I was sitting on the front porch of a Bed & Breakfast in New Orleans owned by some friends of mine, looking down the street into the French Quarter and the Mississippi River. This was when I still smoked, and I had gone to the porch to have a cigarette and have some quiet observation time and finally listen to this man sing. It was at the urging of another friend who told me that I would have a very strong reaction to him and this song in particular, and I'd brought the cd along with my discman. Now seemed as good a time as any, it was just after dinner and it was oddly quiet for New Orleans outside in the summertime. That should've been my first tip off, really, that it was a warm summer evening on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans and it was practically devoid of people.
Dark storm clouds were gathering, there was a little thunder and a lot of lightning. Across the street was a bakery, a wine shop, a news stand, and a coffeehouse. All over the neighborhood you could smell things exclusive to New Orleans and the South in general, scents I have come to love over the years that can make an evening outside doing absolutely nothing a voyage of discovery just from their fingerprints on the air if you let your nose be your compass. Confederate jasmine, baguettes baking in an ancient Creole brick oven with the memory of hundreds - thousands of loaves before etched in the clay, coffee and chicory, steam from fat raindrops scorched on the unforgiving pavement of a Southern road in August, cut grass, and that smell that really old, cozy houses have. If I remember it all hard enough and close my eyes, I'd surely float right up and out of this chair...
I'd read a little about him at this point, so I knew that he'd drowned four years earlier in the Wolf River, which feeds into the Mississippi at Memphis. I sat on the porch steps just inside the portico. I put the headphones on my ears just as the rain was being delivered from the clouds in sheets that came in sideways towards the other side of the street, put my newly purchased Grace cd in the player, and dialed up track 7 as I was told to do. I started the song and sat there, just taking it in for a bit while the opening notes declared a eulogy for something or someone, this sad, ancient harmonium droning out these minor chords that made me first think "Wow, he's a pretty brave bastard to begin a song with something like that". I read the credits in the liner notes to see what his musical part of the recording was. Dulcimer? Harmonium? Tablas? I was liking this more and more, and hadn't even heard the first guitar chord yet. Then it happened, the air went still and electric, and I heard his voice for the first time with this line that exemplified where I was and what was going on in that moment...
"Looking out the door I see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners,
parading in a wake of sad relations as their shoes fill up with water..."
I was in New Orleans, the one place in North America that honors its dead with little cities, where death is celebrated as much as life, and where decay of some sort is as much a pattern in the landscape as cornfields are to Illinois and Ohio. Two blocks to my right, directly in my peripheral, lay the murderous Mississippi River, its swirling, dark currents visible even in the burgeoning rain, like watery flamenco dancers. And still the rain, coming down just as I imagined it did when he was writing this for Rebecca Moore (the woman whom I later learned inspired the song), the transitive realtionship to the entire moment. I stopped the song, restarted it, put it on repeat, got up, and began to walk. By the time I reached the end of the song and in fact the end of the street, and it was starting over again I was navigating huge slabs of granite and kudzu on my way down to the water. I took my shoes off and put my feet in the water, and sat down along the riverbank. The rain was all but drizzle and mist at this point, although the thunder and lightning were still very evident. Not that I cared, I was having too significant an experience to atone to the dangers of my own mortality which at the time seemed very trivial to me. I stared at the water, knowing it was the same that claimed him for itself, and cried for what I knew would never be again. Mind you, I hadn't at this point heard anything other than this one song.
I am not sure how long I was there or when I began crying or even what I went through emotionally, but by the time I started back to the B&B (soaked to the skin) I knew every word of "Lover, You Should've Come Over" - every note, every intonation, entirely. I also knew that I'd never be the same and that I would wish for a couple more years that someone would pine for me as passionately in that same way as he so clearly had, until I found it for myself.
Goddamn you, Jeff - just goddamn you.