It is often said that the music of one’s teenage years is the most enduring, but for me that is not necessarily the case. For me, from about the age of ten I was very interested in music coming out, and someone who appreciated a wide variety of genres, being most interested in what would later be termed “adult alternative” even at a young age, but being surrounded by a lot of other music that left an influence on me as well. One of the earlier and more important songs to leave an influence on me was the biggest hit by a band I have always greatly loved for their witty lyricism and depth of soul, the band Toad The Wet Sprocket (the fact that they got their name from a Monty Python skit only makes me like them better). There are quite a few Toad The Wet Sprocket songs I greatly enjoy, but the one that hit the closest to me was their melancholy hit “All I Want.”
I was reminded of the song thanks to some musing I did over a question I received a couple of weeks ago. I gave a speech about my biography and interests, and one of the comments from the local elder present at the meeting was that while I gave a fairly large amount of biographical information, I did not give information about what made me tick. For the most part, my deepest longings are not particularly complicated or extreme. I care a great deal about respect, and honor. I am passionate for justice and opportunity for all, and particularly hostile at corruption and injustice. I have a deep longing for love and intimacy despite being a somewhat emotionally reserved and guarded person with an extremely large degree of awkwardness in my dealings with others (especially young women). As it would happen, the song “All I Want” really captures, in many ways, what makes me tick in a beautiful but somewhat melancholy way. So let us examine the song and understand why.
The first verse of “All I Want” reads as follows: “Nothing’s so loud / As hearing when we lie. / The truth is not kind, / And you’ve said neither am I, / But the air outside so soft is saying everything, / Everything .” From the beginning, the song opens up a riddle of sorts. Singer Glen Philips begins this song by examining the question of truth and deception. The lies that we make sound particularly loud, telling us that we are people of dishonesty and pretense. This sort of guilty conscience leads us to reflect on the fact that the truth about us is not kind, and that many of us (myself included) are often accused of being unkind, especially for our willingness to speak uncomfortable truths. And as much as we might desire to be private and secretive, the atmosphere around us betrays our secrets and tells everything we would rather keep hidden. Hearing this song as a very young person, I could relate to its message, and it still remains true given my rather awkward shyness but yet total transparency when it comes to emotional matters, an uncomfortable place for anyone to be.
The second verse of “All I Want” continues in this vein: “Nothing’s so cold / As closing the heart when all we need / Is to free the soul, / But we wouldn’t be that brave I know. / And the air outside so soft, confessing everything, / Everything.” The singer/songwriter here longs for love and intimacy, but finds the coldness of a heart closing out of fear rather than opening up to let love in. And while the singer longs for love and intimacy (presumably with a lovely young lady), he knows that he too is afraid opening up his heart and soul and exposing it to the risk of misery. He not only laments the cowardice of his would-be partner, but also his own. The same is generally true of me–by and large in my life I have been intensely shy when it came to intimacy, and the people I have been most interested in have generally been somewhat wounded souls as well, with their own simultaneous fear and longing of love and affection. And try as we might to close ourselves to this truth about ourselves, the atmosphere once again confesses everything we thought we had closed tightly behind the walls of our closed hearts.
The chorus of “All I Want” speaks eloquently about this longing for belongingness and love: “All I want is to feel this way, / To be this close, to feel the same. / All I want is to feel this way. / The evening speaks, I feel it say…” Having spent my entire life as an uncomfortable outsider, and not one of those fashionable sort of freaks that people tend to emulate, I know the longing to no longer be such a solitary stranger, but to feel close and intimate someone, and for that feeling last forever. One could say, in fact, that what drives me the most, and the most deeply, is the volatile and complicated mix of longing and fear about love and intimacy and belonging, about that desire for respect and to have an honorable place of love and respect where one totally fits in and is understood and accepted for who one is, one’s quirks and scars and awkwardness and all. There is the longing for that perfect kind of belonging in one’s areas or in one’s relationships (especially with a lover), as well as the horrific past experiences of ridicule and rejection, and the fear that one will never find one’s missing puzzle pieces. This song came out when I was ten years old, and in all the time since then, nothing has changed about the fundamental longings (and fears) of my life. At the base of it all are the same concerns and the same dreams. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing.
The bridge of the song continues this theme: “And it won’t matter now / Whatever happens to me. / Though the air speaks of all we’ll never be, / It won’t trouble me.” When one has spoken honestly, bared one’s soul, confessed one’s hopes and fears and thoughts and feelings, one tends to feel it won’t matter what happens, however good or bad, because we have spoken the deepest and darkest truths of our lives and our world, and nothing anyone else does can take that way. I’ve had to summon enough equanimity to reflect upon the possibility of some pretty horrible fates in the knowledge that what I spoke could carry some really horrible consequences. And I have been blessed enough to be delivered from the worst of the evils. But like me, Glen Philips of Toad The Wet Sprocket must have one of those annoying internal tape tracks in his mind that taunts him with all of the things that he would never be, while he bravely deals with it and tries not to let it trouble him. That is a feeling I have pretty often, I must admit, which is one reason why this song has always related to me so deeply.
And “All I Want” closes with the following lyrics: “And it feels so close; / Let it take me in; / Let it hold me so; / I can feel it say…” The song ends on an intentionally ambiguous note, which only adds to its power. The singer (and I also) can feel the love and belongingness so closely in those magic moments, but the song never gives the ending, leaving the words unspoken, perhaps knowing that the anticipation is so much more powerful than giving a cliched resolution. The band lays down their longings and desires, phrases them in a heartfelt and sincere and witty way, and then leaves the resolution to the hopes (and fears) of the audience. And that kind of trust in one’s audience in baring one’s own heart and soul, doing it in a classy but honest way, is the kind of trust that allows a song to remain lodged in one’s mind and heart as an expression of one’s deepest longings even more than two decades after the song was made. Hopefully that is a tribute that Toad the West Sprocket would appreciate.