My Pop Life #148 : Lost Highway – Hank Williams

Lost Highway   –   Hank Williams

I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost
For a life of sin I have paid the cost
When I pass by all the people say
Just another guy on the lost highway

Late ’88 I’m driving down Highway 20 towards El Paso, Texas.  Apart from ordering food and gas I haven’t spoken to anyone for over three days,  I’m almost out of money, my credit card has started bouncing and it’ll be Christmas in 4 days.  I think it’s possibly the most all alone and lost I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m kind of happy in a self-pityingly dramatic kind of way.  O Me Misererum.  One of life’s natural wallowers in misery, (wallow, not wallflower) I was pretty vacant, alone, solo, half-empty and broke.  Mile after mile after mile of desert scrub, punctuated by dull dipping oil derricks and the odd bridge.  The lost highway.  Abilene.  I knew that from a Nanci Griffith song. Lone Star State of Mind, deep in the fart of Texas.   There was a kind of masochistic pointlessness to the drive which suited me perfectly.

I’d gone into Auto Driveaway in Washington D.C. on December 16th and got a car to deliver.  You give them a deposit of $200 and get five days to drive to say, Dallas.  If you drive like a wanker, which is not allowed but who’s checking, you can spend a day somewhere along the route and still deliver on time.  I drove like a wanker through Virginia and West Virginia and crashed out in a motel in Bristol, Eastern Tennessee on day 1, got to Nashville on Day 2 (noted previously in My Pop Life #83) spent all of Day 3 in Nashville bopping around, drove to Memphis on Day 4 and mooched around Graceland and Beale St, got ripped off by the Mack man to the tune of $350 which is most of what I had on me, then delivered the car to an address in Dallas on Day 5 after driving through Arkansas.  

Oh you want more on the Mack man?  The phrase has now gone out of use thanks to the computer age, but you might have heard of the Mack Daddy, also going out of use.  We heard about him the following spring when I returned to D.C. with my new girlfriend Jenny for an awards ceremony.  A barbecue at a Hubert’s yard, one fella had delighted us in spinning his rap on The MackMan.  He’s the man who you can’t trust.  He’s a good talker.  He’s on your side.  He can help you get what you want, what you need.  He’s your buddy.  Oh yeah, he’s good, real good.  Then he fucks off with your money.  That’s who the mac man is.  He’s a pimp.  He’s a hustler.  The Mack Man can spot a fool from 40 paces, and wandering on Beale St, Memphis, birth of the fucking blues, he’d seen me.  Would you walk away from a Fool and His Money ?   So that was that, on the road again, Memphis had come and gone and been really great by the way, love that city, and when I’d delivered the car, the grateful owner did the decent thing and driven me to the Autodriveaway office in downtown Dallas – thence to choose a new car.  I chose the red open top 2-seater Mercedes from 1967. Can’t remember why. Where’s that car going?  I asked. It doesn’t work like that she said, where are you going?  I looked at her, short and frumpy and bad-tempered.  Not a very American attitude. They are usually so friendly and generous and willing.  She was a cow.   I’m not going anywhere I said.   No plans.  No destination.  She looked at me like I’d tricked her.  I was supposed to have a destination. I just genuinely didn’t have one.   I’d lost my UK girlfriend Rita earlier in 1988, and although I was seeing someone in England it didn’t feel official at all.   I’d had a relationship in Washington D.C., which lasted until I left town at the beginning of rehearsals and mongrel shagger Paul had stepped into my shoes and my girlfriend’s bed.  So now I was licking wounds and driving WEST WHEREVER.  I was as alone and lost as I’ll ever be in all likelihood.  I didn’t say all that.  But I wasn’t lying.  No destination, no expectations.  So she gave me the Mercedes.  It was going to Phoenix, Arizona. Another five-day ride.

I figured Texas would be boring but I was still stultified and unprepared for just how   b  o  r  i  n  g Highway 20 was. I drove into El Paso on the afternoon of Day 3, found a hotel and then drove into Juarez across the bridge over the Rio Grande.  It was Mexico.  First time I’d been there since 1980 (see My Pop Life #31).  

