Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Nothing lasts for long

Torn sheet of paper

Image via Wikipedia

Some time ago I posted about two versions of Joni Mitchell’s song Both Sides Now, one recorded when she was a slip of a lass, and the other much later, by which time experience had given the song a whole new meaning that, I suggested, the younger Joni could never have even imagined.

There’s a similar youth-age split in the lyrics of the 1982 song Chinese Cafe. Here they are:

Caught in the middle
Carol we're middle class
We're middle aged
We were wild in the old days
Birth of rock 'n' roll days
Now your kids are coming up straight
And my child's a stranger
I bore her
But I could not raise her
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long

Down at the Chinese Cafe
We'd be dreaming on our dimes
We'd be playing "Oh my love, my darling"
One more time

Uranium money
Is booming in the old home town now
It's putting up sleek concrete
Tearing the old landmarks down now
Paving over brave little parks
Ripping off Indian land again
How long how long
Short sighted business men
Ah nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long

Down at the Chinese Cafe
We'd be dreaming on our dimes
We'd be playing "You give your love so sweetly"
One more time

Christmas is sparkling
Out on Carol's lawn
This girl of my childhood games
With kids nearly grown and gone
Grown so fast
Like the turn of a page
We look like our mothers did now
When we were those kids' age
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long
Nothing lasts for long
Down at the Chinese Cafe
We'd be dreaming on our dimes
We'd be playing

"Oh my love, my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long lonely time
And time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
I need your love
I need your love
God speed your love to me"

ETA: An mp3 of the song can be downloaded here.

The recurring phrase Nothing lasts for long appears in two senses. At the end of the second verse, in reference to “short sighted businessmen” it appears to come from the mouth of the young idealist of the first verse. Maybe she’s thinking the short-sighted businessmen won’t last for long, together with the rapacious damage described.

Elsewhere in the song, though, the phrase is one of infinite regret, and the regret for the loss of time is infinite because the loss is: Time doesn’t go anywhere, it just goes. This could only have been written by an older person (at the time of release Joni was, significantly, 39 years old); young people think time is endlessly abundant. That’s why you’ll never get one to show up for an appointment on time. Older people know that it was only moments ago that they too were young, with endlessly abundant time on their hands – looking like their mothers did then.

The two songs referred to within the lyrics express different sentiments to regret. Unchained Melody is from the soundtrack of the film Unchained, in which a prisoner must decide whether to risk all on an escape attempt, or serve the rest of his sentence quietly but continue to be separated from his wife and child. The longing expressed in the lyrics has made it a pop standard: it’s said to be one of the most-covered songs of the 20th century.

Carole King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is again more of a young woman’s sentiment, while the ironic answer to the question posed is given: Nothing lasts for long.


By coincidence, I happened to come across a striking passage on the question of regret, by the Roman historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, better known simply as Plutarch. In a letter to his wife Timoxena following the death of their daughter - also called Timoxena – Plutarch counsels her to resist the grief-mongering of the women around her, and has this to say about grief, which is of course the ultimate in regret:

Try also often to carry yourself back in memory to that time when, this little girl not having been then born, we had nothing to charge Fortune with, and to compare that time and this together, as if our circumstances had gone back to what they were then. Otherwise, my dear wife, we shall seem discontented at the birth of our little daughter, if we consider our position before her birth as more perfect. But we ought not to erase from our memory the two years of her life, but to consider them as a time of pleasure giving us gratification and enjoyment, and not to deem the shortness of the blessing as a great evil, nor to be unthankful for what was given us, because Fortune did not give us a longer tenure as we wished.

Nothing lasts for long enough, you might say. But as he advises his wife, which what would probably require a huge effort of the will, she must not grieve overmuch because to do so would be to cheapen the joy the little girl’s presence had brought. Since they were happy before her arrival, they must now also be as happy after her departure, otherwise her presence will have been experienced as a bad thing.

It’s an extraordinary piece of advice, quite compelling on examination, but I shouldn’t think it would be very easy to put into practice. The world is full of advice to look on the bright side, remember the good times, don’t dwell on what might have been, yet the human animal seems bound to suffer regret, because we are the only ones who realise the nature of Time, and the fact that it travels in only one direction: it travels away from us.

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