Today’s song, apropos of my comments on the halfway point of this series about which decades are racking up the most selections, is where a song of the Aughts wins out over the Nineties. I’ve only known Greg Brown’s music since around 1998, when my friend Andrew sent me a tape that contained several Greg Brown songs, among other things, “Whatever It Was,” from 1997’s Slant 6 Mind, and “Two Little Feet” from 1996’s Further In. Before long, I had both albums and that’s pretty much where my acquisition of Greg Brown music languished. He had a lot of earlier LPs, but it seemed to me he was hitting his stride in the late Nineties and those two albums were probably as good as anything he’d done.
Somewhere in the early Aughts, I duped Covenant from my brother, Eric, who picked it up based on hearing some of it on NPR. Not an NPR listener, ever, I miss out on stuff like that. In any case, Covenant struck me then as not quite as good as those other two, but not at all bad. Today I listened to all three albums and found myself wanting to hear Covenant again. It suited my mood, I guess. Today’s song I would say is a very good example of a “limbo song” because the situation it describes is fitting for the state of mind I was mostly in, in the early 2000s.
I was tempted to pick “Two Little Feet”—which is one of Brown’s unabashed feel-good songs, and always makes me happy to hear it—or “Whatever It Was,” in which he makes a lot of wry observations about the world in general, always ending with the line: “I was looking for what I loved / Whatever it was is gone.” That was a line that made sense to me during some of the dark times of the Nineties and after. A rueful reflection on the bad side of the times a-changin'. Then too, I’m big on “Where is Maria?” from Further In, a song that hit me right between the eyes one day in the car—still had a tape player in those days—so that I’ll never forget the feeling I got from it (that bit about “I'd like to go back to that room and stay there for awhile”). That song, which might have been my first choice for a post, isn’t available on YouTube and I’m trying to select songs that can be heard on the internet.
Which leads me, funnily enough, to today’s song, with its reflections on the fact that “It seems nobody’s lonely any more / ‘Cept you and me, babe.” Brown takes the position of someone aging beyond the reach of the gadgets that mean so much to his juniors—“Half the people you see these days are talkin’ on cellphones”—and that’s been a hallmark of our era, along with “livin' it up on the internet.” Brown, who is ten years my elder, was 51 when the album came out and that could be swaying me a bit too. Then too, we just had one of those drenching summer thunderstorms that charges the air and creates that fresh and watery smell in the air, and “’Cept You and Me” says “It’s raining sheets of rain,” and the song feels that way. Dark and morose and lonesome. Yes, and what really made me select the song more than anything is Brown’s guitar on it.
As a guitar player, Brown is always fun to hear, playing with a very appealing funkiness. That’s the quality I would say comes across most from Slant 6 Mind, a wonderful guitar album, and that’s what I associate with him. But on today’s song, his guitar is more lyrical and incisive. Which isn’t to say he’s not like that sometimes. I just thought of “Small Dark Movie” which opens Further In the way “You and Me” opens Covenant. Both are songs of dysfunction, we might say. But “Small Dark Movie” never completely jells into a position on the speaker or the speaker’s position on the song’s protagonist (“you”). It gets a bit elusive.
Not so on today’s song where, besides sheets of rain and cellphones and the internet, Brown evokes the kinds of people who meet somebody new and leave the past behind (“The kids will get used to it / It happens all the time”), and, the line that always resonates with me: “People used to spend quite a bit of time alone.” In Limbo Days, I did, God knows, but I was also on the internet as the answer to that solitude. So I see myself reflected in this song, particularly that sense of a kind of guilt that comes from either being alone (and avoiding everyone who’s supposed to know you), or not being alone (because on the internet) and letting other people be a distraction from more arduous tasks. It’s a double-bind, in other words, and Brown’s lyrics get at that, while his guitar keeps pricking and needling one’s composure, letting you know that—face it—you’re not getting away with anything. “We can have it all though our lives are short,” he says, giving us an update of the “Me decade” view that there’s no earthly reason not to do whatever you want to do.
And Brown does bring this one on home. The double-bind comes out and bites us (and him too) with: “I wanted to be your man, that was nothing but a sweet dream / I always tell the truth to everyone – / 'Cept you and me, babe, 'cept to you and me.” It’s a bit like the liar’s paradox in the sense that the speaker says he always tells the truth to everyone—except himself and the woman he’s addressing. And, whereas much of the song can be considered as addressed to someone, it’s the line about wanting to “be your man” that is clearly addressed to “babe.” And that’s the statement that we assumed was true and which he underscores by saying “I always tell the truth to everyone,” only to take it away with the repetition of the refrain.
All along the song had insisted that “you and me” were different; that everything the singer characterizes with scorn, “you and me” are exempt from. But once he allows that he knows there’s delusion in that view, the whole notion of exclusivity and exemption collapses. And since the song has been using deadpan irony in statements like “I guess nobody’s lonely any more”—hinting that all these distractions are motivated by a loneliness that the gadgets don’t solve—the ironies of self-delusion multiply. “We” aren’t exempt from the loneliness either because that sweet dream (another name for delusion) didn’t come true. Which means that “you and me,” like everyone else, avoid the truth when we can.
No one is even surprised any more.