The bridge was the border, but not really.   I had some proper Mexican food and crossed back into the USA and slept.   The following day I drove out towards New Mexico and crossed the actual border about 5 miles outside El Paso on Highway 10.   Passport, everything. The little red Merc was driving well, guzzling gas, and I had to choose gas stations where they didn’t have the new-fangled credit card machines that were electronically connected to the bank and the rest of the world.  I sought out the ones with a piece of grey tracing paper that got rubbed over your card leaving a blackish imprint which you had to sign. Then I could fill up, and make sure I bought provisions too.  The electronic machines refused the Access Card – I was over my limit. Oh well. Made me feel more like an outlaw.

The reality was dull and lonely of course.  The lonely road.  Actually the road in New Mexico is pretty special, one of the great drives I’ve been on.  Red baked earth, blue sky, adobe dwellings and building, grey tarmac.  Country music on the radio mainly.  Washington D.C. And the theatre company who’d stabbed me in the back dwindled further and further into the distance.   Ahead of me was nothing.  It was a strange glorious empty sad feeling.  The white lines, the rolling tyres, the sun treading across the sky, the minutes ticking past, the gas tank slowly emptying, the feelings of sorrow and freedom, the man alone driving into the future, the rolling stone, all alone and lost, as night falls once more, a few more miles, a few more and there’s a cheap motel, there’s a place to crash, a parking lot, a giant empty sky. But, being a romantic, I stubbed my eyes upon the wheeling spokeshave of the stars.

Alun Lewis wrote that last line – one of my Dad’s favourites. Nicked it for the first play I ever wrote “Drive Away The Darkness” which itself is a quote from a Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise‘. Irony as one imagines his wandering fingers brought a fair bit of Darkness into young girl’s lives over the years.

Tombstone, Arizona

On Day 5 I rolled into Phoenix after a brief look round Tombstone and the Boothill Graveyard, resting place of the Clanton brothers, murdered by Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil, Warren and Morgan and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.  The so-called gunfight lasted around 20 seconds and established the Earp family as ascendant in this part of the West. They became the law, literally, which is to say that Wyatt Earp became sheriff.   Much of the history of the U.S.A. has this violent gangster-ised quality (as does the history of man in general I hasten to add) where the winners write the history and the “good guys” always win.  I had always wanted to write the true history of Tombstone, a kind of anti-history where the Clantons are the heroes who get murdered.  But that’s the kind of warped twerp I am – always running against the wind, swimming against the tide.  

Well, now the tide had dumped me in Phoenix, where the Reverend Diane had said I would have my turning point when I spoke with her in D.C.   And you know, when people predict things, sometimes they do come true.   Maybe particularly if you want them to.   I delivered the car and back at the office was told that I couldn’t take the next car to Los Angeles.  Why ?  Because it was Christmas Eve today, LA was only a one-day delivery, and the office was closed on Christmas Day. They couldn’t give me the car for an extra day !!   No no.  No. So where was I going ?   The same old question.  What you got?  I asked.  They had Portland, Oregon.  That was like driving into winter, but it was further West.  And way further North.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that car.  And this Brown Oldsmobile is going to Dallas, Texas.  Where I’d been five days earlier.  Turning point ?  Rising from the ashes ?  The definition of futility ?  Time to stop all of these rolling stone fantasies and go back home ?  Not quite.

Hank Williams was a major influence on country music in America despite dying at the young age of 29. Born with spina bifida, he used pain killers and alcohol all his life especially after an accident led to further pain. From Montgomery, Alabama, Hank (christened Hiram) learned guitar chords and turnarounds from black blues singer Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, a fact he acknowledged years later. He recorded his first hit Move It On Over in 1947 after slogging around the circuit for years, spending the war shipbuilding in Mobile, Alabama and singing for the sailors in the evenings.  The spinal injury and another fall had excused him from service but he was already an alcoholic. Roy Acuff, country music pioneer told him “You have a million-dollar talent son, but a ten cent brain.”  Move It On Over was a huge hit, and Hank Williams spent the next six years playing live and recording his 31 singles before dying on a car journey between gigs in 1952. 

