Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Billie Joe McAllister/Richard Cory

In early 1977, I was 11 and madly in love with Robbie Benson, straight from the pages of "Tiger Beat" magazine. Somehow all my begging wrangled my getting dropped off at a theater by myself to see Benson's '76 movie "Ode to Billie Joe," based on the '67 Bobbie Gentry song. I completely did NOT get the theme of the movie, which (unlike the song) was that Billie Joe had jumped off the bridge in shame because he was gay! (My mom had to, after reading reviews of the movie, explain it to me afterward when I asked her.) Even at 11, I just thought Billie Joe and the (female) narrator of the song had broken off their relationship (very traumatic at that age, no need for "gay" to intensify it) and that Billie Joe never could fit in and had a sense of malaise about life in general. (In '77, "malaise" was actually a common term in pop culture thanks to a recent Jimmy Carter speech.) I think, despite my misunderstanding of the movie, that my initial 11-year-old emotional perception of the song was right.



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And then later, in college, I read Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory" of 1897:

WHENEVER Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.



and heard Simon and Garfunkel's corresponding '60s song...



The same exact "Billie Joe" sensation that I'd felt 8 or 9 years earlier. The same loneliness and "malaise" of spirit. I'm both Billie Joe and his girlfriend, and Richard Cory and the envious townsman watching him. Made me incredibly sad, but also gave me a sense of "belonging" to the overarching spirit of sadness permeating the universe. Other people have felt sad like I have felt sad. It felt good in its way to experience, second-hand. The sense of being outside of it and watching others commenting on it. The only difficulty is... sometimes you get drawn back in, to where the whole thing isn't second-hand any more and you find that you've just descended into the actual maelstrom yet again.

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Speaking of suicide: I woke up a couple of days ago utterly sick of all the constant struggle for everything, wondering wildly how I could go out: "I have about $1500 in the bank. I'll go back and get a hotel room in New York City and spend my last days there." But the second that thought occurred to me, then a second thought immediately occurred to me: "If I go back and get a hotel room in New York, then the city's going to put me in a really great mood and I won't feel like dying any more and then I'll just be alive and completely out of money." Oh Jesus. The stupidity of the Dilemma made me laugh.

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