Many days I have spent on the road, locked in a silent communion with my ipod, and listening, exclusively, for days and days on end, to Andrew Bird. Of course, it’s a toss up to what my favorite album is, but the one that gets the most overall plays is Armchair Apocrypha. When I start it, the opening riff of “Fiery Crash” begins, and the vibration of the Bose headphones on my face makes me feel like I need to start organizing my mind, that the next show is coming at me fast. I am kicking the back of John Roberts’ seat, I am drinking the hottest water that can be spilled and sometimes drunk in the back of a crowded van that wishes it was a tour bus and I am in love with the sweet formality of Andrew Bird’s whistling, the tender application of violin and guitar, the lyrics reminding me more of Keats or Shelley than indie rock, gramaphones spinning in my mind as fast as wheels can turn.
When Andrew agreed to write a song with me for my new album, I put on makeup before calling him on the phone, as if my carefully applied mascara would somehow blunt my nervousness. He was very nice of course, and gave me an email address to send lyrics as soon as they were ready. I truly had no idea what to write, but I decided to try to empty my mind completely and trust that something would come.
Some days later, I was thinking about someone I once loved, and how so many years had passed and how this person still made numerous appearances in my dreams. Usually the actors in my dreams retire after short, frenzied careers, presumably to play outlying dinner theatres in my psyche, but this guy had stamina. He was like the Martin Landau of my dreams. Or like the John Travolta of my dreams. He was featured a ton in his heyday, and then continued to have much success later in life, maybe even more so, because irony was involved. Anyway, this man I loved, I realized I still loved, and I had no idea how he was doing. Where he was. What his life was. I wanted to know. I had resisted googling him for years because my feelings for him hadn’t yet faded. I didn’t want to know he was successful and happy and living in a renovated lighthouse with his beautiful wife and many children. I typed his name into the little box, fully expecting to be made instantly, painfully jealous of the charmed life I would never share with him. Instead, his Wikipedia entry came up. His name, a list of his credits and then this, “in 2007, was convicted of the murder of his wife.” Apparently, my dream lover had bludgeoned his wife to death, then stuffed her body in the attic of their house, where she lay for nearly a month, until her body had partially mummified.
So, I had a song. And a murder ballad at that. I wrote the lyrics when I was up late at night, unable to sleep, thinking about that poor woman’s body, dead between the walls like a character in an Edgar Allen Poe story. She was me. She wasn’t me. She could have been me. She couldn’t have been me. He had lost his considerable looks in his mugshot, his face bloated with alcohol and domestic violence. No one is flattered in that orange. He was no longer a dream lover but a nightmare monster. He moved from a place in my heart to hiding under the bed, lurking in the shadows, waiting for me in the closet, so when I pushed the door closed, he would push back. I thought about the details of the murder, how he had lied to her family and told them he had sent her to rehab, so that they would not come looking for her, to buy him some time to figure out what to do with the body. They had just had a son together, he and his murdered wife, and the boy’s incessant crying gave him away in the end. When they caught him, he never expressed sorrow or remorse or even guilt. It somehow still was her fault, because he loved her so, because he couldn’t control her, because money was running out, because because because.
The song is called, “I’m Sorry” because he never said it. He didn’t say it to her because he killed her before he could say it. He didn’t say it to her family because his lawyer probably advised him not to. He didn’t say it to me because I will never go visit him. I don’t think he is sorry. But I am, for loving him. For having the capacity to love someone like that. What is wrong with me?
I sent the lyrics to Andrew and he liked them. He went to his farm and 3 days later I had a demo. It was funny to hear him sing these words, which sounded so different than what I had imagined. His deep and assuring professorial voice made my swirling thoughts concrete and comical, and the last line of the song was the best punchline I had not delivered yet.
This song was the first one to be recorded, and we did it in Nashville at summer’s end. I was recovering from a catastrophic case of laryngitis, where I lost the use of my voice for a very long time. When I talked to Andrew on the phone the day before our session, it was the first time I had made a sound with my throat in nearly two months. My voice sounded odd in my head and I kept commenting on how absolutely strange it was. Andrew said he was honored. We worked on it over two days, with a crack band of Nashville’s and Chicago’s finest. The city was good to us. I bought a combination 6 string guitar and mandolin at Gruen. Andrew made scrambled eggs. We talked a lot about Tim and Eric and Mr. Show. I couldn’t believe how good I sounded. I premiered the song at Zanies, a comedy club only about 50 paces from the recording studio, using backing tracks, because Andrew had already gone back to Chicago. In the audience I could hear someone say “listen to that voice!” I thought I sounded good. I kind of couldn’t believe it.