Lost Highway was written by Leon Payne, a blind country singer, and its combination of doomed romantic drifter schtick and self-mythologising misogyny was perfect for Williams.  It was also perfect for my self-pitying road trip, a man searching for his soul, for himself, a man who had never been single in his adult life but was trying it on for size and frankly, hating it.  Little did I know (or did I?) that the most important relationship of my entire life was literally days away.  

Hank Williams Sr sings to Hank Williams Jr

Lost Highway was a minor hit for Williams but remains a major song.   Dylan and Joan Baez sing it in Don’t Look Back the famous Pennebaker documentary from 1965.  It remains the anthem for the single man.  

Lost Highway is also a fantastic book by that greatest of music writers Peter Guralnick, author of Last Train To Memphis and Careless Love the two-part Elvis Presley biography, as well as books about soul music, blues, Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips. Lost Highway is a personal review of the history of American music, featuring Ernest Tubb, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, and Sleepy LaBeef.   It’s absolutely brilliant.  

I started driving back to Dallas on Christmas Day 1988.

 

 

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My Pop Life #137 : The Word/Sardines – Junkyard Band

The Word/Sardines   –   Junkyard Band

My mother went down to the foodstamp line…

1988 Washington D.C.    I was undecided.  Thinking about work-shopping my play Sanctuary for a new city, a new country, new circumstances.  Sanctuary had been produced the previous year by Joint Stock Theatre Group and toured the UK from Salisbury to Newcastle.  I wrote about it in My Pop Life #86.   Sanctuary was a rap musical about homeless teenagers and based around London’s Centrepoint Shelter and the cardboard city at Waterloo, as well as the bed-and-breakfast policies of most of the London boroughs in the mid-80s.  An American Theatre Company called The No-Neck Monsters had seen the show at The Drill Hall and asked me if I’d like to re-stage it in Washington D.C.  I said “No” of course, but later wondered whether I should investigate when they said they would fly me to D.C. to meet them and look around the city.    I arrived in Washington in late June ’88 and was met at the airport by Gwendoline Wynne and Helen Patton who ran the theatre company.  We drank, chatted, ate and I crashed.  Later I met D.C. actor Eric Dellums who was in Spike Lee’s School Daze and bought a $40 selection of go-go records, the local funk music.  I should note in passing that there was also a thriving punk scene in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, producing local groups like Fugazi and their predecessors Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Embrace.  Henry Rollins  is from D.C. (years before Black Flag and LA).  But I didn’t know about that then.  Shame – it would have been an interesting element for the play.

Chapter III nightclub, 1988

Next we spent night after night trying to get into go-go clubs to check the pulse of the scene.  Washington D.C. is called Chocolate City because the population is 80% black and often we are the only white people in evidence when we do get allowed in – I keep failing the no-sneakers rule.  Chapter III in SW Washington let us in eventually and the manager Adolphe took a shine to us and showed me the DJ booth where we watched some scratching and I was taught “The Butt“, a local dance, by a fat boy – the current hit single by E.U. or Experience Unlimited, also featured in the School Daze film.

Junkyard Band 1986

We carried on walking around the streets talking to homeless kids about their experiences.  Often they would be busking, we met one group on Capitol Hill on July 4th who ranged from 10-13 years old playing upside down buckets and jam-jars with a go-go beat.  They called themselves ‘High Profit’ and their heroes were The Junkyard Band.  The following day another young group at Dupont Circle were playing the buckets and cans, watched over by their mum.  They were called Backyard and clearly hoping for a hit record like their heroes Junkyard who’d been signed to Def Jam.  The fact that E.U. had a track in a Spike Lee joint had the go-go scene buzzing, and a few days later we went to an outside event at Brandywine, Maryland for a go-go spectacular to see local heroes JunkyardLittle Benny & The Masters, Hot Cold Sweat, Rare Essence and Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers.   This was a roll-call of the top go-go scene bands.  Temperatures were mid-80s and upwards.  Once again, Helen and I were pretty much the only white people there.

Bowie T-shirt !

