In the short film, Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s Imagine Album, a documentary cobbled together from home movies long after John Lennon was killed, a lost soul appears on the porch of the house where the album was being recorded. He has come, he says, because he believes Lennon has written songs about him personally. Lennon manages to be both kind and strident in correcting the young man.
How could I be writing about you? he asks and then goes on to explain, I’m just a guy and I’m basically singing about me and my life. If it has relevance for other people’s lives that’s all right. It’s just that is not the point of the songs.
In the daylight hours of common sense, we all know this truth. It is simple enough. Still, when a song finds us at a time when we have been longing to be found, it may seem that something magical or spiritual or even religious has happened to us. There is so much we don’t say about our lives, and when we are young perhaps we say even less.
I was 14 before I figured out that I could hear my story in a song. I had heard a lot of music by then, the religious music in my father’s church, the country music that my mother loved, the pre-rock pop music my sister collected on her stack of 45s, and the rock and roll music I had found on my own. I knew the words to a lot of songs but I didn’t hear them as songs about me.
I knew “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” by heart at an early age, but I am sure I didn’t understand the “me” that Jesus loved was Nelle and Lester’s boy. I was even more clueless about what it would have meant to be a sunbeam. I was more of an escape artist, and my parents spent lots of time trying to find me. Had I shined more brightly, it would have saved them a lot of time.
Popular music seemed to be mostly love songs, but pretty women were still walking some distance away. As late as junior high I could get lost in the sound of the song without really understanding it. I found the Fleetwoods’ silky “Come Softly To Me” haunting enough to buy their album, but it was not so much the longing as the recurring “do dahm dahm, dahm do dahm ooby do dahm dahm” that beat time to the rhythms of my barely teenage heart.
All that changed in the spring of 1961 when I heard Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” a song that spoke about a world I did understand, and a dread I knew, and a “you” that I barely dared hope for. Could a girl truly be that close?
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
No, I won’t be afraid
Oh, I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me.
My childhood was dominated by a fear of the dark. It went on long enough to become a continuing topic of conversation in my family. Sometimes it was even a joke, though I was never the one laughing.
I couldn’t remember when I wasn’t afraid. From age 3 to 8, we lived next door to a funeral home in Barlow, KY. Mrs. Ryan, who ran the funeral home, was a wonderful lady with a great sense of humor. She had a parakeet that talked and would entertain me endlessly. Still, there were grim sides to the location. Out behind the garage was a huge open pit where they dumped the embalming fluid. And once I turned a corner in her house to find an open door revealing a corpse with his feet reaching for the ceiling. And of course, there were the funerals. You could say the dead were always hanging around just outside my house.
I wanted to make sure they stayed out there, a task that preoccupied me more at night. I was often awakened by the sound of footsteps on the gravel driveway that separated our yard from the funeral home, followed by doors opening and closing, and the crunch of the hearse’s tires as it was backed onto the street. Sometime later, lights would flash across my room telling me the hearse had returned with another body. I carefully followed the steps back to the funeral home. It was a ritual to be sure, but I can say in my defense that no bodies ever ended up in our house.
When I was 5, my Granddaddy Duck died and we went to Scotts Hill, TN to be with my mother’s family. My grandparents lived four miles outside of town in a four-room house, where they raised 12 children. My mother was an easy mark for those Opry songs such as Bill Monroe’s “I’m On My Way to the Old Home Place,” but she also identified with the newer music that celebrated being free from that life. Faron Young would be her biggest star of the 1950s and, preacher’s wife or not, she loved songs such as “I’m Gonna Live Some Before I Die.” It was always hard for her to go home. As I got older, I could see how torn she felt. This time was probably harder than most.
Little about the house had changed since she had grown up. You walked into a combination sitting room-bedroom. There were two full beds and a group of cane bottom chairs that surrounded the fire place, which heated the room. If you walked straight through the room, you were in the kitchen. If you turned right, there was another bedroom with two full beds and a fireplace and beyond that an addition, a small room with one bed and no heat.
The funeral was in a church, but, as country people often did in those days, the body was kept in the house for the wake. When the funeral director brought my grandfather’s body back to the house, it was placed in the second bedroom. I understood immediately the implications of this. I was either going to be sleeping in the room with a dead person or in an adjoining room. I was relieved to wind up in the addition. I woke up many times during the night and peeked into the other room, and by the light of a coal-oil lamp, made sure my grandfather was where they had put him.
A few years later, when I saw “Three Faces of Eve,” I realized it could have been worse. It’s the story of a woman with multiple personalities, but that was far less scary than when Eve as a little girl was held over the casket and forced to kiss her dead grandmother. No scene in my childhood disturbed me more until I watched Norman Bates, dressed as his mother, appear out of nowhere on the second floor of his house to stab the private detective coming up the stairs.
I heard “Stand by Me” a few months after seeing “Psycho.” I didn’t have to reach to connect with the song. The movie had made all my childhood fears vivid. “Stand by Me” is about the dark night making us isolated in our fears and the moon illuminating our loneliness. It was adapted from a religious song, a prayer to God. The pop version weds the fear of darkness and isolation to the teenage quest for love. What the song said to me was that it was possible even for an escape artist to be close to someone, to be transparent in his fear and to be comforted by a girl.
By the end of the year, I would know a little more about girls. I would hold one close in my arms, dance slow to Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and have my first small taste of romance. Still, it would be a few years before I had a lover who stood by me when she could or, when she couldn’t, gazed at her doorstep picturing me there.
I learned how to be who I am mostly through my family, and the relationships that matter most are with people I know. So, how much can a song really matter? There were hints of how much it might matter in the way my sister Kaye’s love for Johnny Ray brought me the pleasure of a pleading male voice but couldn’t really hide the secret that it was sisters and not brothers who could let their hair down and cry. It certainly contradicted any advice I ever got. After a time when my secret life seemed unspeakable, and I had longed for nothing more than to speak it, a song did that. It had the power of revelation, and all I wanted to do was to hear it again and again.