(Pictured: John Denver circa 1975.)
Hungry for some comfort food the other day, I pulled out the American Top 40 show from October 19, 1974. I’ve written about it already, but I have more to say about a couple of the songs.
There’s often a dialogue between the pop culture of a bygone day and the way it plays now, knowing what we know and thinking the way we think. I have referred to “The Need to Be” by Jim Weatherly as the sound of a man of the Me Decade disappearing up his own external orifice. But listening to it again the other day, it occurs to me that there’s something deeper going on.
Read the lyrics. Weatherly speaks candidly of how he feels as a man, and how he intends to achieve the fullness of his being. Such openness was a relatively new concept in 1974, after the social upheavals of the 60s and early 70s. As Weatherly demonstrates, a man of the 70s could speak honestly about his feelings without shame; it was not necessary to keep them hidden until he drifted into alcoholism or died of a coronary, as a man of the 50s might have done.
But now read it again, or listen to it. Weatherly’s sensitive confession of his wants and needs is not nearly so enlightened as his heartfelt delivery makes it sound. He’s putting a stake in the ground and saying, “I am what I am, and it is my purpose in life to remain that, no matter what. Do not expect me to be what I am not, or to become what I refuse to be. Be sure you love the man I am, because I ain’t changing.” A man of the 50s, to the extent that he would be willing to think about it at all, might recognize himself in that attitude.
The woman to whom Jim Weatherly is singing in “The Need to Be” (and I say “woman” because this was 1974) had best tread lightly. Committing to a man so unbendingly invested in the maintenance of a fixed identity seems like a prescription for eventual trouble.
(I should state for the record that when I refer to Weatherly here, I’m referring to the character singing in his song and not to the man himself, although Weatherly died earlier this year, so he ain’t gonna complain.)
Moving along: here in 2021, there’s a degree of unreality to practically everything we experience. We read the news and we are told every day, by journalists, politicians, and social media randos, that what we see happening isn’t really happening at all, and that “reality” is something else entirely. Every single person in the public eye—musicians, actors, athletes, authors—is curating themselves as a brand that might have little or nothing to do with their true selves. Those of us with an Internet presence are doing it too, creating a persona that’s something less than 100 percent of who we really are.
It feels like the only way to make sense of anything is to maintain ironic distance from everything: assume that everything and everyone is lying or joking or selling something—trying to get over on us in some way—and calibrate our own perception of reality based on those assumptions.
(Present company excluded, of course.)
One of my favorite songs on the 10/19/74 AT40 show is John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” As comfort food, it’s pretty rich. I have written many times about the autumns of 1974 and 1975, which seem in memory like very warm, secure, and happy family times (even though it is likely that they were not). What could fit better into that landscape of memory than a singalong ballad about the pleasures of being at home?
Putting nostalgia aside, what’s most appealing about “Back Home Again” in 2021 is Denver’s absolute earnestness. The song, in which a pregnant woman and her husband are reunited after he’s been away, is about the joy they feel in being together again. That’s it. There’s nothing else going on; there’s no subtext to parse out. Denver sings, “Hey, it’s good to be back home again,” he means it, and he doesn’t have an ulterior motive in saying so.
It’s a relief to hear something we don’t have to evaluate for its relative truthfulness against all the lies people are telling one another.
Part of my brand is to doubt my entire premise in the end. All of this—speculations about Jim Weatherly’s old-style chauvinism dressed in Alan Alda drag, and about whether we’re all lying to each other all the time—is just an opinion. I might be completely wrong.