I wish I was in Austin
In the Chili Parlor Bar
Drinking Mad Dog Margaritas
And not caring where you are
Beat that for a socking great emotional thump. It’s got it all, the homesickess, the short, sharp evocation of a place and a time where you were at ease, at home in your own skin and not tormented by love and longing. It leads you in to the song’s world of broken-heartedness, of asking for forgiveness, of the wealth of experiences which cannot take away the emotional pain.
I’ve been in Austin, but not to the Chili Parlor Bar. In fact, it’s only recently I discovered it is a real place. I’d heard the song many times, but never read the lyrics, and always thought it was a ‘chilly’ bar – you know, it was a bit draughty, or they were being a little stingy with the heating. I should have realised that bars in Austin are probably never on the chilly side.
But once you know it’s a real place, what do you do? Make a pilgrimage in Guy’s honour? Order a Mad Dog Margarita? Sometimes, a reference which is dropped in to a song should remain just that, an evocative glance which helps to define the atmosphere of a song, and defies attempts to pin it down too literally.
Like the corner in Winslow, Arizona, commemorated in the Jackson Browne/Eagles song. The fleeting image of the guy on the corner and the girl in the flat-bed truck slowing down to take a look at him is vivid and resonant and will continue to be fresh and vibrant in the song, outliving attempts to create concrete representations of an imaginary incident.
Places evoked with the lightest of touches, a telling phrase, a fleeting nod, can have the most powerful effect. Ray Davies’ Waterloo Sunset is vague on detail – the Thames, the bridge, the station create an impressionistic picture which encapsulates a mood for everyone who listens to the song, whether they are familiar with the actual place or not.
Speculating about angles and directions and which way Terry and Julie were facing and how the landscape has changed since the song was written don’t enhance the enjoyment of the song.
Sometimes, just one word does it. Dear Leonard Cohen, you have done it for me. I first heard Leonard Cohen in my teenage bedroom in Weybridge, my ear glued to John Peel’s Sunday afternoon show on my transistor radio (look it up, Young Persons). The song was Bird on a Wire, which of course was written for me and me alone.
Who would have thought that years later Leonard would appear in that very town where I grew up, a town not known for its hosting of musical legends, and that we would sit there in the the pouring rain, a stone’s throw from that very bedroom, and heard him sing, his tone playful and knowing and complicit, the immortal line: ‘I didn’t come to WEYBRIDGE just to fool you’.
As surreal as a Dali painting, and as fleeting as a mayfly.