Jenny Lewis’ 2019 song, “Heads Gonna Roll,” is not about heart disease, although it’s riddled with heartbreak and death, the ends of things.
It is not a song about driving south on US-52 to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, alone in mid-February, with a month of winter still in the chamber and another loaded snugly in the clip. No, Lewis’ speaker drives in the opposite direction, in another season, in the company of “a narcoleptic poet from Duluth.” The weather is even nice enough for Lewis’ ill-matched travelers to put the top down as they head north to visit a graveyard instead of one of death’s many way stations. The poet kisses the speaker rather than killing her there, which had been her fear, apparently, and that is a mercy. But to you, a listener whose mortality seems so close now that it sits in your lap, this kiss reeks of violence if not its own kind of death.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about passing by Pine Island, Minnesota, or the feeling rising up through your chest that the decay inside you rhymes all-too-identically with the wasteland outside your car. Probably James Wright missed more laying in that hammock than he caught. But he wasn’t laying there in February, did not regard the red-brown boughs of the beetle-engraved and dark-snow-encrusted pine trees with a mind of general emergency. He did not behold this same bare place and think it any evidence that the rich and their confederates have long been laying waste to all life, regardless of what you’ve done with yours. He did not glimpse these damaged things on Bill Duffy’s property, these not quite nothings, and read them as signs of an apocalypse slowly unfolding, or think this is something we all share, however unequally the effects are distributed. Maybe there’s money in your story for that reason, you think, a sick-lit memoir of self- and climate-crisis that could leverage your small sufferings and hack the “collective” to “I collect.” But you’ve never been an innovator or much good at selling yourself (or anything else, for that matter). Somewhere an entrepreneur, “self-made,” snickers as they dream of bottling the melt from sea ice and selling it in bulk to concentration camps on the border.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about the coincidence of hearing “Heads Gonna Roll” for the first time on a local radio station once you’ve passed by Pine Island, Minnesota. It’s not about how you fail to register much beyond the seductive despair in Lewis’ voice, a timbre your young daughter will call, with reverence, “crumbly.” This and the refrain is more than enough for you to try and hold onto during a first listen:
Heads gonna roll, baby
Everybody’s gotta pay that toll and maybe
After all is said and done
We’ll all be skulls
Heads gonna roll
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about how you might have cried at this coincidence if you hadn’t swallowed some Anxiety Blues before you left the city, the name your brilliant friend uses for 1 mg of Clonazepam. The song does mention “baby blues” in its second line, however, which, among other things (eyes, for example) is another way of saying postpartum depression. And it’s true that Lewis’ speaker seems to follow this phrase by suggesting to an estranged friend that their baby blues might have been relieved by getting high. But you aren’t a new mother, and Clonazepam doesn’t do much for depression, nor do you feel high when you’re on this dose.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about arriving in Rochester before the annual blizzard of the century hits, which is also a mercy. It’s not a song about checking into the hotel at the edges of Mayo’s campus, the squat, dingy building little more than an unsightly lipoma on the hospital’s otherwise immaculate skin. It’s not a song about a squat, dingy building that has shrouded more dead than its share, unless of course the hotel is a vehicle for the earth’s wavering tenor. “Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about smelling before seeing the detritus, or the knot that staying the night among the sick and dying has re-tied in your stomach, or the realization that they are your fellows now, that in fact they’ve always been so. It’s not a song about the luxurious-sad redundancy of having two hotel beds when you travel alone, although Lewis’ lyrics also speak to loneliness, to a fundamental split with a loved one and the previous world (it is hard not to be a narcissist here, not to think that in your case this loved one is you). “Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about how the empty bed beside you, once you mix the Clonazepam with Trazodone and trail off from a numb dizziness to something like restless sleep, suggests the bed’s past inhabitants like an empty casket holds the missing but presumed dead. How did Tom Waits put it? And the rooms all smell like diesel/And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here. But you’re not staying at 9th and Hennepin, and the smell is less diesel than sloughed-off flesh, and you’re not dreaming yet, not exactly, so you return, for comfort, to what little you remember from Lewis’ song: And maybe/After all is said and done/We’ll all be skulls are the words you recall as you lay there. At least for tonight, you decide, skulls are better than ghosts, implying in the mere materiality of bone a shared end to suffering. You are a communist about the afterlife in the same way you’re a communist about the world: beyond ability and need, nothingness will be distributed equally just like everything else ought to be.