Cycle shorts, hi-top sneakers and gold chains were the order of the day.  People posed for photographs in front of painted backdrops of Cadillacs, thrones and jewellry for $5 a picture.  The best one was Fred Flintstone with gold chains, diamond rings and Adidas sneakers with a speech bubble : “How Ya Like Me Now?”   Two dimensional images of wealth and status for the black American dreamers.  Another guy was selling T-shirts with crack slang:  ‘Beam Me Up Scotty‘ and on the back ‘Don’t Let Scotty Get Your Body‘.   I bought one, and for the rest of the summer people in D.C. asked me where I’d got it from.  The huge difference between Sanctuary UK and Sanctuary DC was crack cocaine.  We were surrounded by it here.  Teenagers openly flashing rolls of $100 bills.  Crack is the short cut to status and money and is inextricably linked to the murder rate.  Adolphe told me he wouldn’t allow go-go nights in Chapter III anymore after shooting incidents.  Ironically the go-go scene itself is anti-crack – a new supergroup had just released a 12″ single called D.C. Don’t Stand For Dodge City.  But it was entirely clear to me that if I decided to come back here and re-write my play,  crack would have to be part of the storyline.

But the other huge issue was race.  Fear.  Oppression.  Hate.  Only 20 years previously there had been Jim Crow laws in Washington : whites-only drinking fountains, rest-rooms, cinemas and lunch bars.  You could still feel it around the city.  I was cycling around like a naive white liberal poking my nose into communities who were selling drugs to survive, and it was killing them, literally.

One day I cycled down to a homeless shelter south of the Capitol building, and went in to meet the people who ran it.  On my way out I was surrounded by a group of angry and curious black men who wanted to know what I was doing there.  I explained that I was researching for a play about homelessness.  “You is European” one of them said, as an accusation.  Yes, I replied, I am English.  He didn’t mean that.  He meant I was white.  One scary-looking dude prowled around the edge of the circle of men like a caged tiger, a challenging look in his eye, flashing his coat open now and again to show me a 12-inch blade.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t racist – that I saw a colour-blind future.  Why the hell did I say that ?  I probably did feel that way in 1988.  I don’t anymore.  At all.  That will never happen.  I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between The World & Me and here my current racial politics lies.  Resistance.  By all means necessary.  Non-violence ?  The establishment doesn’t respect it.  So why keep showing these 1960s civil rights scenes of black people being beaten?  No.  We’re entering a new paradigm I believe.  Or going back to an old one. Malcolm X.  The Panthers.  Enough is enough.

For some reason in downtown D.C. in 1988 this group of angry homeless black men heard some degree of non-hate in my voice and parted to allow me to cycle away.   Perhaps I had acknowledged their pain and circumstance, and they’d recognised that.  Or perhaps they’d meant no harm in the first place.

1988 was the final year of Reaganomics – the famous trickle-down bullshit – referenced by the Valentine Brothers on their seminal single Money’s Too Tight To Mention.  The Junkyard Band reference Reagan on The Word

Reagan gave The Pentagon the foodstamp money

and waiting in the wings was George Bush Sr, about to defeat Dukakis in the presidential election by calling him a liberal, as if it was a curse word.

Go-Go was born in Washington D.C. and can be traced right back to the 1960s – the word was originally a name for a club, as in Smokey Robinson’s Going To A Go-Go (1965) – and it developed as a live call-and-response form of funk music, hugely influenced by James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Grover Washington, among others, and using cowbell, congas and other percussion instruments to create a more latin or african groove.  The music has brass and the word “boogie” seemingly permanently in evidence, other dance tunes are often quoted, and it is best experienced live, since there was rarely a break between songs, any talking was done while the band played.

Chuck Brown has been credited with being the Godfather of Go-Go – perhaps he made the nation aware of it with his huge hit Bustin’ Loose in 1978, but he’d been around since the mid-60s.   Other exponents Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built the go-go house on solid ground alongside E.U. and others during the golden years of the 1980s.   Come to think of it the previous piece of music I’ve written about from Washington D.C. has some of this feel – Julia & Company’s Breaking Down (Sugar Samba) (see My Pop Life #50) has a great deal of cowbell !

