"If you could save me a place in heaven
With a clean well lighted room
I'll muscle up to Armageddon
And I'll wave to you darlin' be home soon."--Shawn Colvin, "Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)," written by Shawn Colvin and John Leventhal, from Colvin’s Fat City CD (1992)
In his Republic, Plato called for banning “harmonies expressive of sorrow,” as they did not comport with his ideal of “the essential forms of temperance, courage, liberality, magnanimity, and their kindred.”
I wouldn’t go that far— at times, inchoate but overwhelming emotions need to be given form before they can be purged. And sometimes you not only need to grieve, or just vent the disorders of your heart, but also hear how someone else has journeyed into fear, and come out beyond it.
But sometimes you need to leave the sad songs to the side, at least for a little while, and move on. And in those instances you need more than simple stoicism in the face of what “Invictus” poet W.E. Henley called “the fell clutch of circumstance.”
In those situations, I think that Shawn Colvin’s uplifting song from her Fat City CD rises to the occasion. In fact, Plato might even be willing to allow this rather slyly subversive tune slip into the curriculum of his highly regimented ideal state.
“I Don’t Know Why,” another song from Fat City that has become one of the most popular songs of Colvin’s career, might also stand for my perplexity about why “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)” didn’t exceed it—or much of the singer-songwriter’s later work—in popularity. It had an unobtrusive but expressive Bruce Hornsby on piano, ace producer John Leventhal at the controls, vocals by Colvin at her most self-assured—and the above wry, allusive lyrics by Colvin and Leventhal.
To be sure, there are some who recognized the song for the standard it should have been, and, in the hands of an influential interpreter, might still become. For awhile, it was the theme song of the series Party of Five, and it also appeared on the soundtrack of the peerless Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt dramedy, As Good As It Gets.
But it’s never really received the same type of attention as the forceful but very, very, very downbeat Sunny Came Home. I’m sure Colvin performed the song live early in her career, but I’m not aware that she’s done so more recently.
(At least, I haven’t seen it among Colvin’s live CDs, nor her live performances on YouTube. The one performance I found of this song was by the a capella troupe USC Reverse Osmosis. A member of the group from a few years ago, Natalie Storrs, delivered a powerhouse version of the song in this YouTube clip.)
If Colvin doesn’t play this much anymore, it’s unfortunate. In this song, she doesn’t want to survive gloom—she wants to kick it to the ground and soar over its remains. So early on, she urges, “So let’s give it up sad bones/’Cause we all fall on hard times.” And shortly, she’s about to become playful.
The best place you can see it is in the quartet of lines I’ve quoted above. She’s putting together a pair of well-known titles you wouldn’t think of mashing up—Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “Darling, Be Home Soon,” by the John Sebastian-fronted folk-rock group of the Sixties, the Lovin’ Spoonful—then bending them to her own purpose. (She changes one word from the Hemingway short-story title—“Place” to “Room”—to fit her rhyme scheme.)
Slipped between those allusions is a lyric not merely unusual, but unforgettable: “I’ll muscle up to Armageddon.” It introduces the theme she addresses in the next stanza: the overturning of sexual stereotypes.
Addressing the (unheard) male of the song, she announces that, for relating to her “the story of love,” he can be “the woman you need/If you just let me be the man I am.” It’s an exchange of gender roles: he’ll take on the thoughtful/sensitive trait traditionally associated with women while she assumes the strength long thought, in the code of machismo, to belong to men.
The song is, in fact, something of an argument with the Hemingway code. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is as succinct an expression of the existential despair facing modern man as any in the entire canon of Papa. An old man, only a week removed from a suicide attempt, hangs out in a café--the “clean, well-lighted place” of the title--in contrast to a dank, dingy bar, where depression can cling to all within. The café is a quiet refuge, but still, all who pass through, such as the old man, must negotiate by themselves with the struggle against “nada,” which is present everywhere. (As in the parody of the Lord’s Prayer that climaxes the story: “Our nada who are in nada, nada by thy name…”)
None of this is in Colvin's worldview. Taking on the world and its nadas is easier when done with two, including one ready to shoulder a heavy emotional burden (“a back that’s strong”).
Before I had an iPod, or even a sizable CD collection, I had Fat City on tape cassette, a form that lent itself to my car studio system. A good many times, even when I had arrived at my destination, if “Climb On” were still playing, I wouldn't turn off the car but instead allow the song to continue to the end, letting Colvin’s soaring voice envelope me like a folk-rock balm in Gilead. It gives me hope that I, too, against all odds, can “muscle up to Armageddon.”