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about entering the multibillion dollar hospital the next morning, truly a leading light in the medical industrial complex, and wondering if your nausea is an effect of the drugs and insomnia and rising anxiety or the glittering-labyrinthine order of the place, though these things are not mutually exclusive. It is not a song about trying to place this place as you wander through it, more to name what the small world resembles than what it believes itself to be: a hospital; a laboratory; corporate offices; a university campus; a factory; a hedge fund for tax-deductible donations; a mall; a piano bar and eatery; an entrepot for sick bodies; an abattoir; a morgue or funeral home; a charnel house (surely there are others). It’s not a song about a day’s worth of tests among the sick or dying to see how sick you are and if you’re dying and whether or not your life might somehow be prolonged. About this Lewis is more honest than the hospital: Death, too, is a communist, and it will come for everyone with its purges, albeit with different weapons and varying tempos. “Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about three hours of appointments with a nurse practitioner, a resident, and a cardiologist, or about learning you’ll need to return here in a few weeks for a cardiac MRI with contrast. It is not a song about hearing that “your heart is a ticking time bomb” and therefore worse somehow than the first Echo had indicated, worse than the first cardiologist, and even you, had feared, which is saying something considering the terror you’ve drummed up while researching online. Nor is it a song about how your first thought at hearing more bad news is embarrassingly prickish, annoyed by the hackneyed ease of that metaphor. People fuck up like machines do, you’re sorry, but even a damaged heart is not a bomb. In this way you’re an optimist. “Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about the rare combination of malfunctioning heart valves, an aortic aneurism, and a severely enlarged left ventricle, although, again, it is a song about heartbreak and that greater rift approaching us all in different ways, at different speeds.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not about prepping for class between tests, procedures, and appointments, about remembering that you still have a job to do. It’s not a song about the contingency of your employment, or the fact that your employer can cut you loose at almost any time for almost any reason (this, of course, is another use of the phrase “heads are gonna roll”). It’s not a song about worrying how you’ll fund all this once the delayed inevitable comes to pass, despite the merciful privilege of having your health, for now, insured. It is not about being unable to afford the 30% copays and out-of-pocket maximums, despite the privilege of insurance, especially if you’re not hired back next year, or the next, or the next. “Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song that considers how death could seem preferable because it’s cheaper, although it is a song about trying to live through and despite disaster. When Lewis sings near the end ladies/We’re gonna drink until they close and maybe/A little bit of hooking up/Is good for the soul, she suggests that remembering that your death approaches might serve as a spur for the little life you have left. We’re all here, until we’re gone/Do something while your heart is pumping, she sings elsewhere on the same album, which hits all-too-close-to-home. But Lewis must not be referring to the electrodes and thin wires that hook up your body to all these machines (unless she’s thinking of her dying mother), because one thing you’ve already learned in the hospital is that this shit isn’t good for anyone’s soul, whether or not you have one.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about only learning the full truth of your heart’s decay in the coming months, or about how, stunned by the explosive metaphor, you’d been numbed to most of the information, the reasons why things are even worse than you’d thought. It is not a song about worrying about your daughter, about the roughly 9% chance that she was born with the same condition, and that if this is so, you have not only committed her to her death in a warming-waning-camp-frenzied world as all parents do, but you’ve possibly gifted her the cause of that death, too, not to mention the suffering this knowledge would bring her. (“Daddy, am I gonna die someday,” she’s already been asking. “Yes, honey, but not for a very long time,” you say, trying not to sound too much like you’re pleading.) It is not a song about driving home toward her in the blizzard that night and wondering if the weather and the bafflingly confident trucks will render your fear for the future unnecessary. It is not a song about reaching home safely and, rather than relief, feeling a more acute version of depression’s carved-out blur, although even Lewis, in her carpe diem last lines, can’t avoid conjuring a similar feeling with her sound, the lush and crumbly-sad instrument of her voice. “Heads Gonna Roll” is not a song about closing the door behind you and holding your wife and daughter and trying to hold it all together—the drugs long since worn off—although you do have to agree with Lewis, who’s still whispering in your ear, that you could not hold everything together even if you’d like to.
“Heads Gonna Roll” is not about hearing, weeks later, that your daughter’s heart looks fine so far, or how something like the elation that Lewis’ lyrics end on, finally comes to you in that moment. Such moments, such feelings, may be even less common now than before, and it’s true, you’re trying to ready yourself in spirit to pay that toll, but when your daughter reaches out to caress your shoulder or kisses you on the left side of your chest in apology for stomping you there, you can believe there might be more of them, these moments, exploding outward randomly but not like bombs, like flowers fed from corpses, poppies that did not waste your life, your youth, so much as make it possible.
And this thought reminds you to be smarter, more generous, better attuned. Because a song, like a life, is always and never about you. It includes you, but it’s bigger and it’s other. A song, like a life, is being with others, becoming more numerous than you already were, sharing damage, for good or ill. It’s illmatic, as Nas says, the kind of social static that moves as it moves you, a dangerous-distorting-salvific invitation to be changed by the music you change just by listening. Jenny Lewis is on to that, too, you think, less to affirm the self before its many enemies (including itself) than to redirect the time spent on so-called self-making to furthering that social static, its resistant difference, the possibility of other selves and former selves and non-selves drinking together and building worlds as the apocalypse surges inside and out. Maybe, after all is said and done/We’ll all be skulls. Through the implicit act of its offering, amid the surrounding emergency, Lewis’ song asks what we might say or do, what we might be or become, before we’re bone.