HOLLY GLEASON’S BLOG: “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone”
You never hear them coming… the ones that level you, take away your breath, buckle your knees. Those songs that hit the sweetest spot: you find yourself completely disoriented from how squarely they bag the emotional bull’s-eye, you’re not just speechless-you’re hoping nobody noticed.
It was in Pinehurst, N.C., a sleepy town that smells of evergreen and red dust, where it happened. Driving the little streets for no reason, listening to an advance cassette of Rosanne Cash’s glorious patchwork quilt of John Hiatt and John Stewart, John Kilzer and Eliza Gilkyson, then-husband Rodney Crowell and her own genius originals and marveling at what happens at the intersection of taste of bravado.
Surging, whirling, aching, laid bare, laid raw… It was the best of what Emmylou Harris does-find great songs, turn your soul inside out and stretch it over musicians who are taste, fromp and the pocket on steroids. Having won the Grammy for “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” from the hush’n'freneticism Rhythm & Romance (1985), she was flying high, could do no wrong… and man, she was blazing.
In a grey-green-black knot of long-haired firs, I’d pulled over to consider… to listen that voice that Bobby Bare once described as “wet” as it spread like a claret stain across an old linen table cloth. Slow moving, succulent, something you hate to waste, but are transfixed watching the path of consumption and ruin.
It couldn’t get any better…
And that’s when the perfect pairs of quarter notes started dropping… bing… bing… bing…
An elegy, perhaps, but more haunting. A dignity, but in the throes of some great storm. A light flickering, yet not quite extinguished. A shanty whistle swirled and curled around, an almost bed for whatever was going to happen… and in the starkness and the lonely, there was only blue light from the dashboard, and the soft dirt the mustang was sitting in, as the dripping pine sap oozed onto the car.
“Maybe you remember… this old resort hotel…,” came the whispered cry to… whom?
“It’s pink and white all over… historical as Hell…”
The song didn’t stop, even as the mind reels. What is going on?
“F. Scott and Zelda stayed here… and you and me as well…
“At least that’s how the story goes, the porters like to tell…”
What in the hell? Where… How…
Beyond a few random facts, there was a world to cave into. And those facts, scalpelled off, like some rare truffle… A world was laid out, an emotional abyss plummeted into… Whatever it was, my heart beat thunder and my blood ran like the Grand River in winter. I had to know, because I knew… I’d already been there.
The song was “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone.” It was written by Benmont Tench, the elegantly dissolute keyboard player in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, a man who wore mystery and melancholy as exquisitely as those suit coats draped over his lean shoulders.
Quiet in the way only a train rolling through in the lost hours can be… Silence torn by something so far away, you can’t get there physically, yet you also can’t help but be overwhelmed by the far-off rumble.
This was big… even as it was barely exhaled, a pain so grave, it required returning to the scene of the crime, to be locked away from all with the ghosts of what was-and what wasn’t. Indeed, what would never be again.
See that’s the thing about a perfect 3:59: in less than four minutes, you can be consumed by the depths of devastation. There is the loss, abandonment, recriminations-not to mention the ache of emotional amputation. But it’s not just the beautifully cascading melody, dripping and falling down-nor the way Cash gasps before beginning certain tumbling confessions of telling details.
No, it’s the evocative nature of the images and realizations strung together like popcorn or cranberries for a Christmas tree, or tiny white lights in some old school Italian restaurant. Against that Chinese water torture progression of notes, hand descending and rising from keyboard in metronomic precision-almost dispassionately locked into its inertia, over and over again.
“Nothing on the TV., no message on the phone,” comes the velvet lament.
“Nothing but an awful lot of nothing going on…” goes the impossibly parallel construction.
That balance of ennui and trapped is excruciating. And just when it can’t get any worse…
“Every radio station plays the same forsaken song…”
Trapped in a vortex of bad music, recurring images and the place where it all went down.
“You’d think I’d have the sense to leave this place alone…”
Benmont Tench, besides being the atmospherics on some of Stevie Nicks’ best records, the cloud for Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, even the Stones, is the invisible grouting for heroic American band-and iconic true Southerners beyond that-Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. It don’t get any truer or more authentic. And to that end, Tench has crafted a song about being imploded by regret, loss, recognizing just how bad it is… and he’s man enough to go to the scene of the crime, drain that slashed vein and face the spectre of what isn’t.
It’s not harsh, as had as it is. The melody is a gentle lullaby, music made by a man who can take no more-even if the waves of angst just keep hitting the shore. He’s not hiding, not is he wallowing, he’s just trying to man up and face it.
And the hotel in question… the Don Cesar in St Petersburg, Fla…. is indeed a grand dame old school hotel. Built by Henry Flagler when the industrialist had committed to turning Florida into a winter playground for his rich Yankee friends.
The Don rises in its mostly pink, certainly antiquated charm slung the gulf coast highway-a remembrance of another more elegant time. It is breathtaking-even sitting along a road now dotted with t-shirt shacks and fast food franchises. Inside those doors is another realm and reality, something to take you back… and “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone” celebrates that.
Merges the literal and the state of the heart… takes it deep inside, lets it play out like only a storm somewhere over the ocean can as you’re watching it against the night sky from a place high enough to have perspective.
“A cold hard rain keeps coming down…
“It wasn’t like this last time around…
“There’s no calm center to this storm…”
It is harsh, whatever this moment of looking the mistake in the eye, must be. With a slight break in her voice, Cash moans, “Oh, baby…” and it is more than desire. With that vowel hanging in the hair, she gathers up her dignity on that final chorus, and manages to offer that final request, “Why don’t you quit leaving me alone…”
There trying to be lost in Pinehurst, N.C., I am speechless. When all is lost and you’re not even sure you have the strength to inhale, that is just how it feels. That sense of unrelenting loss… and the sense that the tide will never rise again… and you will stand there waiting… waiting for a relief that will not come.
“Some dreams die with dignity, they fade out clean and quietly,” the alternate chorus explains.
This is not one of those times. This is one of the jagged gouging pains for the ages, one where even the numb is gonna kill you. But there is a correlating truth: you’re not lucky enough to die. You’re gonna have to live with it.
In that moment, me, the girl who always felt “My Funny Valentine,” a minor key celebration of the gorgeousness of the off-kilter and the potency of love’s enduring nature, was the song to end all songs-found herself blown away. This may be the one song above all others, the one that would be saved if all other music was to be eradicated.
It was sobering, and it was absolute, something so sad, so painful, so quietly impassioned that there was no denying it. Indeed, it was a song that I would come back to watching the twinkling carpet on either side of Mulholland Drive, flying over Chagrin River Road outside Cleveland, Ohio, cresting the Mississippi River on lost nights in Memphis and crawling along the edge of Martha’s Vineyard under pinpricks of stars falling on the sea grass.
Any time, any place, anywhere… when I want to know what sad is, I go back. Bad speakers are even better than a high tech sound system. Windows rolled down preferable to attic rooms without ventilation. But always, it’s there… a song that is nothing more than a haunted woman’s voice laid over a demo that couldn’t be trumped in the studio.
Maybe like the song itself, it was that bit of feeling dripped across the keyboards like so much hot wax that slowly melted and flowed away, only to cool somewhere unintended. Regardless of the how, it worked. Twenty-five years later, nothing moves me quite as much or as consistently.
And if that’s not what songs are supposed to do, then maybe I’ve missed the point all along.