Billy and Dad are looking forward to David Zollo’s new record For Hire. Dave, a fellow Washington County man like myself, is a friend, as is the rest of his family, including his son Rocco, Billy’s good buddy. Fans of roots rock – for lack of a better term – know him best from his albums Big Night and Uneasy Street, as well as for his work as a sideman with people like Greg Brown and William Elliot Whitmore. I’m particularly looking forward to his new song “Out of the Cradle (Endlessly Rocking),” which he’s been performing for the past couple years. In fact, one of the first things we hit it off over was our shared love of that Whitman poem – Dave’s got a nice tattoo on his lower arm of the young, rakish Walt with cocked hat.
Dave’s song is a beautiful heartbreaker, a dialogue between two long-time lovers, presumably married, who “have finally made the chorus” only to find that their song is breaking down.
The man says that “this is my heart of hearts talking” and admits that he’s a “fucked-up true believer/ In that perfect moment, nameless, hanging in the ether,” who can talk the talk but not exactly walk the walk. After he claims that he’s written this song for her, the woman snaps back,
Great, you sing another love song.
Tell me, what does that prove?
I’m tired of all your talking,
I need a change, I gotta move.
All those things you promised
You never could deliver.
I thought you were my hero,
But you’re just another Indian giver.
And then you whisper in my ear,
Man, I have that fever.
I cannot wind up all alone,
Another solitary griever.
I whisper something back to you,
I hope you don’t find it shocking.
You’re the one that likes to talk,
But I’m the one that’s good at walking
Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.
What can he say? His first impulse is to keep singing (which, by this point, seems to be equivalent to lying).
If I could just arrange these notes
To fit all these different sections,
Maybe I could save this song
And, baby, likewise stop your heart’s defection.
But then he stops himself and opts for a kind of wordless communication.
Promise I won’t talk too much to lie,
I’ll just hold your hand,
And you can feel the heartbeat
Trapped inside the vessel of this long-lost man,
And gather up the pieces
Like the spring geese in the field flocking,
And take one more journey like we used to
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.
The song is tremendously affecting on its own, but gains even more from tapping into the volcanic energy of Whitman’s poem. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is about a boy’s memory of hearing a couple of birds singing. One day the female bird doesn’t come back, and the male bird sings out longingly for her. (Dave’s song, in some ways about divorce, is a kind of male cry to the bird who’s left.) In the bird’s lonesome tune, Whitman hears – well, he hears basically the meaning of the rest of his life.
O you singer, solitary, singing by yourself—projecting me;
O solitary me, listening—nevermore shall I cease perpetuating you;
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there, in the night,
By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d—the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
But even that powerful sense of destiny, “the sweet hell within,” isn’t enough. He wants more. And it’s the sea that obliges his desire.
. . . the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word DEATH;
And again Death—ever Death, Death, Death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,
Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.
Dave’s self-accusatory, sad song, about love and our frailties, keeps coming back to the opening line of Whitman’s poem, “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” which is death, death, death. Whitman – another of whom Dave would call a “fucked-up true believer” – seems to be suggesting that his true love is the maternal embrace of death, given body by the sea sounds and the washing waves. The point of Whitman’s poem, insofar as it has to be stated in worse English, is something like: “We love the people and things of this world, but there’s something in our love that goes beyond what can be delivered, something about us that longs for transcendence; perhaps religion is one way of conceiving of that something (and drugs and songs and poems are ways of trying to approximate it), but let’s face it, it’s not really God or Beauty but Death that we desire, the return to the nothingness out of which we came; and yet our destiny is somehow to turn away from Death, to go on living, to be haunted by that impossible desire.” What I like about Dave’s song is the suggestion that it’s not just death that we love, but a real woman (or bird, for that matter). “The cradle,” beyond standing for the death out of which all life springs, is also – the cradle, the place where we deliver the fruit of our fevers; just as the “mother” is the mother, the woman who’s speaking in the song, who demands that a man walk the walk and not just talk the talk.