David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 179: The Jayhawks (Gonna Be A Darkness)

September 2, 2022

Why can darkness be so beautiful?  Why is darkness so frightening?

Some of us find hope, understanding, comfort in the ways artists present darkness. Others find pain, despair, depths of discomfort.

And in those few lines, I have described an essential difference between my wife and me.

We are both huge fans of The Jayhawks, the Gary Louris-led Minneapolis band that is coming up on 40 years of making sensational music, often in the country-alt realm, occasionally in the straight-up rock realm. I can thank Pix for turning me onto The Jayhawks as I was mostly indifferent when we first purchased their 1995 CD Tomorrow The Green Grass.

So, when in 2018, they released Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, which was primarily The Jayhawks' takes on songs Louris wrote with other musicians over the years, we were both struck by "Gonna Be A Darkness," originally written by Louris and Jakob Dylan for the HBO series True Blood. It took little time for Pix to want to walk away from the song, never outright saying she hated it, but still noting that it was a horribly depressing song. I, on the other hand, will listen, tears filling my eyes, wanting to replay it four or five times.

The lyrics, set to a graceful piano and mandolin foundation, begin with the picture of a funeral--your funeral:

There's gonna be roses/and your picture in a frame/

The women will be crying and the men/ they will be whispering your name/

Umbrellas will be open on a hillside of grace/

The children will be dressed up/and chase each other in the rain.

The vocals, mostly led by drummer Tim O'Reagan, but generally in harmony with Louris, carry the tune with their own angelic melodies. It won't matter for Pix, as she is going to start getting antsy as the chorus kicks in.

And there's gonna be a darkness/maybe colder than you guessed/

There may not be music/there may not be stairs/

There may not be angels filling the air/

Your mother may be there/your father may be there/

There may not be voices sent from a throne/

To carry you home.

Part of why I love the song and sit through the chorus, dabbing at my moisture-filled eyes, is that this seems a fascinating lyric from a band that fifteen years earlier were asking "Will I See You In Heaven," an equally achingly beautiful song: "tell me why you had to leave so soon/when I have a thousand questions to ask of you/will I see you in heaven/shine your light from above." Younger, more certain of heaven in 2003, the narrative now shows so much more uncertainty, the things that may or may not await us. "Heaven may not get you" verse two asserts, "the devil may see you first." The only certainty is the darkness.

It's a daunting central metaphor, and one that probably moves me in ways more profoundly than the average Joe (or average Pix). I am still just 5 years out of being in that darkness for seconds during my cardiac arrest, my heart needing restarting 5 times. In addition, I am just 7 years out of losing both parents at the same time. As a borderline agnostic, I suppose I can take more comfort in the thought that my mother may be there, that my father may be there . . . whatever the there is. I'd rather reconcile the possibility than accept the certainty on blind faith . . . when I end up in the darkness.

With an elegant Louris guitar solo and Louris-led vocal bridge ("where you think there's a place wide open and wide"), the song soars at the same time some listeners must be sinking into depression. It certainly doesn't help or hurt (depending upon your perspective) when the song outros with O'Reagan repeating the first few lines, us back at the funeral, no knowledge advanced. It seems the most fitting retribution for a species convinced it can know everything.

The Jayhawks. "Gonna Be A Darkness." Back Roads And Abandoned Motels. Legacy Recordings, 2018. Link here.

Day 178: Blue Oyster Cult "Death Valley Nights"

Day 180: Bobby Darin "Mack The Knife"

See complete list here.