You Used to Say


Down the road a little ways, just before the Dead End sign, I startle a small herd of black angus. They’re tight to the fence line on my approach, but quickly scurry deeper into the pasture, heads high in vigilance. I watch them as I trot past, enjoying the contrast of their inky blackness against the snow-covered trees on the hillside rising behind. Above that, a sullen sky, draining of the late afternoon light. I can smell the cows, all that warmth and sweetness in the cold air.

As I pass the cows, I’m listening to Jason Molina’s  North Star, which in my humble opinion contains some of the best song lyrics ever written (they’re made particularly poignant by the fact of Molina’s life-long battle with depression and alcoholism, which eventually claimed his life). See if you don’t agree:

You used to say I had what it takes
I think I did if you meant too little too late
I can tell by the looks that I’m gettin’
I made some big mistakes
And I thought you said I was great

Shoot straight and give it my best try
I made my heart as hard as nails
That may be the way you live your life
But it’s almost got me killed

Darling I’m not giving in
That happened miles ago
I heard the north star saying
Kid you’re so lost even I can’t bring you home

Did you think that we were going to last
Honey you know you don’t have to answer that
Half of that was my kind of joke
I don’t remember which half

I didn’t know how blue I’d get
I didn’t know how I’d get blamed for it
I didn’t choose to go down this road
No one chooses to be sick

I’m saying everything is fine
By the look in my eye
But you know darling
Half of what a man says is a lie

It’s your last chance to forget me now
Then it’s done for good
You always said I’d make it out
Somehow darling I knew I never would

I run a short ways past the angus, then turn. They watch me pass again, heads swiveling to mark my progress. Still wary. The snow falls lazily enough that I entertain myself by identifying individual flakes from a half-dozen paces, then seeing if I can catch them in my mouth. Flake after flake after flake, I miss. They either fall to fast, or too slow, or drift in unpredicted directions, and I can’t seem to correct my course quickly enough to make the catch, though not for lack of spastic lurches.

But then I think of those cows, serious and watchful in their field, and there’s something in that image of them – the stark contrast of colors, I think it is, maybe the alertness, too – that sobers me. So I leave the snowflakes alone and run for home.

16 thoughts on “You Used to Say”

  1. Crafty:

    1. “DEAD END”

    2. Molina’s lyrics (alcoholism)

    3. “I can’t seem to correct my course”

    4. “that sobers me”

  2. I don’t know how you listen to lyrics like that… I can’t anymore. I guess there were too many years where addicts got the best of me, and songs like that remind me of when I was an open walking bloody wound. That’s all in the past, mostly. I’m not going to sit here and rip a bunch of scabs off for fun….although there was a time songs like that saved me from completely going off the deep end. Ahhhhh music.

    1. Maybe because I’m pretty sure I’ve never been truly depressed in my life… I don’t know. But for some reason, I don’t find this sort of stuff depressing in the least.


      1. Really! Wow, I’d like to hear more about why it doesn’t. I’m with Tricia. It’s SO sad. Almost TOO sad. It sounds like you’re saying you’re, in a sense, immune because you’ve never felt truly depressed. Interesting.

      2. I don’t think I’m immune… I can feel how sad it is, but it doesn’t bring me down. If anything, the rawness of it – the honesty and the beautiful turns of phrase and small universal truths – makes me feel… I’m not sure of the right word. Certainly a degree of melancholy, but one with a lot of richness. And the richness is, in a way, uplifting. I hope that makes sense.


      3. Interesting, I don’t feel depressed by it at all, either. It almost has the opposite effect, letting me know that there are plenty out there who are struggling too or have it much worse than I…

      4. OK well I can get that. There’s a song I love by Sondheim called “Send in the Clowns”. It’s beautiful and melancholy. What I like is that as he aches for his loss he adds the wry touch of saying there ought to be relief. For me, when there’s no relief in a sad song, it just send me over the edge because it’s (probably – undiagnosed) so easy for me to get depressed. The Molino song has no relief. I know where he’s going and there’s no escape.

        Some artists live in sadness in order to create beauty. I wish it were not so.

  3. Trully sad story of a tallented soul and a sad song. . . Love those marching chickens, and much sun to you all from sunny Arizona!!! The light in this life is as peculiar as the sun, it is always there, but some of us can see and some of us cannot.

  4. Cow #1 to Cow #2: Hey Larry! Check out this guy! Is he trying to catch snowflakes or is he having a seizure?

    Thanks for sharing Ben! I love seeing your post pop up in my email.

  5. I had a vision: one of those cows (gifted with mental telepathy) jumping the corral . . . joining to run alongside you . . . asks “what is depression . . . and why?”

  6. I think this song is beautiful, honest. Thanks for sharing. Have you listened to Lucero, Ben Nichols? This reminds me of them/him. At least their first few albums; haven’t really listened to any of the newer stuff.

  7. I didn’t think we shared similar tastes in music, but after listening to ‘North Star’ a dozen times in the past days, I’ve changed my mind. Why that song isn’t a chart topper makes me wonder what other artists and songs I’ve been missing. Can’t believe Molina’s not around anymore, I guess sometimes people don’t know how amazing they are.

  8. I sometimes marvel at the amount of “wild” that remains in domestic cattle. Even after hundreds of generations of being herded and protect from predators, they remain vigilant and guarded against any perceived danger.

    Snow falling on cattle. Mooo.

  9. I remember when Jason Molina died. That’s when I was introduced to him. The DJ was so shook up, and played a song of theirs every five, seemed like, for days. A heck of a talent…
    But it’s been like that a lot this year, hasn’t it? Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell….

  10. Ben, long time reader – first time reply-er. Your essays have greatly enriched my life. Sitting on the my couch in Indiana with a kid sleeping in the carrier on my chest and another passed out to my right, I’ve finally found a moment to enjoy some of your posts I’ve missed. Good stuff! I’m a big Molina fan, and thought you might enjoy a couple recommendations since your always throwin em our way. I’ve been blown away by the Sir Kitchen Boy lp by Twain and his alternator lp as well. Just great goose bump inducing tracks – especially love lost Atlantic dream, good old friend, and cold beer in wv. Also wooden wand aka James Jackson Toth has got some great albums, my favorite of which is blood oaths of the new blues. I think you’d really enjoy both of them fellas. Well stay cozy (or uncomfortably cold – depending on your daily preference) and thanks again for the great words and thoughts your sending our way.


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