Neko Case Sings The Gospel

I never really liked “Look For Me I’ll Be around” all that much, which is odd because I have been in love with Neko Case for a couple decades – the reason for which is that Neko and I have been burned by love and she expresses it like nobody.

For those who don’t know, Neko Case is the hottest redhead in the whole wide world of alt-country with a voice like raw wildflower honey with a bit more reverb than most and every single one of her songs is about the horrible, senseless tragedy of living life as a thinking. feeling human being. Neko’s heart is a tiger that’s been chained up for so long that its muscles have atrophied and its hair has started falling out and it’s forgotten what it is to be free and now just lays on the dry, packed dirt waiting for the merciful bullet that will bring an end to the suffering. Her breath tastes like being poor and small and popsicles in summer. She addresses her anguish to those who lost their way and were murdered on the interstate (“go on, go on and scream and cry – you’re miles from where anyone will find you”) because they found a way out of the endlessness of forlorn hope, which was, after all, the last and cruelest of the curses that spilled out of Pandora’s box. Her true love drowned in a dirty old pan of oil that had drained from the block of a 1965 Falcon sedan and the papers didn’t even get the year right. There were no survivors.

Neko presents us with two women – Pauline and Margaret – who I imagine as the distaff versions of Shaun and Shem, the fraternal twins in James Joyce’s magnum opus. Finnegans Wake, eternally paired – one beautiful, lucky and loved, the other homely, forgotten and utterly unlovable, clenching her hands – with missing fingers – into misshapen fists in her lap as she stares with hatred born of envy at her perfect sister across the family table. Anyone who’s spent any time at all with Neko’s music knows which of the two she identifies with just as surely as they know that the pretty girls in the waiting room of the abortion clinic will be in prison later. Did I mention that all her friends are dead?

I relate with Neko. Like her, I was born in Virginia and I grew up without any hollow promises that life was gonna reward me or that love would be kind. Insanity runs in my blood. I always choose the wrong ones to love. I left the party at 3am, alone, thank God. I’m wrapped in the depths of the deeds that made me and I’m gonna ruin everything. I fell into the lion’s jaws, ran from deadly wolves and, like Neko, I’m not the man you think I am. I do love her, even though there’re few things as funny as real love, and I even love her latest LP, which sounds a little more Broadway than dirt road, but I’ve never been crazy about “Look For Me I’ll Be Around” – the whole jilted woman who waits around forever for the scumbag to come back smacks a little too much of the good-hearted woman/good-timin’ man country songs I heard when I was a kid, getting cord-wood with my dad in the custard-yellow ’78 F150. He liked to drink beer when he ran the chainsaw and he insisted I hold the end of the log he was cutting. He got himself a couple times with the chainsaw – once across the face – but I managed to avoid the saw. Got hit a few times, but that wasn’t unusual. “Look For Me…” reminds of the sexisms of outlaw country and my feminist hackles get up. It may be that I’m a little jealous – I wouldn’t do Neko that way.

Then I was at work t’other day, not paying attention to the music and I caught a piece of “Look For Me…” and suddenly realized – this song is Jesus talking. Outta nowhere, I heard it like it wasn’t about somebody’s in-between girl, crying in her sleeve, but about Christ waiting patiently for some asshole who’s staggering around town, hopped up and drunk, pissing in alleys and breaking the rear-view mirrors on random parked cars with his fist to wake the fuck up and accept the salvation. And that asshole was me. There was never any need for me to drink Night Train under that railroad bridge, snort meth in the bathroom at the public library or fuck those women whose last names I didn’t know. Sure as shit wasn’t any need for all those hours I spent curled up in a fetal position on the floor of the closet, bleeding from shallow cuts and wishing I had the fuckin’ balls to get the shotgun out from under the bed and make the voices shut up forever. All that time I was reeling under the awful weight of my own wretchedness, the Son of Man was waiting for me to be ready to change. How’s that for a kick in the teeth?

Now I know better.

It’s still hard for me to accept it sometimes. I lived so long on the shit end of the stick that not being down and kicked seems strange – like I’m losing something precious by letting go of the hardship and shame and hopelessness of a life I once lived. Truly, it hain’t been that way for a while – I been sober for nigh on twenty-one years, haven’t been in jail for twelve or regretted fucking anybody last night for seven. I’m no longer a not-so-pretty train wreck. It just hasn’t sunk in all the way. I guess I still think there’s something charming and romantic about being broken – even though it pisses me right the fuck off when anybody acts like there is. Honestly though, I don’t wanna be like some Christians I see – moon-eyed and vacuous and swooning over the wonderful joy of being bought with the Blood of the Lamb. I just don’t experience it that way. I’m still broken – still need meds and prayers for one more day of not drinking. I still enjoy the maudlin feel I get from Neko’s love songs to girls who were murdered by the Green River Killer and paeans to rural blight. I expect that’ll stay – though I don’t hope to be crippled by it all like I once was.

God – Jesus – was there all along. That’s some shit, is what that is. Ya gotta remember, I’m coming back to Christianity after being gone for a few decades. It’s good to be back. I love the Church – the liturgy and the stained glass windows and that picture of the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. I wanna be the Pastor at a Church that was converted from an old barn, with mice in the walls and bats in the attic. I want a congregation of old, alcoholic veterans and shame-faced girls with their panties in their purses. I wanna preach the good news of God’s infinite love to losers who don’t deserve it. Them’s my people.

I ran into a friend t’other day. He’s about forty-five and I never know if I’ll ever see him again. Sometimes, he’s in prison and other times he’s just missing. He told me he’s gonna be a granddaddy. His oldest girl is pregnant by some pothead kid. They aren’t gonna get married, but the kid hasn’t run out on her yet, so that’s good. My friend recently did a run and scored pretty big – his partners in it got busted, but they haven’t rolled on him yet. He shot some dope in a pick-up truck and OD’ed – they had to Narcan him, but he didn’t die. Maybe this time he’ll stay clean – or maybe his new PO will violate him and he’ll go back down the road. Or maybe he’ll bang another load and there won’t be anybody around to call 911. Ya can’t ever tell. But I want that dumbass redneck junkie in my Church. I want him to be my cantor – and I never heard him sing. I don’t even care if he’s clean. He could shoot up, come up to the pulpit and sing “Look For Me I’ll Be Around” and then nod off in the aisle and I’d be okay with it. Better if he was straight and wearin’ a clean shirt, but ya can’t have everything. And Jesus’d be happy to have him there too, I betcha. I think Jesus knows how hard it is to kick dope.

I love Jesus and I love fucked up people who a lotta Christians wouldn’t want around.

Neko’s done some gospel songs – “Wayfaring Stranger” and “John Saw That Number”, maybe a few others. She’s saved too.


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