“Happy Birthday, John” – Can’t Stop Eating EP

You may be wondering why I am yet again stepping out of chronological order (and posting a song from an EP no less).  I am posting about this song in honor of a friend and fellow sf59 fan whose birthday is today.  His name is not John but does begin with a J.  This Mr. J is and will remain a man of mystery, a man whose depths may be concealed from those content to remain dazzled (and distracted) by his constant humor.  I admit I do not know him well but want to capture what I know here with this song.  (He also requested this song specifically, so there’s that…)

Damian Jurado’s original version is folk genius.  With only an acoustic guitar, a fiddle and Jurado’s shaky, haunted voice, he paints a sonic landscape of loneliness and regret.  I can imagine an old hillbilly sitting on his porch deep in a holler in West Virginia, stuck in place drinking beer and remembering his mistakes.  JM turns this song into a ‘70s-esque classic rock anthem.  This version still paints a landscape but this time it is of people singing this in a Dazed and Confused type of party in a field after everyone’s had enough smoke and drink to start remembering their mistakes again.  The difference between the two versions is that Jurado’s version seems so terribly isolated; it makes you aware of aloneness.  JM’s version makes you aware that you aren’t the only one who has fucked up so much. There is solace in knowing you aren’t alone.

The vocals are smooth and solid.  The acoustic guitar is steady and full and is the foundation of the song with the bass and drum.  Two electric guitars, an electric piano compete throughout the song to see which will have the most nostalgic swell.  While the regret was so prominent in Jurado’s version, this version almost celebrates the pain.  I don’t know if it is reveling in the pain itself or if it is the satisfaction of surviving through struggle.

It didn’t occur to me until I started to write this that this song is so thematically similar to Pedro the Lion’s “The Poison”.  But where Jurado only hints at the devastation, Bazan rides it down the like a water slide to inevitably splash into a pool of beer, manipulation and despair.  It’s not particularly relevant here, but I find it interesting that three guys in the same circle of friends will take the same concept and express it in such different ways.

Happy birthday, John 
Where has your sweetheart gone 
She left today with one week’s pay 
And the boy she calls your son

Is the singer directing all of this at a friend or is he singing to himself in third person?  I’m not sure.  You can probably take it either way.  While the birthday mentioned here may refer to a literal birthday (as is the case with our mysterious Mr. J), it may also mean the birth into a new awareness – the awareness that the life you thought you had wasn’t really what you thought it was.  

It is the awakening to understanding that what you thought was real was fantasy.  Maybe it was a naïve illusion of what you wanted your family to be like.  It is the awakening to the realization that you really should’ve paid attention to all those red flags you ignored.  Maybe the reality is finally breaking through the façade and you understand now that the life you want takes work, particularly work on yourself.

Let’s not wait for your invitation 
Pour yourself a drink 
Think about what happened

Mr. J knows loss.  He knows disappointment.  He knows pain.  However, Mr. J does not let you see this easily.  He will dazzle you with many’a magic trick, a slight of hand to keep you distracted and entertained with jokes, random trivia and the best memes on the planet.

But I wonder if, on quiet evenings, Mr J pours a drink and thinks on what has been lost.  Does he think about his mother?  Does he remember past lovers?  Does he think about the ex-wife?  Does he regret the years and effort lost on trying to make fantasy feel like reality?  I don’t know.

Happy birthday, John 
The warning lights were on 
But you were far too gone 
To notice what went wrong

I do know that Mr. J did not stay in that state of perpetual regret.  He kept moving.    He was born into that awareness of self.  He works for what he wants.  He has a fabulous girlfriend (who is total girl crush material).  And he a funny and compassionate friend.

I am better for knowing him.  When he’s not busy making me laugh, he listens to my bizarre (and long) stories – like how I recently fulfilled a 23 year old dream by acquiring a scarf handmade by Kelley Deal of The Breeders (and design of the scarf is, I’m convinced, inspired by what Stormy Daniels wore in court hearings).  He encourages me in whatever creative thing I have going on, whether it is my writing or building new living room furniture.  And if you weren’t already convinced of his infinite patience and good character by all of that above, he shows compassion for me when I am struggling.  I am blessed to know him.

Let’s not wait for your invitation 
Pour yourself a drink 
Think about what happened

So, Mr J, pour yourself a drink and think about what happened.  But not just the loss or the times of defeat.  Think about how you stood back up and kept moving.  Think about how far you have come to be where you are and who you are right now.  I hope that makes you feel proud because it most certainly should.  Happy birthday, J.

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