The singer begins playing a few chords on an acoustic guitar. Except for the flourishes in between, a seven-year-old could play the tune.
No child would want to, though. The notes are heavy, slow, and dark. Adult. Ancient, its ominous attraction led many artists to cover the ballad.
The lyrics are a tango around the rim of a volcano.
An acoustic bass joins in. Listening closely may reveal the cello–enemy of whimsy–droning deep, long notes. Inside this aural chiaroscuro the percussionist keeps time; pride is a burden here and his performance goes down as one of the more reserved in rock history.
None of these background sounds offer the listener shelter from the words the singer is about to sing.
If an award existed for the cruelest person this week, Buxster O’Meeny might take home the golden trophy, though the competition would be fierce. He began his career before his first day of school, with the playful de-winging of a fly. In class and on the playground he fell in love with pulling pigtails, name-calling, and making faces, as well as more advanced methods of childish brutality: tripping, spitball target practice, wet willies, setting fire to someone’s clothes, setting fire to someone’s hair, (and well, OK, we’ve come this far) setting fire to someone, stuffing nerds into lockers, dunking wimps in the toilet, and plagiarism.
The song is a mash-up of two earlier songs, “In the Pines” and “The Longest Train.” As a result, the meaning of the lyrics stretches until holes appear. Why was the girl gone all night? Who is the singer? What does the girl have to do with the decapitation? Where is the body?
The young singer explains nothing. His silence hints at a more sinister idea…
As Buxster grew so did his ability to hurt. He practiced often. By revealing the weakness of others, he taught himself strength.
The day he punched Linus Kosine in the gut with all his might, he ran home and celebrated by smoking three of his mother’s cigarettes, blowing the smoke into the cat’s face and, maybe, singeing its fur twice.
When he made Mrs. Morrison cry, he took five cigarettes and a gulp from the Triple XXX in the liquor cabinet.
Buxster needed others to feel his strength, and to feel the might in his limbs, because his parents allowed him none at all.
Someone once counted 160 permutations of the song.
Some describe trains, others decapitations and pines, still others a woman caught doing something illicit: “Where did you get that dress/and those shoes that are so fine?””From a man in the mines/who sleeps in the pines.”
The train runs “on the Georgia line,” which reveals the geographical origin of the song: the lower Appalachians in the American Southeast. Mentions of “Joe Brown’s mines” may refer to Georgia Governor Joseph Brown, who leased criminals to work in coal mines in the 1870’s.
The two most familiar, vastly different versions, Lead Belly’s from 1944 and Bill Monroe’s from 1941, represent two still lifes of America’s gory, grubby underbelly. The distance between Lead Belly’s Shreveport and Monroe’s western Kentucky, between either and the Upper Left, as well as the chronological time between Joseph Brown’s 1870’s Georgia and the early 1990’s are meaningless.
Darkness takes center stage, this daring singer our guide.
He grew up with his mother; if his father visited he either ignored or beat Buxster. He never understood how to get his old man to accept him, or tell him “Love you, son!”
One day he brought his father a can of beer and got a burning cigarette on his forearm. Buxster thought of running away but it was hard to run after his father whipped his calves with a coat hanger.
The teachers went too fast in school. Buxster also read but his comic books told tales of heroes swooping in to save victims at the last minute, and he was losing interest fast. To him those stories meant nothing.
The final verse is sung in a higher register, too challenging for his tinny, white-boy voice. Yet his vocal performance crowns him as a voice for all. So weak, so human, so lost. We strain and strive but remain forever condemned to revisit the pines “where the sun never shines” to “shiver the whole night through.”
Coincidentally, authority figures forced the left-handed singer as a child to write right-handed. Four of the many effects of such actions include bad handwriting (see suicide note), being withdrawn, defiant and provocative behavior, and a neurotic personality.
Making him write right-handed packed his bags. His parents divorce helped him choose directions. The drugs paid for his ticket.
Buxster came home to an empty house. His father’s absence surprised no one, but his missing mother terrified him. On the kitchen table lay a note written in his mother’s handwriting which he stuffed into his pocket. He wanted to spare himself.
He called child services. His old life vanished forever, and the knowledge kicked his insides with steel-tipped boots. Buxster choked back tears before telling the woman where he lived.
One day on the beach, Buxster snuck up behind a dweeb who stood on his towel. He yanked the towel out and laughed till his insides hurt when the boy fell on his face. Now as someone pulled the ground out from under his feet, the universe laughed. Worse, his guts collapsed with the knowledge that no one wanted or loved him.
He became his own pupil, out of which no light escaped.
The audience gapes like witnesses of a car crash on the highway. They marvel at the artist’s power to conjure this hideous underworld around them – one they lack the testicular fortitude to view. No one accuses the singer of timidity. Or inauthenticity.
He bravely sounds the depths of darkness, draws maps anyone can navigate. He names landmarks inside this bleak world children still repeat thirty years later. The vocalist, with this steady, dreary, and somber tune, grabs the listener by the ears and drags him or her through the gutters of his Hades.
