I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.
Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.
It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.
There’s something to be said for sunrises in fall here in Portland. This is what it looks like out of my window before I get up in the morning; I genuinely feel lucky to see this kind of thing, and also to wake up early enough that I get to see the sun rise each morning. (To be fair, up until last weekend, it happened after 7am and who isn’t awake by then?)
One of my few rules here is that I don’t share anything that feels too personal. “If it’s your decision to be open about yourself, be careful or else,” as Elliott Smith sang; it’s a nervousness born as much as anything of the lingering shame I felt for almost two decades in my marriage for just being me and not who I was expected to be. I’m recovering, still, but it’s not gone entirely. Maybe it never will.
So, with that in mind, I know better than to write about what happened on Monday here. It would be a bad idea: it would upset the other person involved — just the opposite— and I wouldn’t get any sort of closure from it. It wouldn’t achieve anything good, aside from allowing me to rant, rave and scream primally.
At the same time, perhaps those are things I need to do. Certainly, the more I think about what happened, the more I want to scream. The realization that what I was facing was simply a concentrated taste of what used to be my everyday, but my psychic shield was gone now; the pain (and, again, shame) of that realization, but also the anger that accompanied it, the disbelief, were and still are overwhelming. How is this still happening? How did I survive through it all before? Why didn’t I notice sooner?
But there’s also something better, the secondary realization that I don’t have that psychic shield now because I don’t need it anymore. The acceptance that I really am in a better place now, as much as that sounds like a euphemism for death.
My feelings are all over the place right now, and will be for some time. What happened isn’t resolved, and isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon. But perhaps what I need to work through them is a primal scream made pixels, or this talking in code. Extended subtweet as therapy.
One of the stranger things about having done this job for so long is that, sometimes, entirely accidentally, you repeat yourself. You have a thought that feels new to you and think, maybe that’s a story, I should write that. And then you google the topic and there you are, having written a version of the exact story you were planning to write some time earlier.
It is, I guess, understandable — you have to forgive yourself for thinking like yourself, if only because, what’s the alternative? — but it’s also a curious feeling when it happens, not least of all because, on the occasions it’s happened to me, I’ve genuinely had no recollection of writing the first piece at all.
Again, perhaps I shouldn’t feel bad about this; I generally write somewhere in the region of three to five stories a day, so it only stands to reason that I don’t have perfect recall of what I’ve written, especially when you think about the fact that I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. On the other hand, it’s just a little embarrassing to genuinely think I’m having a thought for the first time, only to discover I’ve traced this entire process down in detail previously, and then utterly forgotten about it.
(The Monkees start playing in my head: “Do I have to do this all over again…? Didn’t I do it right the first time…?”)
When such a thing happens, there’s no real recourse; you have to say goodbye to your new (old) idea and start over. Which explains why I’m here now, rewriting a post that I thought was brand new, but actually wrote a few months ago without realizing it. Secrets behind a writer’s life, revealed, fact fans…
Another set of graphics for the THR newsletter; the first three were created at the end of a very long day at New York Comic Con, when I was utterly done and yet had these to do before sleep. I was quasi delirious (I’d worked for about 18 hours by that point, with breaks for eating and con socializing, which to be honest, I count as working), and pretty aggressively just wanted these to be done. Yet, looking back at them, I kind of like them…? Maybe exhaustion is the key to creativity or something.
There was an alternate version of this one made with a different headline…
…but neither one got used on the intended date. (They’ll maybe show up at some point; it was for a story about Catwoman casting in the new Batman movie that never ended up in the newsletter.)