Let’s complete this little Sixties trio with another “hot fun in the summertime” kind of song, sorta. Tim Buckley’s major track “Pleasant Street” from his most lyrically adventurous LP, Goodbye and Hello, has long been one of those songs that put its stamp on certain things. It’s rather the antithesis of a feel-good song, but, when put to its proper use, can become rather ecstatic.
And that’s because of Buckley’s vocal which borders on unhinged but is always in control. It’s a song where he shows off his commanding range, but, unlike with some of his other vocal explorations, he never goes overboard. It’s all in service to the song. And the song is about addiction, and the desperation that goes with it. Buckley, like so many musicians before and since, used heroin and if you want an easy explanation that’s what the song is “about.” Fine. But even Lou Reed’s majestic song “Heroin” isn’t “only” about the drug.
I have to say though that there are certain songs that make “trying drugs” seem de rigueur. This might be one of them, as is “Heroin,” maybe even “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or, hell, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” The ones that have that kind of solicitation encoded in them are the ones that generally make it out as a challenge. You think you know something, but you don’t. And maybe you should. “Everybody must get stoned!”
Me, I don’t advocate it. And you don’t really need to know drugs to get what this song is getting at. In fact, Buckley and lyricist Larry Beckett put it all in terms of that other great bodily need: sex. And there I will say that if you don’t know the jonesing “I want it, gotta have it” of sex, you’re probably better off as well—but it could be you won’t really get this song. It’s not a love song. It’s a main line song.
You wheel, you steal, you feel, you kneel . . . down, down, down. There’s the moment of submission to a need that brings you to your knees, then comes that great wind-up into Buckley’s banshee wail: All the stony people walking ‘round / In Christian licorice clothes / I can’t hesitate / And I can’t wait for Pleasant Street.
There’s the mainline effect right there—that rush from the needful, prayerful, beseeching kneeling to shrieking in an ecstatic rending of the garments, so to speak. It’s a compressed explosion, fueled by all those “stony people”—which isn’t to say “stoned” so much as the beaten gray faces of no joy, no exultation. It’s to escape that state of the frozen nowhere—“the sunshine reminds you of concreted skies”—that one desires so palpably Pleasant Street. And Buckley gives us both the top of his range and that down low “down, down, down.” You always come down sooner or later and need it all over again.
But the verse I always liked best—for words and delivery—was the one that put this all in terms of that person who knows how to unlock the pent-up passion, to make you wail along with Buckley: At twilight your lover / Comes to your room / He’ll spin you, he’ll weave you / ‘Round his emerald loom / And softly you’ll whisper / All around his ear / “Sweet lover, I love / Pleasant Street.” (And there’s so much pent-up agony of anticipation in that “swee-eet lover”).
Maybe I’ve just always liked those songs that suggest—in an address to a woman, generally—that our bodies betray us. The power someone like this lover here has over “you” has to do with you giving him that power. We can say it’s a manifestation of weakness, but what a song like “Pleasant Street” wants us to consider is the power of need. When you’re overwhelmed by lust and addiction, when you’re desperate for what can relieve your craving—and I guess it could be booze or sweets or what-have-you, maybe even baby flesh for you addicted moms out there—you don’t succumb to someone else, really, you succumb to the strength of your own desire. It’s amazing to feel things so deeply and so, dare I say it, religiously. It becomes a faith, indeed, that lust for the liberating miracle. Which is where I think the “Christian licorice clothes” comes from. That kind of palliative—the hocus pocus of religious panaceas (a Host, a piece of licorice)—doesn’t work in the short run. Maybe, ultimately, it will. But right now, “I love—Pleasant Street, O I wheel, I steal, I feel my way down to kneel, down, down … dowwwwwwn.”
As William Burroughs used to say, in his knowing, canny voice, “Wouldn’t you?”
You don’t remember who to choose.