30-Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song That Moves You Forward
In his Oscar-winning performance in the film Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a one-time country music star who’s been reduced to playing in bowling alleys and dive bars, earning just enough from each gig for a tank of gas and another bottle of rotgut. He’s a man on his way to the bottom, and very likely an early grave. But then a chance meeting with a journalist who’s looking for a story (and who also happens to be a cute single mother) provides the catalyst he needs to straighten himself out, although the movie is wise enough to not end up in quite the place you think it’s headed toward. In the end, Blake is not a conquering hero back on top with his girl at his side… but he’s better off than he was.
I figured I would like this film when I first saw it back in 2010, but I was surprised by how much it affected me, and by how much I identified with Bad Blake. Not that my life in any way resembles his; I am not, after all, an alcoholic has-been musician. But as with any good art, the film resonated with me. I was 40 years old in 2010 and it seemed as if I’d been in a midlife crisis since my twenties. The feelings Bad Blake struggles with were all too familiar: regret, guilt, the crushing sorrow of feeling like you’ve wasted whatever talent and potential you may once have possessed. The fear that maybe you never really had that much potential to begin with. And most especially the self-loathing that comes from knowing that you fucked up your life and there’s nothing you can ever do that will repair the damage or bring back the lost time.
In the film, Blake’s redemption is facilitated by a song he writes to try and express all of that accumulated everything he’s been carrying around. He sells it to another country star played by Colin Farrell, who naturally makes it into a hit, and Blake is on his way back to something resembling a life. In the real world, that song — “The Weary Kind” — was written and performed by Ryan Bingham, a former rodeo bull rider whose voice sounds far too weathered and wise for someone so young. The song earned Bingham multiple awards, including a Grammy and an Oscar. It’s a song for everyone who has ever felt burned out, used up, cast aside, or ruined. It’s as desolate as the southwest. A song that sounds like the last few drops in the bottle, the last dollar on the table when you see that you’ve got a losing hand. It haunts me. And yet…
Seeing Crazy Heart for the first time was deeply cathartic for me, in part because it was so unexpected. I remember walking out of the theater thinking that if Bad Blake can somehow find his way to the other side, maybe I wasn’t quite so lost myself.
That was the first time “The Weary Kind” could be said to have moved me forward. There was another occasion when it granted me that gift, though, and that perhaps was an even larger kindness than shuffling me through something as mundane as a midlife crisis.
A year after I saw Crazy Heart, in 2011, a young woman I worked with was killed in a car accident on a cold, foggy winter morning. I didn’t know her that well, but her death hit me hard. It was so sudden, so unexpected, and so completely unfair. She was a beautiful, smart, vivacious, and above all likable girl. Half the men in our ad agency, including myself, had a crush on her. She was good at her job, she’d won an award, and she was working on her MBA. Everyone knew she had a bright future ahead of her. And then in the blink of an eye, the future was ripped away from her. I remember that I wasn’t simply grieving about her death. I was angry about it. I was pissed at the gods or fate or the Force or whatever had conspired to put her in front of that lead-footed asshole with the frosted-over windshield instead of a minute of even just 30 seconds behind him. My imagination summoned up a horrific vision of her final moments and what the fire that consumed her little car had done to her face and her golden hair. And I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind for days, and I was pissed off about that too.
And then for some reason, I thought of “The Weary Kind.” The lyrics, of course, have nothing to do with a young woman cut down in her prime. But then… they don’t specifically speak of a frustrated wannabe novelist who’d just hit his 40th birthday either. But the tone — run-down and redolent of bone-deep sorrow and exhaustion — well, that certainly matched how I was feeling. And it reminded me of Julie. I thought that wherever she was, maybe she could appreciate the emotion, if not the lyrics.
I listened to “The Weary Kind” a lot the day of Julie’s memorial, which I wasn’t able to attend because of a work project I couldn’t get away from. I listened to it a lot over the next few days, too. And gradually my anger about her death and the nightmarish fantasy I’d conjured for myself faded into the background. I moved forward.
I still play this song when I’m feeling wiped out and lost and I can’t sleep because the regrets won’t leave me alone.