|Day 137: Soul Asylum (Runaway Train)
April 12, 2022
The video was a public service announcement for missing children.
The song's name was an accident waiting to happen.
The band's name connoted a sanctuary for the very thing that makes us human . . . or a dark place where that very thing is kept hidden away.
The album title referenced dancing at a funeral, with a cover photo that is a disturbing image of a woman in a wedding dress leading two naked children down a dreary road.
The song was a plea for help for the depressed.
There is a lot going on with Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train," but none of those associations seemed to hurt it getting to #5 in the Top 40. Perhaps 1993 was a pivotal year for thrusting that much darkness into the hands of the purchasing public. It was the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency, and there was much optimism, at least in the United States. Jurassic Park was released and became a cultural phenomenon. Much like the mythical Jurassic Park, things were rotting at the core. The first World Trade Center bombing occurred, which of course led to the siege at Waco, and, down the road, the bombing in Oklahoma City.
Where would a sensitive soul turn to find asylum? Top 40 radio? That would be a landmine for someone looking to find solace and comfort. Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" belted from every radio every few minutes, ending up easily as the year's top song. Elsewhere, the introspective malcontent would be confronted with "Whoomp! (There It Is);" "Knockin' Da Boots;" a remake of "Can't Help Falling In Love;" and "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" (about 500 times a day). This is a very broad statement that only someone writing an obscure blog can get away with, but look at the Top 100 for that year, and try to find 10 songs that reflect the kind of introspection the country should have been engaging in.
So, within all that, we get Dave Pirner writing a gorgeous ballad about his own battles with depression. Moreover, a lot of people buy it -- literally and figuratively. Who isn't sucked in by the first line?
"Call you up in the middle of the night/like a firefly without a light."
The phone call, whether made or not made, links metaphorically with depression and suicide. Heck, there's a reason Suicide Hotlines became so big. Even more so, we can identify with the inability to sleep as our minds relentlessly attack us from within:
"So tired that I couldn't even sleep/so many secrets I couldn't even keep/
Promised myself I wouldn't weep/one more promise I couldn't keep."
While difficult to recall, I still ask, how did any radio listener not get whiplash going from Whitney's sonar-defying "And IIIIIIIIII will always love you" to Pirner's plaintive plea during the bridge from verse to chorus?
"It seems no one can help me now/I'm in too deep/
There's no way out/this time I have really led myself astray."
The depth to the despair is downright frightening, a sense of just how far the narrator has led himself astray. "I can go where no one else can go," Pirner sings, letting us speculate if that is because of something he has or something the rest of us lack. We're certainly not sure we want in on "what no one else knows."
It's almost a shame that the video, well-intentioned itself, led the public on a track for runaways, making it too easy to miss the real plea of the lyrics. The link below is to the video, and whereas most commentary with a YouTube music video usually sings the praises of the song or the band, almost everything here is about missing children and abduction. Few want to zero in on what is heart-felt pain by the lyricist.
One wonders if Pirner's friends and family heard the song and worried tremendously about his state of mind (he has admitted the lyrics were fairly true to his mindset). Maybe there is something healthy about writing out these darker moments in ways that people can hear them. Kurt Cobain wrote dark stuff, but maybe if he had been more direct, as Pirner is here, someone might have saved his life.
Mental health continues to be the great shame of modern society. It was before Coronavirus; it has gotten all the worse since. College campuses sit in the crosshairs for raging battles about Critical Race Theory, while few want to talk about our mental health crises. All the outrage of our time misses how much we watch in horror at runaway trains missing "the madman laughing at the rain." It's 29 years later, and the world seems no more adept at helping runaways, the mentally ill, the freeing of our souls than we did in 1993. We are probably even less adept at it now. Seems like we "should be getting somewhere," but continue to be "neither here nor there."
"Runaway Train." Soul Asylum. Grave Dancers Union. Columbia. 1992. Video Link Here (because the video PSA is still relevant too).
<-Day 136: Joe Jackson "I'm The Man."
Day 138: Pat Benatar "Shadows Of The Night.->
See full unfinished list here.