A little over four and a half months later, he is gone, a victim of the eternity found in the long black smoking barrels of a shotgun.
Buxster O’Meeny was destitute. Sending lifelines out to connect with something out in the void remained the only way for the hurt little boy within to cry for help. He grew a beard, studied business when his foster parents had computers. He held jobs until those families gave up on him.
Buxster listened to no music, watched no TV. Kids on other planets enjoyed sports, games, and pets.
Nights he lay on his cot painting pictures of abundant futures in his head. People would kneel and bow, and he might step on their fingers sauntering by.
The higher the walls, the farther the mind does wander…
Another version mentions the train whose “engine passed at six o’clock and the cab passed by at nine.” A train that long is an idea. The idea of progress; it is civilization drilling through Nature’s glorious landscapes, cold, merciless. Only the most foolish travel crosswise to its path.
This train rides until the tracks run out.
This metal serpent cannot roll by itself, and needs men to lay tracks, feed the engine, build cars and wheels. Others must build the factories making the trains. These buildings need electricity and smelting furnaces. People must be educated to understand how to design and make the trains, build the factories, and educate those doing these jobs.
In short, the construction of this Black Death Train is a communal effort. We are all guilty of its construction, all desperate and despairing enough to lend our support, or to feed the darkness from which such ideas emanate.
What happens to people not interested in trains? Do we label them drugged-out loons because they find the concept sick, and kill themselves in light of the futility of resistance?
Buxster shuffled through the endless desert under a sickle moon, kicking up clouds of dust.
Sand coated his mouth and his throat, parched wallpaper in Satan’s den. Lack of water and food would soon be his undoing.
The moon neither rose nor set. Time stood still.
Pine forests are dark indeed. Southern Germany’s conifer-rich woodlands are known as the Black Forest. Here the evil witch tried to bake Hänsel.
Little light–or water–reaches the forest floor. The barrenness underneath these evergreens is telling. A wayward seed trying to grow under the arms of thick pines is forlorn. For clarity’s sake the word may be defined as:
pitifully sad and abandoned or lonely.
Buxster discovered guns in Erebus. A “friend” named Epialos brought him to a shooting range. Until then a dull buzzsaw carved his mind. Sitting still was impossible and a rash spread on his left arm. The itching made him scream and hit things.
Shooting a gun, he perceives the voice of god.
Later that evening drifting in and out of sleep, often with an erection, he finds himself in his usual desert. Towers of night arise along the horizon. They stretch from ground to stars, night sentinels marching forwards. Lone towers swallow trees, a mineral-rich mountain, a herd of buffalo.
One ingests Buxster and he falls. Sure his descent will drive him mad, he prays for something to break his fall, though crashing means certain death.
Buxster slows. Floating interminably, he grasps for things near him, things which might anchor him in the terrible, endless blackness without meaning or shelter. The door to a bank is locked.
A skimpily-clad young woman turns to ash as he grazes her.
At last he seizes a handle, and he reels himself to solid ground with it. His hand grips a pistol butt. His thumb, however, rests inside the trigger guard, and his fingers snake around the weapon’s back strap. The barrel points at his face.
Movement either rips him from his safe space or pulls the trigger. He tries not to breathe or move, but he is weary and cannot hold on forever…
At 3:51 of the song, after bleating out “shiver” with closed eyes, the singer’s voice cracks, fails. He gets “the whole” out before his eyes fly open with shock and surprise, as though convinced he is not where he thought. The final two words spill out.
The darkness is inside him, and he may, at any time, lose himself within its endless folds.
When the lights go out primal memory is activated. We peruse the wholesale destruction or enslavement of creatures and people weaker than us which accompanied every advancement in history, and, because we understand this fact, when the gloom washes over us we suspect we might be next on the list.
The song is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”–from Nirvana’s “Unplugged” album, recorded at a time when Kurt Cobain unavoidably hurtled toward eternal night.
Combatting this most potent darkness–the one inside–has made casualties of the best of us. Our smallest children sound the alarms in their cribs every night, but adults are conditioned to react only to the seen. Voluntary blindness is a prison, a pandemic, ubiquitous, and half-assed solutions like drugs and alcohol work no better than other ones. Sensitive people plug headphones in to quash the silence, and leave the TV on all night to hold the darkness at bay.
Buxster awakes feeling drained, goes outside at dawn. One of the peaks holds a torch over the mountains, chasing away night’s hindmost sentinels. Despite its position so far away in space, and so low in the sky, solar warmth still touches him.
Despite his mortal weaknesses, and being unable to love or be loved, despite his minuscule entry in the Big Book of Good Deeds, the sun still warms him. This golden light welcomes all.
Sunlight pierces the deepest oceans of Buxster’s dark places. Encouraged, he hurls his lowly doubts, fears and crooked ambitions at this Great Fireball. Its response, he thinks, shall judge whether they deserve the weight he attaches to them…
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