Tomorrow is the birthday of Margo Timmins, lead singer for Cowboy Junkies. Today’s song was chosen because cold is how I feel, and those opening lines seem appropriate: “It’s the kind of night that’s so cold / When you spit it freezes before it hits the ground.” Yup.
It’s also the first song I ever heard by Cowboy Junkies, given to me on a tape by my oldest friend, Tim, way back when it was new—in 1990. A little later, another friend, Mike at UDE, gave me a tape containing the LP The Trinity Session, from 1988, which is the benchmark of this particular band, and one of the earliest CDs I got when I finally got a CD player, 1992. Some time after that—about a decade—another friend, Emmy, sent me a link to their song “Bread and Wine” from their 2001 album Open, which recalled them to me, and around that time I saw them live at Toad’s Place in New Haven. Recently, another friend, Annie, laid on me what looks to be the complete works of the band, plus lots of bonus material, and among the many tracks was “’Cause Cheap is How I Feel,” which took me back.
On the clip from the Letterman show, Margo sings the song accompanied only by guitar and mandolin, but the vocal is spot on with that sultry slur. On the album version, there are drums and an accordion, which fleshes out the sound more, making it more “pop/country” but the spare live version is in some ways better.
In any case, it’s still, for me, a quintessential Cowboy Junkies song—shruggingly melancholy, as in “that’s just the way it is.” The spirit of this song was very real to me in the early Nineties, as was The Trinity Sessions; the sound of the Junkies’ music seemed to match a world of diminished expectations, or, maybe more to the point, spoke of the underlying melancholy that not even success and achievement can dispel. There’s something sad about the way the past always haunts the present, and that’s what this song is about.
“The sound of clinking bottles is the one sure thing I’ll always drag with me from my past.” A great line, and packed into it is a lifetime in the kinds of places John Fogerty sang about so memorably in “Lodi” (“every time I’ve had to play where people sat there drunk”). This is roadhouse blues from within the roadhouse circuit. The Junkies are a bit above that, but if you’ve ever been to Toad’s Place, you know they aren’t too far from it, ever. And the smell in there does get to you.
But the part of the song that always got me where I lived—and I think I should be able to just dial it up when I need it as it seems it will always suit now and then—is “why is it that every time I see you my love grows a little stronger.” What this speaks to is that kind of longing that—“like a lie about to be revealed”—one keeps secret and secure: “I horde all this to myself.” Kudos to Margo (and her brother Michael, who wrote the song) for putting it out there like that. The anxiety, the resignation, the desperation—“find a pair of eyes to fall into and maybe strike a deal.” And, sure, it’s OK to recall “as you stare into the vacuum of his eyes and say ‘would you like to make a deal’?” Your body for my soul? When the body, sans soul, has no intrinsic value.
The idea of selling oneself cheap hangs over the whole song, but is that a particular situation or a general existential state? Hold out for the best offer? Isn’t that being “cheap,” no matter how high the offer? You can buy my attention for . . . . I’ll sell you my affection for . . . “something small and frail and plastic.” That sounds about right.
It’s interesting how often different friends have referenced the Junkies to me, as if, well, something of that defeatism suits us all. Maybe. Anyway, it’s the kind of song you'd give your soul for. Fair swap.
Happy birthday, Margo.