“Victim or the Crime”

<<<Back to page 1

L'alcool Tue (Alcohol Kills) <br srcset=

Public health poster, France, ca. 1900″ width=”275″ height=”410″ /> L’alcool Tue (Alcohol Kills) – Public health poster, France, ca. 1900

The dilemma is hardly new.  Why do we go to the bad? Who is to blame?  What responsibility do we have to each other when it happens?  “Soul” makes clear from the second line that the stake we have in answering such questions is ultimate.  My great-great-great mountain grandmother would certainly understand all that.  As for “junkie,” she might have known a different slang – but drug addiction and alcoholism certainly show up in traditional murder ballads as well.

Patience runs out on the junkie
The dark side hires another soul
Did he steal his fate or earn it?
Was he force-fed, did he learn it?
Whatever happened to his precious self control?

Like him I’m tired of trying to heal
this tom-cat heart with which I’m blessed
Is destruction loving’s twin?
Must I choose to lose or win?
Maybe when my turn comes I will have guessed

There is an almost classical dualism in the formulations.  On the other hand, the angle of perspective on it is decidedly modern.  In the first verse, grace and damnation mingle with ‘nature or nurture.’  Indeed, most of us reflexively see “self-control” as a psychological rather than a religious concept.  We’ve all been there.  “How could that happen to so-and-so? S/he seemed like s/he had it all figured out.”

The second verse dances back and forth across that same border.  There is commiseration with the addict and criminal, an almost empathetic understanding that would be as familiar to Jesus as to Dr. Phil.  As well, while “destruction” may not seem the obvious opposite of love in the classical sense, traditional ballads quite often display that exact dichotomy.  It’s no accident that all those British ballads where everyone dies at the end are called “love songs” where they survived and morphed in the Appalachians.

Of course, the last line of the second verse is instantly of interest in this blog.  That lyric leaves little doubt for the listener that the song’s meditation directly intersects with mortality.  We’ve all got it coming – maybe we’ll have to wait until then to get the answers we need.

“When sacred fails before profane…”

The third verse and chorus of the song continue both with the interrogative style and the balancing act between ancient and modern formulations.  The singer is living in a world in which he perceives the center does not hold.  It seems like an internal end of days.  The last line of the third verse evokes Yeats, among others.

These are the horns of the dilemma
What truth is proof against all lies?
When sacred fails before profane
the wisest man is deemed insane
Even the purest of romantics compromise

What fixation feeds this fever
as the full moon pales and climbs?
Am I living truth or rank deceiver?
Am I the victim or the crime?

The chorus delivers some badly needed imagery and the essential question whence comes the title of the song.  It’s not a question we usually see in any formulation in traditional ballads.  Yet, it interested Plato and Aristotle as much as Shakespeare and countless others through history.  Graham’s phrasing works for post-Atomic-Age Americans.

The full moon here seems a proper illumination.  Even though it might bring insanity, the singer has a hope of seeing through the darkness with its light.  He might get some sort of answer, but it won’t come easy and full like the sunrise.

detail from Jacob Wrestles with the Angel - Eugene Delacroix - mural, 1854-1861

detail from Jacob Wrestles with the Angel – Eugene Delacroix – mural, 1854-1861

And so I wrestle with the angel
to see who’ll reap the seeds I sow
Am I the driver or the driven?
Will I be damned to be forgiven?
Is there anybody here but me who needs to know

what it is to face this fever
as the full moon pales and climbs?
Am I living truth or rank deceiver?
Am I the victim or the crime?

The fifth verse more than any other suggests a biblical perspective in referencing Jacob’s story and by invoking the idiom of ‘reaping what you sow.’  Of course, throwing in damnation and forgiveness doesn’t hurt!  The loneliness of that last line, while easily seen as psychological, arguably echoes in scripture as well.

The connection to Jacob is particularly interesting.  Graham’s essay makes clear he was conscious of ‘going there’ with regards to the story, but he claims that he “wasn’t consciously or specifically thinking of it at that moment” that he wrote the line about wrestling the angel.  In other words, he borrowed the imagery rather than any specific deeper meaning from Genesis.

Nonetheless, the match takes place when Jacob is returning to Canaan to reunite with his brother Esau, from whom he stole his birthright and their father Issac’s blessing.  He doesn’t know yet whether Esau has forgiven him and will greet him as a brother or will attack him for the usurpation.  Consciously crafted or not, having that story as subtext in the last verse seems to open an apt threshold to the final chorus and the repetition of the core question.  Will the singer be able to wrest a blessing from God as the sun comes up?  What blessing does he want?

He wants to know how his actions on Earth truly affect his brothers and sisters.  Don’t we all?

Coda – “As the full moon pales and climbs…”

What do we have here then?  In my opinion, it’s a rather interesting case of a post-modern song that operates in a similar way to the traditional murder ballads we’ve been writing about here for the last several years.  I just doubt that such is on purpose. In the end it doesn’t matter to me if Graham had agency in creating that effect.  When traditional music wasn’t working for me the way it usually does when I’m suffering, I was able to fall back on this song for much more than being a companion in my sadness.  Because it was able to get at some age-old human struggles within me by a novel and creative musical path, I found helpful perspective on my own recent suffering.

What made that possible?  I tried to make the case above that the lyrics end up conjuring a sort of worldview similar to that in traditional ballads.  The duality we see in “Victim” between right and wrong, love and destruction, sacred and profane, and victim and criminal is often manifest to one degree or another in the old songs.  On the other hand, this song is obviously not at all like those ballads.   The literary tools Graham uses to evoke those dichotomies are certainly different from traditional lyrics, and yet not entirely.  Perhaps they differ in the same way a Fender with an effects pedal and a Marshall stack compares to a Martin D-28 in a coffee house.  I’ve always found beauty in both.

I said above that Graham’s lyrics ‘simulate’ a traditional worldview, but that may imply too much conscious choice.  Still, whether or not he was aiming for it, Graham ended up hitting the same target as some of the older ballads.  They can indeed evoke an inner world thrown out of control, and put the listener squarely in the middle.  They do for me, and I’m surely not unique in that regard.

Just for fun, check out a musical example of what I mean about descending into chaos from order.  It’s from the Grateful Dead’s concert at Shoreline Amphitheater on August 16, 1991.  Listen as the rollicking happy hippie anthem “Scarlet Begonias” devolves into a terrifying “Victim.”

Sometimes the pain comes that quick, and leaves us all wondering why for a long time to come.

Thanks for listening and reading this week, folks!

Join in the discussion: