Gimme Five: Songs of despair by Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, Phil Ochs, others

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The dictionary says that despair is merely the absence of hope, a negative quality without a life of its own. Yet our myths tell a different story: it’s a black dog that haunts wandering souls, a Medusaic stare that turns everything to stone, a dark night of the soul without stars to guide us.

Some think it’s wrong or even dangerous to listen attentively to the sounds of despair, and perhaps it can be both. Yet if we stop our ears, we condemn it to the chill loneliness of a psychiatrist’s office. That way we rob ourselves of the only comfort there may be in times of hopelessness — the knowledge that when we suffer, we are not alone. After all, the capacity to feel despair is not a symptom of disease, but a sign of our humanity.

Here are five songs from the twilit side of the street, by singers who knew what it means to lose heart …

TOWNES VAN ZANDT, “A SONG FOR” (NO DEEPER BLUE, 1997): Nothing can quite prepare you for the heart-wrenching loneliness of “A Song For,” one of Van Zandt’s latest and darkest songs. The emptiness in the title is telling: He’s no longer singing to anyone, not even to himself. His voice sounds flat and lifeless, though there’s an abiding strength in it too. The song starts with a plea and ends with bitter resignation: “I’ll lie on my pillow and sleep if I must — too late to wish I’d been stronger.”

The writer Lola Scobey once wrote that “Townes carries the terror and sorrow of a deeply sensitive man who has looked into the abyss and seen … the abyss.” “A Song For” is a fitting illustration of that statement. And yet, there’s a comfort too in the unflinching honesty with which the singer expresses his feelings: He doesn’t hold anything back. All hope may be gone, but he isn’t about to back down either.

PHIL OCHS, “I’VE HAD HER” (PLEASURES OF THE HARBOR, 1967): The sprawling elegance of Ochs’ “I’ve Had Her” has little in common with Townes Van Zandt’s rough-hewn honesty. Yet it’s an equally disturbing exercise in despair. The song starts off with a beautiful minor-key piano intro, played by Lincoln Mayorga, that surprisingly ends in a major key. It’s the prelude to eight verses of increasing desperation, accompanied by music as gorgeous as the lyrics are bleak.

In the final verse, Ochs throws all caution to the wind and offers his cruelest line, “Now the only way to touch her is the gun behind your head,” while the chorus echoes his discovery that she’s nothing. Though it isn’t quite clear whether “she” refers to an actual person, a creative muse, or perhaps America itself, there’s no doubt that it was Ochs’ reason to exist until he discovered — or so he thought — that she is worthless after all.

NICK DRAKE, “BLACK-EYED DOG” (TIME OF NO REPLY, 1974): The black eyed dog in one of Drake’s final outtakes is equally ambiguous, though it may be linked to the mysterious figure in British folklore. Calling Robert Johnson to mind with his eerie voice and precise picking, Nick Drake sings a song that’s only few lines long but unforgettable in its intensity. Straining to reach the high notes in the middle part, he laments: “I’m growing old and I wanna go home.”

Appropriately, the song has been compared to Van Gogh’s famous Wheatfield with Crows. The menacing crows overhead, the tracks disappearing in the golden wheatfield, the sky glowering and chaotic: The painting offers an apocalyptic image of apprehension that seems a perfect counterpart to Drake’s frightening swansong — even without knowing the fate that both artists came to.

DAVID ACKLES, “OUT ON THE ROAD” (SUBWAY TO THE COUNTRY, 1970): A very different kind of song, because Ackles was a very different kind of artist. He was a composer and poet rather than a folk songwriter: though clearly writing from the heart, he was a consummate artist, always fully aware of the challenges and possibilities of his art. “Out on the Road” is one of his wildest songs, in the lyrics but also in the dramatic exuberance of the vocal performance.

The song is about the fear of dying. In the final verse the singer meets a young man in prison, who sagely advises him: “Don’t be afraid to live. It doesn’t matter if you fail.” But when the harmony changes, we see the human frailty behind this piece of wisdom: “Then he smiled and started to cry. It was then he said, ‘I know, I’ve been afraid to die.'” A devastating final chorus drives home Ackles’ point: If we know that fear is our heaviest load, we have to lend each other a hand to help carry it.

GARY OGAN + BILL LAMB, “I WANT TO LIVE (PORTLAND, 1972): An existential crisis masquerading as an upbeat folk-rock tune, “I Want To Live” is a worthy closer to this song-list. The title, however, is somewhat misleading. Every time the phrase “I want to live” occurs in the chorus, it is immediately echoed by “I want to die.” To a background of beautiful slide guitars and harmonies, the song tells a story of a love that turns to loneliness and despair.

Despite the recurring refrain of “I want to die,” the song is such an elegant and beautifully composed piece of music that it somehow manages to be both uplifting and comforting. Though little known, the Oregon-based Ogan shows why he is regarded so highly by those who are in the know. “I Want To Live” is a great example of the artist’s skill to create tremendous beauty out of the feelings we prefer to keep out of sight of the world.

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