Saturday, July 8

If You Could Read My Mind

On my list of Totally Embarrassing Songs That Completely Break My Heart, Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" has always had a special place. None of the other songs on the list--Lionel Ritchie's "Stuck On You," Carole King's "So Far Away"--have the overachieving quality of Lightfoot's song.

On one hand, it's absolutely one of the most wretched examples of the worst period of contemporary music--the mid-70s faux-country AM radio hit--all high-school-literary-journal lyrics ("a ghost from a wishing well"?) and cloying string section.

But on the other hand, there's that completely heartbreaking chorus, when the singer tries to make sense of a dying relationship, using an almost Raymond Carver straightforwardness: " "I never thought I could act this way, and I've got to say that I just don't get it. I don't know where we went wrong, but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back." (Note that the singer indicts himself for losing that lovin' feeling as much if not more than his partner.)

But...right, it was Gordon freakin' Lightfoot. So I was cheered to discover that Johnny Cash had covered the song on the last American album, out this week. Now I'm no Johnny Cash cultist--I knew dudes who CRIED when he passed away--and I don't think that his cover of something is automatically more authentic somehow; I still prefer the originals of "I See A Darkness" and "I'm On Fire." However, if I have to choose between Johnny Cash and Gordon Lightfoot, well...

However, I was completely unprepared for his cover of the song. It's still heartbreaking, I'll give him that...but not in the way that I meant up above. It's heartbreaking because it's the sound of a blind diabetic with only weeks left to live gasping through a last handful of songs.

Frankly, it's hard to listen to...and not because it's bad. If anything, it's a weird reversal on the so-bad-it's-good genre: it's so good it's bad. It's tough to hear Cash sing it. A lot of people think that "Hurt" is the ultimate memorial, but Cash seems out of place in the fussily art-directed (and embarrassingly literal) video of the hipster cover. "If You Could Read My Mind" seems like a much more fitting tribute to him; it's a song reminiscent of his decades in the Nashville pap industry, but sung with the intensity of of an old man raging against the dark.