A few of my favorite things: Cowboy Junkies’ Open (2001)

When I write, there is a certain kind of music I like to listen to. It is difficult to pin down exactly what kind of music it has to be, but I notice that most of the music has a narrative thread running through it.

Sometime in 2005, I was browsing my local library’s CD rack for new music. I don’t remember how I conducted my search exactly, but, somehow, Open fatefully caught my eye. I had not heard of the Cowboy Junkies—not surprising since they are relatively unknown outside of Canada—but I checked out the CD and listened to it.

Cowboy Junkies OpenThe opening song, “I Did It All For You,” is a haunting narrative, about death, murder, guilt, and rage. What the narrative exactly is must be teased out from the lyrics and calls for the listener to dwell on its meaning. After years of listening, I am not even sure that I can entirely define what story, or stories, it tells. But the emotions communicated throughout the song are clear, and I listen to “I Did It All For You” when I am teasing out aspects of intense scenes.

For me, the most striking part of the song is the opening lyrics: “She took his dentures from his mouth / and placed them in her own.”1 This one line encapsulates a deep love and loss. It is not uncommon for people to treasure a keepsake from a dead loved one: a piece of jewelry, clothing, etc. This is relatively common practice. But to keep an internal object from that person and internalize it oneself: that is possibly the most intimate continuation of a relationship after death. Why else do we see the romanticizing of donated organs after death? There is some idea that through these most intimate pieces of oneself, a person can live on.2

Yet the song quickly twists what might be seen as a loving gesture into something dark in the lines that follow: “Took a shovel from the shed / and then dragged him from their home.” The personal disposal of a body, while once common in past times, now indicates the cover-up of murder. The listener now knows that homicide has been committed, but why is unclear. The only hint given is that the woman “left a note tacked to the door, / “Paid in full” is what it said.” The murder is vengeance for something, but what is never explained.

The second narrative, while unclear how it links to the first, repeats the same sentiments. It does not start off as tenderly, the song already having revealed its dark undercurrent. Rather, the second narrative skips right to the cause of death and the disposal of the bodies: “He stuck his fingers in their backs / To count the holes he bore. / Doused them all in kerosene / And moved to bolt the door.” This second narrative escalates with a clearly violent act: the “holes he bored” are meant to indicate gunshot wounds to the listener, again pointing to murder. This escalation continues with the disposal of the bodies through kerosene and fire, immolation as violent to the dead as the gunshots were to the living.

Throughout the song, the hazy, echoing refrain of “I did it all for you” ghosts through and the listener is left to dwell uneasily on the bitter expression of guilt or remorse.

1. All lyrics drawn from the Cowboy Junkies.com.
2. I am thinking specifically of the 2000 film Return to Me, in which a man falls in love with the woman who was the transplant recipient of his dead wife’s heart. The title of the film alone embodies (pun intended) the idea that through organ donation a loved one can “return” to life.

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