost time. It was getting late—probably around 10 or 11 at night—and everyone else had dozed off.

I popped in a CD and invited some musicians to ride along with me on that dark, isolated, two-lane highway. Tom Waits made an impression that night with the images that he painted in “Hold On.” The song is made up of a series of snapshots of (I think) different people in different lives, all of whom have experienced hardship. The connecting thread is that the storyteller (Waits, at times blending into the narrative) admonishes them each to “Hold On”.

That night, one of the snapshots particularly struck me:

Down by the Riverside motel,
It's 10 below and falling
By a 99 cent store she closed her eyes
And started swaying
But it's so hard to dance that way
When it's cold and there's no music
Well your old hometown is so far away
But, inside your head there's a record
That's playing, a song called
Hold on…

For me, being “struck” by a song like this means that I could completely grasp both the scene and the implication. I felt like I’d been there, and empathized along with Tom Waits for this girl. With him, I pleaded, “Just hold on…” If “being inspired” means “being propelled to something good,” then, yes, I was inspired that night. I wanted to help. I also wanted to create something that may inspire someone else.

Somewhat abruptly, I went from experiencing the effectiveness of this song to analyzing the effectiveness of this song. I was feeling that it “worked”. But why was I feeling that it “worked”? Of course, the music helped. How chords and melodies enhance the images of poetry is something that is beyond my understanding, but certainly intriguing to me.

Lyrically, the images were specific enough to be evocative, but general enough to be relatable. They were also sparse: 57 words, by my count. I knew that would be a challenge to replicate. But I considered how many other songs I knew that sparsely yet vividly developed powerful images, songs like “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp and “Reason to Believe” by Springsteen. We’re taking snapshots, not writing novels.

Over the next few days in Rockford, when I would get the chance to slip away from family socializing, I would swing open my notebook and “lyrically doodle” ideas inspired by Tom Waits and his girl outside the 99 cent store.

Turns out, I couldn’t do it in 57 words. I decided to go with just one character, and give her two verses and a bridge. She ended up getting about 291 words, including the chorus.

I call these “lyrics” but I’m sure they would be difficult to put to music, given the drawn out verses and generally verbose nature of the lines. Plus, I would insist that any music accompanying these words would match the girl’s song in terms of beauty and sweet-sorrow. It’s a tall order, I know.

All in all, this came out pretty quickly, and I’ve only made a few tweaks over the years. I’ve gone back and forth on the Santa Fe reference; Beth loves this piece, but has said the Santa Fe reference isn’t her favorite and seems a little out of place. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I included it for a couple of reasons:

1. It rhymes (obviously)
2. It attaches a more specific locale to the scene, one which I had in mind when writing it. I pictured this little girl living some place like a desert plateau. That said, there’s no reason this girl couldn’t live somewhere like Nebraska or even Illinois. Maybe I’m not leaving enough to the readers’ imagination.
3. It was actually an intentional reference to the metaphorical use of “Santa Fe” in the musical “Rent,” as a place to escape to and start over in. I like to pretend that there is a subliminal enhancement of the effectiveness of using “Santa Fe” in this manner that is experienced by anyone who has seen “Rent”; that there are people who will read this and think, “Wow, that really works for me, and I don’t know why.”
4. There’s a sad irony that someone’s big dream of escaping would land them in Santa Fe, of all places. Of course, there are a lot of cities that a healthy, informed person wouldn’t dream of escaping to, even in places like Nebraska and especially Illinois. But Santa Fe works as well as any other in capturing this irony.
5. I haven’t come up with anything better.  Maybe I will someday.

Nuts and bolts aside, the girl in this song is both imaginary and real. She’s imaginary in that I’ve never met this particular girl. But she’s real because there is a little girl like this, somewhere. There are many, in fact: little girls who have been forced to grow up but are still children. Girls who are sad and hopeful, in the desert, in the city, in the suburbs. You probably know one. She may just need to be told she’s not alone and that her prayers are not wasted. She may need to have her song heard. She may even need someone to spin around with her, then to tell her that it is OK to cry, but that it is also OK to hope.


     A Song in the Key of a Fallen World

In the trailer park behind the liquor mart
the weeds grow high from fallen tears.
A lonely girl in a fallen world
Closely counts her daddy’s beers.
She’s learned to run by the seventh one
to the place she goes to disappear.
It’s way out back by the railroad tracks
that haven’t held a train in years.
It’s there she goes ‘cause it’s there she knows
she can tie to the tracks her saddest fears
while she joyfully spins and softly sings
the prettiest song you’ll ever hear.

It’s a song of hope filled deep with pain, of dreams not dead but not set free
Its peaceful notes judge hard and fast all the things not meant to be
She makes the words up as she goes, this happy, lonely, dancing girl
It’s a song of wanting something more; it’s a song in the key of a fallen world

Though the sun beats down on this desert town
this girl just spins and sings and sways.
She kicks the sand up while she goes and
dreams that there will come a day
she’ll catch some train and find the rain
that washes all the dust away.
It’ll take her to the ocean blue
or maybe north to Santa Fe.
She doesn’t care ‘cause anywhere
will offer more than if she stays.
So she sings this song and deeply longs
for her soul, with the notes, to float away


Some people when they see this girl shake their heads or roll their eyes
Some people wonder why she sings and spins without a care
What they don’t know is that she sings ‘cause if she stops she cries
And that she hopes that someone, somewhere knows her song’s a prayer



  1. You are an amazing writer my friend. I happen to know someone who would do well to read this and will make sure she does so the next time she comes over.

  2. Rob, your words touched my heart. I feel that's the song of so many of the kids in "the system ". To tell them that it is okay to cry and more importantly it is okay to hold onto hope -that's why we do this. Thank you for sharing. -niccole