My friend who works at Rhapsody.com was compiling a list of the most depressing albums of all time and asked for my input. On its face, this seems fairly easy. But once I started actually thinking about it, I realized I would have to differentiate between records that were inherently depressing (Springsteen's Nebraska) and those I listen to when I am depressed (Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours). The former list is actually a lot harder to compose, outside of the usual suspects like the Smiths and Joy Division. It's simpler for me to think of the albums I listen to when I'm down — such as I Am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons, which is actually an uplifting album full of hope, cloaked in funereal pathos. But true depression means you have abandoned everything. To wit, one example from the "depression questionnaire" you get at the shrink's office is "Do you no longer find pleasure in things that you used to enjoy?" So, when I am really, really down, I don't listen to any music at all.
I am not really, really down. My current depression is situational, and not fused to my nervous system. It's tied to still not having a job, peppered with little things like going out to my car and finding that not only has someone slept in it overnight, but also that this someone has peed all over the backseat. It's a sort of Book of Job malaise, where I feel like I am being put through paces, but I am trying to see what lesson I am supposed to be learning. How much of this do I have to go through before I get to drink honeyed wine with the Lord in the afterlife?
I feel the sort of ennui that goes nicely with old country music: George Jones, to be exact. It's my "I'm a little bit country" brand of depression. It's always great to hear people yodel about problems that are worse than your own. Jones lost his job at the factory, and lost his girl because he couldn't stop drinking. Or he stopped loving her, period, because he flat-out died. A great story Jones tells is of the time his then-wife Tammy Wynette took away his keys so he couldn't drive to the liquor store. Always a glass-half-full kind of guy (hopefully half-full of White Lightnin'), Jones drove a lawn mower to the market instead. He must know inherently that if you're driving a mower and someone pees on it, at least you only have to hose it off; no steam-cleaning necessary.
This week, you can imagine my joy when I walked into Pissed Off Pete's in the Excelsior and heard a live band performing Jones' "Why Baby Why?" It was a five-piece called the Cowboy Casanovas, and they even had a pedal steel player. After listening to Jones' Mercury Years all week, it was awesome to hear the same material live. I sat right down and started to sing along. The guitar player took notice that someone else in the room knew the words. Actually, he looked startled that anyone was paying attention at all, since every time the band finished a song, only two people clapped. The rest were watching the game or loudly discussing the foibles of their co-workers. It must be hard to pour your heart out onstage and not even be sure people give a shit. I suppose that's a good metaphor for sending out your résumé time after time, and interviewing time after time, but never hearing boo back.
The other person who clapped was the bartender, and, boy howdy, was he a doozy. He looked like someone who would play poker with Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple; an old-timer with a rough edge and a love-hate relationship with bartending. Not pissed off, per se, but not Hello Kitty, either: just my kind of beer pourer. He happily fetched drinks for my friends and me, teetering a little and humming along to the music.
Pissed Off Pete's is another of those bars with a shamrock on its sign but little evidence of the Emerald Isle inside. That's fine with me. It's a no-frills watering hole, long and lean, with a pool table in the back. T-shirts honoring recently slain Hells Angels leader Mark Guardado were for sale behind the bar, and the stage was just big enough to hold the five musicians. The crowd was your general combo of Latinos, working-class whites, and bikers that make up the Excelsior.
The Excelsior is one of the last truly old-school San Francisco neighborhoods that haven't been completely taken over with dot-commers, hipsters, or people who order Fernet. We had just eaten a family-style Italian dinner at the Granada Cafe across the street, where the server informed us that they didn't have any of those microbrews, so don't even ask. When my friend ordered the leek soup, the octogenarian waitress made sure to tell him that it wasn't like the kind that they serve in France. No duh, we thought to ourselves. And thank God for that.
The band lit into Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man." Now there is an artist to listen to when you're depressed. Better yet, listen to Neil Young's version of "Oh, Lonesome Me," a staple for the recently dumped ("I bet she's not like me/She's out and fancy free/Flirting with the boys, with all her charms."). Watching the Cowboy Casanovas, I was lifted out of my lull for a moment and remembered what feeling hopeful was all about. I just love pedal steel.
"I feel better," I said to my friends, who had found me sitting on the sofa all sniffly earlier. I had decided that if I didn't hear back from my recent job interviews, I would go to a temp agency, which would hopefully be a mere lawn mower away from my next paycheck. They reminded me that no one is finding work these days, that we are on the brink of an economic depression, and that it wasn't entirely my fault that things have been so difficult.
The ruddy-faced bartender asked us if we wanted another round, but we had to leave. I really wanted to hear the rest of the band's set and maybe chat up a biker or two, but it wasn't in the cards. Though my mood was more upbeat, we were all feeling a bit woozy from our meal. Truth be told, I had to go into the bathroom and throw up a little bit. We tried not to think about what exactly was in the leek soup that wasn't, er, French. I promised to let my friends pick the restaurant next time.
I tipped my invisible hat to the Cowboy Casanovas and we left. I was still feeling a little bit country, but maybe even ready for some rock and roll. Tomorrow, as they say, is a new day.