Still is a love song about a long-term relationship, which is the only kind of love song I know how to write these days given that I’ve been happily married for over a decade.
A few weeks ago I asked friends on Facebook to name their favourite songs about long-term relationships, because the only one I could think of was The Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh, which is not what I was going for at all. As it turned out, quite a few of the suggestions were similarly sentimental, like Finish Line by Elton John and Stevie Wonder (“You are still a beauty to behold / You’ve been my muse / Every story that I’ve told”), Still the One by Shania Twain (“Just look at us holding on. We’re still together, still going strong.”) and Always Have Always Will by Bryan Adams (“You’re so beautiful, amazing, So beautiful, it’s indisputable”), who frankly I don’t trust on this subject after Run to You.
There are more poetic examples. Thanks to Willie Campbell of Astrid for pointing me to Don Williams’ wonderful You’re My Best Friend. (“You’re my bread when I’m hungry / You’re my shelter from troubled winds / You’re my anchor in life’s ocean / But most of all, you’re my best friend.”) But the message is much the same. Even Randy Newman gets a bit mushy when tackling this subject on Same Girl.
I wonder why this is. Perhaps it’s because the only time that most people in long-term relationships write songs is either when things are falling apart or when, like Chris De Burgh, they suddenly remember how they felt when they got together (or feel obliged to remember for the sake of an anniversary or birthday). The day to day reality just isn’t that song-worthy; who wants to listen to a song about driving the kids to school or doing laundry?
Actually I do, and I wish there were more songs that focused on minutiae, on the little details that sum up a long, monogamous life together, an approach which is less prone to cliché or sentiment than simple proclamations of enduring love. I love Our Anniversary by Smog, with its images of bullfrogs, crickets, and a dying car battery, each of which adds another layer of cycle of life detail to a song blossoming with metaphor. “We are far from flowers / cut and dried,” it concludes, “so let us thrive just like the weeds we curse sometimes.” And thanks to Neil Pennycook of Meursault for suggesting In Spite of Ourselves, a duet by Iris DeMent and John Prine that is fabulous and laugh out loud funny.
She thinks all my jokes are corny
Convict movies make her horny
She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs
Swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs
She takes a lickin’
And keeps on tickin’
I’m never gonna let her go
I think my favourite of all the suggestions, though, was Sisotowbell Lane. I love Joni Mitchell but had somehow missed this beautiful song about love, old age and parenthood, which resonates with me as someone living an increasingly rural life and anxiously imagining my children one day setting off for precarious new lives in cities. I looked up the street name and apparently it doesn’t exist in the real world; according to her website, ‘Sisotowbell’ was a word Joni Mitchell invented as an acronym for ‘Somehow, in spite of troubles, ours will be ever lasting love’, which is very apt. Anyway I’m going to risk copyright infringement and quote the lyrics in their entirety, because they’re exquisite.
Noah is fixing the pump in the rain
He brings us no shame
We always knew that he always knew
Up over the hill
Jovial neighbors come down when they will
With stories to tell
Sometimes they do
Yes, sometimes we do
We have a rocking chair
Each of us rocks his share
Eating muffin buns and berries
By the steamy kitchen window
Sometimes we do
Our tongues turn blue
Anywhere else now would seem very strange
The seasons are changing
Every day in every way
Sometimes it is spring
Sometimes it is not anything
A poet can sing
Sometimes we try
Yes, we always try
We have a rocking chair
Some days we rock and stare
At the woodlands and the grasslands
And the badlands ‘cross the river
Sometimes we do
We like the view
Go to the city you’ll come back again
To wade through the grain
You always do
Yes, we always do
Come back to the stars
Sweet well water and pickling jars
We’ll lend you the car
We always do
Yes, sometimes we do
We have a rocking chair
Someone is always there
Rocking rhythms while they’re waiting
With the candle in the window
Sometimes we do
We wait for you
You can judge for yourself where Still sits on this spectrum. It occurred to me recently that, subconsciously, I was probably trying to write a Before Midnight, having already channelled my obsession with the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy into trying to write musical versions of the first two films. Here’s Your Train, Safe Home was my Before Sunrise, a wistful romantic song about saying goodbye to someone you’ve been connecting with emotionally all night as they board a train. There Are No Maps For This Part Of The City was my Before Sunset, a song about a man tentatively embarking on a romantic relationship while knowing he’s betraying someone else by doing so. And so now I’ve done the full set.
