Watching it Burn
I don’t want to hear a love song/I got on this airplane just to fly.
Once upon a time I was a young American living overseas and embroiled in the end of a love affair. I was going back to the US and had no idea if I’d ever live in England or see this person again. The guy who was breaking my heart drove me to the airport; it was fraught and teary. It was over; I was crushed. And then I found out I’d been upgraded to business class and fist-pumped with joy. At that moment I recognised how deeply, savingly, shallow I could be. I told myself I really was getting on that airplane just to fly, goddamnit, business class.
Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is an all-down-the-line, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, heartbreaker. Her soaring, vulnerable voice suffuses it with perfect crystalline sadness. In it I hear someone working through a loss that can never be gotten over: well you really got me this time she sings, and the admiration, mixed with the pain, is palpable. Knowing that she wrote the song about Gram Parsons you can hear in it a grimace directed towards both Gram and the grim reaper. Her loss of him may be as big as America itself, but isn’t she simultaneously acknowledging the cleverness of the person who has died? A horrible joke excellently played? Don’t we want our sad songs with a twist of black humour? How else does the unbearable become bearable?
The story behind the song is well known: Gram Parsons died in 1973 from being unable to keep up with Keith Richards (men are really fucking stupid). Afterwards, a devastated Emmylou, Parsons’ musical partner in so many astonishing duets processed the pain, creating the miracle that is “Boulder to Birmingham.” It appeared on her 1975 album Pieces of the Sky. How do you mourn the man with whom you sang “Love Hurts”? The way the two harmonize on that track is a gorgeous paradox. Listening to it you think if those two voices together can’t make it not hurt then nothing can.
I have to pause here to point out that I consider myself a connoisseur of the heartbreak song, a messiah of misery. My most treasured mixtape, Melancholy and Society, pretentiously named after Wolf Lepenies’ book on the social history of boredom was made while I was taking an awesome grad school class on melancholy and literature sometime in the 1990s (Thanks, Anita Sokolsky!) My point is that I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to sad songs; the iTunes playlist it morphed into currently consists of 131 songs, 8 hours and 59 minutes of sheer misery. Yet for a certain feeling my go-to is always “Boulder to Birmingham.” Maybe it is something about the way the song combines the specific, quotidian feel of everyday life (the noise of the highway) with the yearning for the cosmic or oceanic, something enormous that could make up for that crappy thing, death. In the song we hear only the trucks moving down on 95 but, if we really try, we can pretend it’s the ocean, and if we keep pretending, maybe it will be like Gram hasn’t actually died. That is what art, and especially the recorded voice does, right? It preserves and resuscitates the dead, so that they continue to live. And so the ocean promises a rebirth or baptism: Coming down to wash me clean, to wash me clean/baby do you know what I mean? Part of the power of “Boulder to Birmingham” is that it is a duet, just without Gram; he is addressed throughout. It is about how Emmylou can continue to feel and sing, in a world where Gram can’t answer back, can’t reply “yes, I know what you mean.”
There are at least three versions of myth in “Boulder to Birmingham.” There is the myth of Gram Parsons that snowballed after his death; there is biblical myth (“the bosom of Abraham” is the place where the righteous dead await judgement day; it is a comforting way station that appears in both the Old and New Testament), and then there is the myth of America itself. America stretches across the song, like a piece of the sky. (Just FYI: The distance from Boulder, Colorado, to Birmingham, Alabama according to some random internet sources is 1,353 miles. That is a lot of walking, almost one-and-a-half times the length the Proclaimers are willing to go.) In the tradition of Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” and Liz Phair’s “Stratford-on-Guy,” the song uses the view from an airplane to gain and lose perspective: I know there’s life below me/but all that it can show me is the prairie and the sky. Unlike Talking Heads’ also great but much more dismissive “Big Country,” which sneers I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to, Emmylou’s from-the-plane perspective is generous. Although she can’t see all the people whose lives are continuing on their mundane paths in Gram’s absence, she knows they are there, and we feel that she is one of them. Even at her most biblical, in the wilderness watching the canyon burn, she is also referring to a real event, the 1974 wildfires in the Coldwater Canyon section of LA. In our current climate of wildfires burning wildly out of control it has especial resonance. The song is, in some ways, about how loss makes individual lives feel biblical and how biblical feelings can help us make sense of loss.
In Freud’s essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” melancholia differs from mourning in that it is at least in part about not knowing what you’ve lost in who or what you’ve lost. For Freud melancholia is the pathological form of mourning; it involves a body-blow to the ego and all the feelings of blame and self-hatred that accompany the only partly understood loss of a beloved object. “Boulder to Birmingham” is, in this sense, not a melancholic song; I think rather, it is a song of successful mourning. In its soaring, transcendent beauty it works through its pain, finding a way back from devastating loss to this astonishing and shitty world that contains broken hearts and dead friends. Of course Emmylou knows that everyone wants to hear another love song, and that no one, not even those of us who have been upgraded to business class, ever gets on an airplane just to fly. For the past few years I have been wondering if there’s any point left to love songs. When the losses for communal life, for the Earth, for the political world, are so painful and palpable why care about a pop song that mourns a break-up? People are currently a dime a dozen; we may not be that way for long, but at the moment I sometimes want to tell Ariana or Billie that they will soon find a replacement human to love and diss and lose and get over. Can’t they do an awesome song about the Amazon burning? But this is the worst kind of pop what-about-ism; Gram isn’t, people aren’t, replaceable. When I hear “Boulder to Birmingham” I hear individual loss being felt and transcended. Listening to it in 2019 it channels my anthropocentric dread (we are all in the wilderness and the canyon is literally on fire) and gives it back to me with a twist. This is a song that knows it can’t make living through love or loss or planetary crisis any less dire or terrifying, and by knowing it that is exactly what it does. When Emmylou sings the hardest part is knowing I'll survive, she makes survival, or at least love, feel possible again.
1. Joshua Tree Inn, stolen body, burning casket, etc, etc. If you want to know more, read about it here: https://www.wideopencountry.com/gram-parsons-death/. I love Gram but this essay is about Emmylou.
2. DM me in the unlikely event that you want to know the others.