Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK Day: Tom Waits, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" (2006)

A memorial holiday is a strange entity with which to attempt to cope: no matter the cause, the effect tends to be that anyone paying attention lays out maudlin feasts for the dead man that overlook and neuter his importance, and everyone else takes the day off and makes a snide joke or two. So what about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? His legend, the human monument we have made of him, risks obscuring one of the many angles of ingress into what he was able to achieve; namely, that by a simple refusal, by a radical and specific no to power that is also always a yes to possibility, to the fleeting and ineluctable newness of the moment, to the singular flash of trembling sublimity, the forces of our new and subtle totalitarianism can be brought smoking to the ground.

King was, of course, a marvelous rhetorician, and the importance of his personal charisma cannot be understated in his ability to effect mass change, but charismatic men infest every streetcorner in an age equipped with the techniques of their breeding, something that was perhaps less true in his day. His personal magnetism was an enabling condition, but for once it was not the message, the contour: if you are willing to gain a different understanding of your relationship with virtually every quantity and quality in your life, including life itself, you cannot be made to bend. You can be beaten, arrested, murdered, but as he and Gandhi before him knew, these are not victories for the State; they constitute only placeholders that by their excessive force and ideological frailty make clear just how threadbare that State has become. The question of what to do after the laws and leaders have changed is an entirely different one and perhaps even more difficult--the years since the deaths of King and his rival-turned-compatriot Malcolm X have taught us nothing if not that--but sufficient for the day are its own troubles, as another well-known passive resister once said.

Bearing all these things in mind, I give you one of Tom Waits' best songs in a career riddled with them, "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" from 2006's triple album Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. As only a bone-deep truthsayer can do, he gives us the stakes: there is no guarantee, and if you hope, you hope for reasons of your own, but spring will always follow winter, and every moment is a new and tiny possibility, another opening into a million possible worlds. That it's done rather in the style of a New Orleans second-line funeral march seems à propos, not only for Dr. King, but for this moment and other moments.

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