Junkyard Band

Junkyard Band started out in 1980 with members as young as nine playing on buckets and cans and bottles and traffic cones and they would add an instrument when they could afford it. By 1985 they were honed into a funky percussion ensemble that rapped more than the other acts, had less horns and had a defining street-edge.  Def Jam Records signed them and in 1986 Rick Rubin produced the double A-side  The Word, flipside Sardines, now their signature tune.

They are still playing together in Washington and elsewhere.

My Pop Life #83 : Country Boy – Ricky Skaggs

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Country Boy   –   Ricky Skaggs

I may look like a city slicker

shinin’ up through the shoes

underneath I’m just a cotton picker

pickin’ out a mess of blues

show me where I start

find a horse and cart

I’m just a country boy, country boy at heart…

I didn’t know what was going on.  Late ’88.  I seemed to have stopped being an actor for a while and become a writer – again.  My play Sanctuary had won the Samuel Beckett Award and been picked up by an American theatre company from Washington D.C. called The No-Neck Monsters.  I’d re-written it for the nation’s capital after a short but intense workshop period (will be another post) and a six-week writing period when I lived in Adams Morgan next door to a beautiful black/cherokee mix woman called Debbie who worked at the Pentagon.  A gang of us went to a Baltimore Orioles game, and Debbie and I started to have an affair.  I noticed that one of my actors – Paul – got annoyed about this – but – hey – that’s life.   But once I’d delivered the play to director Gwen Wynne it was time to go back to England, London, and my single man status – although I was seeing someone there too…

A few weeks of rehearsal passed to which I was not invited (!) – and I came back for the thrilling opening night of Sanctuary D.C. as the play was now called – it was still a rap musical with beats, but now some of them had music too thanks to brilliant MD Scott Richards – and the final song had me in floods of tears.  It was a spectacular experience watching the play again, and a kick in the teeth and guts to find that Debbie and Paul had become an item in my absence.   Not only that but half the company had turned on me too, no doubt to bolster Paul’s righteous behaviour. Shocked, I slept with her one last time in my fury then cut and run for it.   I went west.   In a car.

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Auto-Driveaway is a company which delivers cars for people, all over the US and Canada.  They need drivers.  I went to the office in D.C., showed my licence, gave them a $200 deposit and took a car for delivery.  There was a vast choice – I chose Dallas, Texas.  I had five days to get there and a full tank.  After that ran out it was up to me, and I could deliver it empty.  I quickly calcuated that if I drove like the clappers (what are they?) on the first two days, then I could stay in Nashville, Tennessee for two nights and one whole day.  I should give this trip a name because it became epic and legendary for all the wrong reasons – but not this section.  Driving over the Appalachians through West Virginia then looking down at the map to see your progress makes you realise how vast America is.  I went to Dollywood – a brief detour (see My Pop Life #46) but it was closed.  Back in the car and carry on.  Radio stations come and go as you pass through towns on the Interstate Highway.  No hitch-hikers anywhere, unlike 23 years earlier when Simon Korner and I had gone coast to coast and beyond with the mighty thumbs of yore.  (See My Pop Life #30 for the early part of this trip on the same road).  Just me and the road, hour after hour after hour.   On the outskirts of Nashville I pick up a gospel radio station.  Then a country station.  Then there’s an ad (a commercial spot in the local vernacular) for The Grand Ole Opry.  I immediately drive there and buy a ticket for that very night, check into my motel 6 and put on my best cowboy boots.

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Grand Ole Opry is a nightly live radio show that goes out across the Nashville area, and beyond thanks to the internet.  It takes place in a large auditorium which showcases country music, bluegrass, folk and has it’s own hall of fame.  It started in 1928 as a barn dance and it is the longest-running radio show in America.  Elvis Presley (My Pop Life #80) only played here once in 1954 and was told to go back to driving trucks.  The Byrds played in 1968 when Gram Parsons was producing Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and got cat-called by the conservative redneck audience as “longhairs”.   It’s an American Institution.  The night I went (December 17th 1988) I was lucky enough to see the great bluegrass legend Bill Monroe hosting a segment of the 9.30pm show which also included country hall-of-fame members Porter Wagoner, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Charlie Louvin and Ricky Skaggs.   I was in country heaven.

