Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

The painted desert
can wait till summer
we've played this game of just imagine long enough
wait till summer?

When I'm sure the rains have ended
the blooms have gone
everyone killed by the morning frost

Is a cactus blooming there
in every roadside stand
where the big deal is cowboy gear
sewn in Japan?

The painted desert
can wait till summer
we've played this game of just imagine long enough
wait till summer?

When I'm sure the rains have ended
the blooms have gone
everyone killed by the morning frost

Is a cactus blooming there
upon the northern rim
or in the ruins of the Hopi mesa dens?

You met a new friend in the canyon
(or so you wrote)
on a blanket in the cooling sand
you and your friend agreed that
the stars were so many there
they seemed to overlap

The painted desert
can wait till summer
we've played this game of just imagine long enough
wait till summer?

When I am sure the rain has ended
the blooms have gone
everyone killed by the morning frost

Was a cactus blooming there
as you watched the Native boy?
in Flagstaff trailer court, you wrote the line
"he kicked a tumbleweed
and his mother called him home
where the Arizona moon
met the Arizona sun"

I wanted to be there by May at the latest time
isn't that the plan we had or have you changed your mind?
I haven't read a word from you since Phoenix or Tucson
April is over, will you tell me how long
before I can be there?



It's funny how seeing something in writing feels so different than hearing the same words spoken out loud. I've been corresponding with a friend via e-mail for several months, ever since she had to leave the States and go back to her home in Japan. Our writing exchanges always follow the same routine: She writes to me in English and I write to her in Japanese. Although neither of us have an exceptional grasp of the other's language, we always manage to understand each other.

When I wrote her early Friday morning to inquire about her safety after the earthquake and tsunami that just laid waste to her homeland, instead of her usual English, she replied in Japanese. I could understand why. She wanted to write quickly, without having to measure every word. Her reply was reassuring. Too reassuring. She kept emphasizing how she was fine, that I shouldn't worry, that I should tell our mutual friends that they shouldn't worry either. That evening, she wrote me again, this time in English. But now the tone in her words was completely different. She let her guard down and told me how she was really feeling.

I could completely understand this emotional shift that accompanied switching to her second language. When you are trying to express yourself in a language that you are not completely fluent in, you have to distill your thoughts down to their simplest form. You don't have the luxury of expressing nuances and complex feelings. So when my friend wrote to me in English, she wrote with short, straightforward expressions. So instead of saying, "I can't believe what has happened, this is so terrible" she simply said things like, "I'm sad" and "I'm so scared" and this simple, imperfectly expressed statement: "A heart aches."

It was this last expression that broke me. The truth is, a native English speaker would rarely use an expression like this. Hearts ache in love songs or in poems, in narratives of someone else's feelings. But rarely does one person say to another, "My heart aches." I read those words over and over again and I've been thinking about them every day since she wrote them.

It seems like it's so much easier to express deep emotions when you write them down. Truthfully, I've rarely been able to express those kind of emotions in any other way. Perhaps this is why, I don't know...I write a blog? Perhaps this is why a lot of us do.

I'm not sure exactly what The Painted Desert is about, but it has always seemed to me to be a letter spoken out loud. For this reason, more than for just the quality of the words themselves, this song has always felt so intimate to me, like I'm eavesdropping on someone's private conversation. I wonder what conversations preceded this letter. The only thing that is obvious is that the writer of the letter and the intended recipient had been planning to see each other for some time. I love the quiet dejection behind lines like: "We've played this game of just imagine long enough...wait till summer?" and the lines that end the song, lines so perfect that they bear repeating: "I wanted to be there by May at the latest time, isn't that the plan we had or have you changed your mind? I haven't read a word from you since Phoenix or Tucson, April is over, will you tell me how long before I can be there?"

As tempting as written communication is for introverts in love, it is a tricky road to navigate. The tendency to read something deeper, for better or worse, into every word written to you is too strong a temptation for most of us to withstand. Every positive statement, no matter how modest, is turned into a grandiose confession of their undying love. On the other hand, even the most innocuous remark can send us reeling down the path of insecurity. I have a feeling that letters have caused more imaginary conflict than any other form of communication throughout history.

I'm not saying that I necessarily think that The Painted Desert is about a romantic relationship. But I wouldn't rule it out either. One way or the other, it leaves me wishing I could read (and hear) more. Here are a couple of quotes from Natalie, one about the song and one about writing in general:

"I like a quiet life. That song The Painted Desert...the reason I want to see the desert is because I think it must be the quietest place on earth."*

"I think it's really therapeutic to write. People used to write letters, but most people now, if they write a telephone message down, a few checks a week, that's all the writing they do. It's rare to get a birthday card or a Christmas card with anything more written on it than 'love.' Maybe writing all those letters was practice for writing songs."**

Well, certainly for writing this song anyway. I love The Painted Desert. I love that it makes me feel lonely and less alone at the same time. This song makes me want to write. It makes me want to pull out my box of old letters and go mining for memories. I want to hear Natalie sing it now, with all the richness that her voice has acquired in the nearly 25 years since this song was written. I know it's not likely I ever will, but if I can play the game of just imagine long enough...well, you never know.

Before I sign off, I want to acknowledge my readers from Japan. I know there are only a few of you, but I want you to know - わたしの心も痛みます. My heart aches too.

Download The Painted Desert from Itunes - The Painted Desert - In My Tribe

E-mail me at nmcompendium@yahoo.com

*Folk Roots, December 1987
**Musician, August 1989

3 comments:

  1. "I'm not saying that I necessarily think that The Painted Desert is about a romantic relationship. But I wouldn't rule it out either...."

    Interesting because, to me, this song is totally about a romantic relationship that has gone wrong and I struggle to see how it could be about anything else.

    Because Nat is female I think of a girl longing to hear from her boyfriend who is traveling in the American west.

    He's started fobbing her off with excuses about why they can't get together "The painted desert can wait til summer" is what he promised her. She was planning to join him in May and they would go to see the Painted Desert together. (The Painted Desert is a stunningly beautiful in the US West)

    Weeks and months have gone by...no word. She knows that the truth is that he's hooked up with someone else (You met a new friend in the canyon - or so you wrote)and hasn't had the guts to tell her. He's just stopped writing. She's just starting to accept the truth (We've played this game of just imagine long enough)

    The last verse says it all.....

    I wanted to be there by May at the latest time isn't that the plan we had or have you changed your mind?

    I haven't read a word from you since Phoenix or Tucson
    April is over, will you tell me how long
    before I can be there?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Stuart -

    You make a compelling argument. I guess I find it more appealing to think of this song as being about letters between friends. I think it's because there's something about the song that seems so innocent to me, almost like it's the conversation between two kids who aren't even old enough to have a genuine concept of romance. But that's probably a delusional view. That's just how I listen to music - delusionally.

    Thanks for writing,
    Annie

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree - definitely a conversation between two kids, but two kids who are just starting to realize that things can go very badly wrong, even in relationships that started so well.

    ReplyDelete