The first time I saw Before Midnight was on my 40th birthday, a rare date night with Laura in Edinburgh a few months after the birth of our first child. We went for dinner and then watched a film about a couple about the same age as us, with similar personalities, emotional baggage and childcare arrangements, having a gradually escalating argument which ends with shouting, storming out of the room (twice) and finally the woman telling the man she doesn’t think she loves him anymore.
Before Midnight was a surprisingly lovely way to finish my birthday, and it renewed my faith in long-term relationships, my own included. I often wonder if other couples didn’t fare so well and how many fights that film caused. It’s certainly a very different film to the first two. Over the course of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two self-absorbed young people fall in love over one long night in Vienna, think they’ve lost each other forever, then get a chance to begin again in Paris almost a decade later. Where Before Sunrise and Before Sunsetprompt lots of dreamy ‘what if?’ questions, Before Midnight answers them, dropping in on Jesse and Celine’s lives years into a real, long-term relationship rather than teasing you with the possibility of one. Where before there was twentysomething longing and daydreaming, and then thirtysomething reflection and regret, there was now the mundane mess of fortysomething adult life, with all its complications, compromises, frustrations and resentment.
And yet, in many ways, Jesse and Celine were just the same. One of the things I loved about the first two films is the way they seemed to offer up romantic fantasy but simultaneously picked it apart. Even in Before Sunrise, Celine was teasing Jesse that he just wanted a good story about “f***ing a French girl”. The question Before Sunset poses, but never quite answers, is whether they really are the soulmates they seemed to be in the first film, or are they just idealising a brief, youthful encounter from years earlier to feel better about the subsequent decade of adult disappointment.
Before Midnight answers that question, and doesn’t. In some ways it looks like the story of a relationship in meltdown, a couple’s idealism pushed to the limit by the mundanity of middle-aged working lives and the difficulties of parenting three children, one of whom spends most of his time on the other side of the world with a woman who has never forgiven his father for leaving her for the French girl. The sequence in which Jesse and Celine lay into each other in a hotel room, and Celine storms out three times, is excruciating to watch.
But is this what we’re looking at? This is a couple who still make each other laugh, who are still sexually attracted to each other, who still talk for hours about everything under the sun, who understand each other better than anyone. If they are brutally frank with each other, they are never cruel, and even the worst insults are essentially attempts to reach out to each other. Even in the midst of that hotel room showdown there are moments of tenderness and affection. I found myself suspecting that, far from being an endgame, such high drama was business as usual in this relationship, a way of provoking each other to solve problems rather than letting them fester. The film’s conclusion was as open-ended as the one in Before Sunset, but for me the answer to the film’s central question – can romantic love, even the strongest, deepest kind, endure? – was yes.
As with Before Sunset, though, much depends on what happens after the final scene. Do they stay together or not? Whatever the answer, the ending – with its extended joke about time travel – hints at the possibility of Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater still making these films when they’re pensioners. We’re already due another one, in fact, although it doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. I’ll be a bit disappointed if they don’t make any more. For me, these films have become life companions, the characters’ ages and concerns always mirroring my own. That’s the main reason why I like them so much; each new one feels like a heart to heart with old friends who you haven’t seen for years. For future generations they will be something else, a life lesson in how your ideas and expectations of love change as you get older. Twentysomethings enraptured by Before Sunrise will have a glimpse into a more complicated future to help them figure out how things might pan out with that boy or girl they just fell for, on a train or elsewhere.
For the record, Still wasn’t prompted by a big fight on a Greek island (or even a Hebridean island). The connection is just that it’s about a long-term relationship and the compromises these involve, in particular the fact that you’re so preoccupied with children and work and other responsibilities that you have to work much harder to make time for each other (and sometimes forget). I like to think that the reason there hasn’t been a fourth Before film yet is that Jesse and Celine aren’t doing anything dramatic enough to justify one; they’re raising their kids (who must be teenagers by now, which is a whole other challenge), still talking, probably arguing sometimes, but basically doing ok.