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Is it weird that at the same exact time that I was buying all the hip hop singles and LPs that were released, I was also busy discovering and digging on country music? Thanks to new releases by k.d.lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Patty Loveless.  Kenneth Cranham had fed my country fever with a C90, I was buying Dolly & Willie, NWA & Public Enemy, Hank and Reba.  I was a schizo muso mentalist.  Down to the record store, come home with EPMD and Nanci Griffith, Big Daddy Kane and The Judds (see My Pop Life #6).   I didn’t see any contradiction there at all.

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I didn’t care about Ricky’s image, he’s a genius

Ricky Skaggs blew my mind that night, among all those legendary performers, names who had been playing for decades – he was one of the youngest performers there.   He played a song called Country Boy which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – his band nailing an impossibly fast bluegrass instrumental section that is quite literally Instru-Mental.   When I listen to the song I inevitably think that the drummer must be playing too fast.  He appears to be hurrying them along – the effect is quite odd.  Very exciting music.  Skaggs was at the forefront of a generation of younger musicians at the time who were taking music back to its roots, away from pop-country and the Nashville mainstream.    Bluegrass was born in the United States from musical folk roots in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, with jazz influences from the South.  Ricky Skaggs is a master of the genre.  He has won multiple Grammys and is a demon on the mandolin and guitar.  Featured image

Featured imageI went out to Ernest Tubbs Music Store in Nashville the next morning and bought the seven-inch single of Country Boy.    A treasured possession.    I am a country boy after all, Cambridge -born and Sussex bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head, despite my education, I am pretty thick in the head.   A young soul, picking things up along the way – oh ! is that how it works?  Right…. very little natural wisdom.   Almost a naïf at times.   I love the country, the seasons changing, the leaves, the insects, particularly the butterflies, the birds, the streams, the mud, the flowers, the hedgerows, the farms, the wind, the sky.   It’s my natural habitat.   I am a country boy at heart!    Take it away Ricky.

This is how I first experienced ‘Country Boy’ – live :

My Pop Life #6 : She Is His Only Need – Wynonna Judd

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She Is His Only Need  – Wynonna Judd

…he’d heard about something she wanted…

Late 80s, somewhere in Acton rehearsal rooms, fellow actor Kenneth Cranham gives me a C90 cassette he’d made up of his favourite country songs.  He’d caught me listening to Dwight Yoakum and Lyle Lovett on an NME “New Country” giveaway cassette and asked if I knew Nanci Griffith ? Patti Loveless? The Judds ?  This was the 3rd job I’d done with Ken in a short space of time, and we’d become a gang, and subsequently he’d turned me onto so much great music, mainly country. He is an addictive aficionado like me.  I loved The Judds on first listen.  A mother and daughter team, strong clean harmonies on beautiful songs like Drops Of Water or Why Not Me ?  But this is the daughter Wynonna going solo in 1992 – the year we got married – with a Dave Loggins song.  Her mother Naomi had been diagnosed with Hepatitus C, and retired.  It’s a special song, a typical country vignette of a two lives intertwined in two verses and a chorus – a simple story of love and family.  It touches me deeply : there’s a moment in the second verse which goes from her first pregnancy to old age in a few graceful lines – brilliant lyrics can do this :

Bonnie worked until she couldn’t tie her apron
Then stayed at home and had the first of two children
And my, how the time did fly
The babies grew up and moved away
Left ’em sitting on the front porch rocking
And Billy watching Bonnie’s hair turn gray

but really you have to hear the melody to get the emotional heft of those few lines.  The chorus is the thing though :

He’d heard about something she wanted – and it just had to be found.

This has become a catchphrase for Jenny and I, we use it as a joke, as a tactic, as a sincere explanation. It’s woven into our relationship just like this song.  Sometimes the little things are the things.  It’s a song about love.