Inside Llewyn Davies continues to haunt me. I won't say it's the best picture of 2013 -- Alexander Payne's Nebraska was just as memorable, maybe even more original -- but it's definitely on my short list. No surprise, really: I've always been a huge fan of the Coen brothers' work, and besides, I love movies about music. Which this one most triumphantly is.
The nostalgia of the movie is lost on me, mind you. In 1961 I was barely conscious of music, other than what streamed out of the kitchen radio on Washington Boulevard in Indianapolis -- which I can tell you was a whole different from Washington Square in Greenwich Village.
Still, secondhand nostalgia can be powerful, too. Several songs in the movie hit my ear with a pow! of instant recognition, and this one? The most hard-wired of them all, apparently, since I can't stop singing it to myself.
Blame that brief post-Beatlemania folkie phase I went through (late to the table as always). I remember seeing Tom Paxton's name in liner notes, alongside Phil Ochs and Leonard Cohen and Ian Tyson -- names that meant nothing to me, yet I memorized them, sensing someday they'd come in handy. Did I first hear "The Last Thing On My Mind" on a Peter Paul & Mary album, or was it Judy Collins' version?
Turns out everybody's had a go at "The Last Thing on My Mind." The usual folk music suspects, of course -- Joan Baez, Sandy Denny, the Kingston Trio, the Seekers, even an early incarnation of the Mamas and the Papas, known as the Magic Circle. Maybe because of that bluegrass-inspired fingerpicking, it translated easily to country music too, as a hit duet for Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner, not to mention Doc and Merle Watson, Willie Nelson, and the Carter Brothers. Jose Feliciano threw in a samba beat; the Move did it with psychedelic haze. Both Glen Campbell and Glenn Yarbrough recorded overproduced schmaltzy versions; Neil Diamond and Anne Murray both had to emote it to death. There are two covers that I really do like, one by Gram Parsons and the other a reggae version by Delroy Wilson. But they are rare examples of taste and restraint.
Which is why it's a relief at last to excavate the original.
Sure, it's a sad song. But it's a tender song, a wistful song, and it's a mistake to hammer the hell out of its emotions. That legato melodic line, underlaid with just a delicate picked acoustic guitar -- that's all this winsome thing needs.
That first line is significant -- "It's a lesson too late for the learning" -- because all the remorse the singer expresses is futile. That girl is already packing her bags, nearly out the door, and nothing he can do or say will stop her.
He poses it as a question in the chorus -- "Are you going away with no word of farewell? / Will there be not a trace left behind" -- but the answer is clearly YES. So clearly, that he doesn't wait for an answer, but follows up with a sorta apology -- "Well I could have loved you better / Didn't mean to be unkind / You know that was the last thing on my mind."
Ah, intentions. He didn't mean to be a jerk. Still, he was one. He was careless and neglectful; even he admits that. In the third verse, he takes a stab at making her feel guilty, for making his songwriting dry up. ("Every song in my breast lies a-borning" -- archaic folkie-speak for a writer's block.) Yet in the last verse, he's still acknowledging his shortcomings: "You've got reasons a plenty for goin' / This I know, this I know / For the weeds have been steadily growin'. . ." That's a great metaphor, isn't it? He hasn't tended the garden of love, so to speak, and now he's faced with the inevitable results. He's stuck in his own passive self-regard, which is no way to get that girl to change her mind and stay.
Notice that, in fact, the girl barely exists in this song. There's no sense of a dialogue; he never describes her or remembers things she did. It's all about him and how miserable he is. But boy, does he get that right.
The song's architecture is incredibly sound. The first and third lines of every verse rise hopefully, while lines two and four limp back down the scale and down to earth, with ominous repeated phrases, echoes of futility -- images like "made of sand," "round and round," "underground." "This I know, this I know," as if he's muttering to himself. In verse three even the repeated phrases are repeated, "without you, without you" sung twice like a death knell. It's hopeless, buddy, only you're the last to see it.
And as the chorus changes to an even higher key, the husky admission of guilt from the verses turns to a woeful plea, edged perhaps with panic or self-pity, depending on the singer. Still, it doesn't feel urgent, does it? Plaintive, yes, but I don't feel any true change of heart. Sure, he'd like her to stay, but is he willing to change to make that happen? I do not hear one word about that.
I'd like to imagine Paxton wrinting this after a real-life break-up, sitting on a lumpy mattress on the floor of a Village railroad flat, lighting a cigarette and pulling his guitar towards him for consolation. More likely he was just doodling on the guitar, trying to work up some new material for next Saturday's gig at the club, and the rhymes began to lead him in a certain direction. Yet he certainly captures the egocentrism of still-raw heartbreak.
It's very much a song of its time. We can't expect it to have the jagged pain of a 70s album cut, or the post-modern referencing of a 90s track. What we do get is the brooding introspection of the beatnik, the weariness of the post-war survivor, and yes, a little navel-gazing, courtesy of the newly fashionable art of psychoanalysis. Gone is the slickness of 40s and 50s big band pop; in its place is self-expression, intimacy, a willingness to be vulnerable. The sea change of the 1960s started right down there in the Greenwich Village clubs.
All those cover versions with their jumped-up emotions miss the point -- that this guy can barely get out of bed right now. He's not belting out his heart with a full orchestra, or harmonizing with his back-up singers. This is folk music, people. Less really can be more.