52 GIRLS"Sad Lisa" / Cat Stevens
In my Indianapolis high school in 1971, Tea for the Tillerman was the album you had to own to even pretend to be cool. (We weren't hip enough to know the term "hip.") Cat Stevens' folky tracks were a little snide, a little fey, full of longing for the open road and brooding about the generation gap -- perfect for college-bound suburban kids. Many people first fell for these songs in the classic black comedy Harold and Maude, but not me -- I liked Harold and Maude BECAUSE it featured Tea for the Tillerman songs.
I was precisely the right age, and precisely the right target demographic, to think that this was the wisest and most beautiful album ever (at least for a few months, until Carole King's Tapestry came out). It seemed to be playing everywhere I went -- maybe not on Top 40 radio or on the musak at the mall, but at every party and at every friend's house. That folkie acoustic guitar, Stevens' quavery voice, the flower child conceits, the romantic loner alienation -- how better to appeal to us hippie wannabes?
And along with Tea for the Tillerman's many "road map" songs -- "Father and Son," "Miles From Nowhere," "On the Road to Find Out," "Wild World" -- I was always particularly haunted by the melancholy riddle of "Sad Lisa."
That opening image, sung with tender solicitude over a contrapuntal piano motif, tugs on your heart from the get-go: "She hangs her head and cries on my shirt / She must be hurt very badly / Tell me what's making you sad, Li?"
So who or what is making Sad Lisa so sad? Back in the day -- programmed as I was by years of pop songs about young love -- I guessed that she'd had her heart broken by another guy, and the singer is lending her a comforting shoulder to cry upon, in hopes of eventually winning her himself.
But further listens made it clear that this was something else, something deeper and infinitely sadder. Could be depression, could be autism -- she certainly isn't communicating with the singer, who seems to be visiting her in an institution: "She walks alone from wall to wall / Lost in her hall, she can't hear me" and "She sits in a corner by the door." (Remember, ours was the era that romanticized life in the loony bin with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) She won't answer his questions, she's "lost in the dark", she can't hear him, she needs to be freed.
Verse two's poetical imagery of her weeping adds a delicate sort of glamor: "Her eyes like windows, trickle in rain / Upon the pain [pane] getting deeper." (Dig how he adds arpeggios to the piano to imitate the trickling rain.) And in verse three, white knight that he is, he vows to take action: "I'll do what I can to show her the way / And maybe one day I will free her." But now -- wait! -- he throws us a curve ball: "Though I know no one can see her." Is Lisa just a ghost, or a figment of his own disturbed imagination? The mind boggles.
What ultimately made us feel most sad was that minor key melody, rising urgently, then falling in despair. Instead of the default folk-rock instrument, a guitar, Stevens went back to his own original instrument, the piano, adding a mournful cello halfway through. Nothing like musically wringing the heartstrings.
Was this based on a real girl? Stevens did spend several months in a tuberculosis hospital in 1969 and 1970 -- if James Taylor could write "Fire and Rain" about a girl he met in a mental hospital, surely Steven Georgiou could write about a fellow TB patient.
But I kind of like not knowing the details. Because all that matters, really, is the sadness of Sad Lisa -- and that is clear as a bell.