A Song That Makes You Sad

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song That Makes You Sad

“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” has quite a pedigree: It was written by Shel Silverstein, the poet known for the children’s books The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and first recorded in 1974 by Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, who also cut popular songs like “The Cover of the ‘Rolling Stone'” and “Sexy Eyes.” But it’s the 1979 version by Marianne Faithfull — an icon of the 1960s British Invasion and a former girlfriend of Mick Jagger — that people are most likely to have heard.

I first encountered the song in the movie Thelma and Louise, where it’s used to score one of the most haunting scenes in the film. Deep into their fugitive run, the titular heroines are driving through Utah’s Monument Valley at night, with giant rock formations (unnaturally flood-lighted, but they look cool, so who cares) gliding silently past their open convertible. Thelma dozes off, leaving Louise alone with her thoughts and a bottle of Wild Turkey. The eerie throbbing keyboards and melancholy lyrics underscore the poignancy of their predicament and the growing possibility that they’re not going to come out of it alive.

I loved the song in the context of the movie. I’ve had night-time drives like that myself, and the scene is very visceral for me. Watching it, I can feel the crisp breeze flowing through the car and tugging at hair and sleeves, smell the exhaust — if Louise’s old T-Bird is anything like my Galaxie, it burns oil — and I can see the millions of stars glowing in the black velvet sky above. It’s one of those cinematic moments that really speaks to me… in no small part because the director chose that particular song.

I loved the song more when I bought the soundtrack album and finally heard it all the way through. I remember thinking it was a magnificent piece of storytelling, which, as a wannabe storyteller myself, was hugely important to me at the time. And those synths and Marianne Faithfull’s unusual voice just sounded cool.

But as the years have passed and I’ve crept into middle age myself, it’s become more and more difficult for me to listen to “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” The story of a woman facing the reality that her youthful dreams are never going to be fulfilled and all she has to fill her days are mundane chores…. well, it comes a little too close to the bone for me.

Don’t misunderstand, I still think it’s a great song. It’s just one that depresses the shit out of me.

Incidentally, Marianne Faithfull is a genuine rock-and-roll survivor who struggled with heroin addiction in the ’60s — the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is said to have been inspired by her — and homelessness and anorexia in the ’70s. And just in the past couple of months, she survived being hospitalized for COVID-19. Helluva lady.

[Edit: I learned earlier today that an old college friend died this morning. I’ll be writing more about that. But for now… I’d like to dedicate this to Jaren. He never got to ride through Paris in a sports car either. ]