Photo of Lindsey Buckingham courtesy APM
She broke down and let me in
Made me see where I’ve been
Been down one time
Been down two times
I’m never going back again
You don’t know what it means to win
Come down and see me again
Been down one time
Been down two times
I’m never going back again
Songwriter: Lindsey Buckingham
Fifty-three words. For decades, the better part of half-a-century, rock-fans have practically made a sport out of deconstructing the meaning behind the lyrics of Never Going Back Again. Go ahead, Google “Never Going Back Again lyrics” and see how many hits you get. Here’s the thing: there are people who love Lindsey Buckingham’s music and there are outright fans. It seems like and yeah, I’m generalizing big time here, fans more or less care about the mystique of the forever handsome Mr. Buckingham and of course, they love the music. Fans invest themselves into the lives of the performer by trying to understand what was going on in his head when he wrote a song. Then there are straight-up music lovers.
I’ll admit to watching two documentaries and at least three interviews about Buckingham and I don’t recall the topic of the meaning behind the lyrics even being whispered. Rumors can get you in deep yogurt. Resisting a juicy story about beautiful and talented people whacked out on cocaine seems impossible. Webpage after webpage someone waxes on and on about unrequited love and infidelity. Come on people, it was the 70s. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll. If you dig it, dig deeper. Each verse only has two lines. There are two verses. They never repeat. The chorus in most renditions repeats twice. In the newest and my current favorite version, from Buckingham’s Solo Anthology, it repeats a third time adding a whopping thirteen extra words. Here’s another thing that blows my mind: almost all of the words have one syllable. Only three have two syllables and they repeat in the chorus with one exception. Again is the last word of the second verse. It repeats in the fifth, the seventh and the tenth lines. There are conventions when it comes to writing a pop song. Most have two verses and two to three rounds of the chorus and if the song is popular—the chorus is jaunty, easy to remember and will get stuck in your head—possibly forever. So what makes this song so special?
From Never Going Back to You Can Never Leave
1977 was a good year for rock n’ roll. Disco was hot but the songs that have truly endured in our collective Americana consciousness in my opinion can be sampled from Billboard’s top two hundred albums that year. They weren’t all the same. Look at Hotel California by the Eagles. It tells a story, with multiple syllabic words. It too has a memorable and melancholy intro on the guitar followed by words that at least I can quote with accuracy, “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air…” I could go on and I bet you could too. If you’re feeling nostalgic go ahead and give It a go. It might take you back, even if you weren’t born yet to a time when you thought the friends you had in high school were the friends you were going to keep forever. I think the challenge isn’t to get caught up in the nostalgia for a moment but to think about what makes the song endure. Why does it evoke feelings of a time that is no longer—that cannot possibly be recaptured? Don’t get distracted by the words but listen to the music. Those few notes at the beginning of Hotel California—something as a non-musician that I can only describe as a feeling but that isn’t good enough for me. I want to know why I feel this way because only certain songs get inside my head, become such a part of my long-term memory, that I’m able to recall not only where I was when I heard a song for the first time but how the fabric on the seat of my mother’s car felt, to the AC blowing on my nine-year-old face.
Life in the Slow Lane
Hard to imagine a more chill concert than Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco. In October, on the eve of his US tour, Buckingham played Never Going Back Again as the sun was beginning to wane over Golden Gate Park. If you aren’t familiar with Chris Thile’s, Live From Here public radio program, Thile is the mandolin virtuoso who took over A Prarie Home Companion. Before you scoff, I’ll remind you that the words hardly strictly doesn’t mean a total absence of bluegrass nor does it mean that Thile doesn’t rock the folksy looking instrument with a curvy body and short neck. Besides, he’s funny AF so if you’re uninitiated give his show a listen (and no, I don’t work for NPR). With a backdrop of eucalyptus trees, the outdoor stage was covered with a smattering of sound dampening worn area rugs. Buckingham stood on the stage in a pair of jeans, a simple black t-shirt and leather jacket, closed his eyes and started to play his acoustic guitar. He begins with a wistful melody then just outright stops—almost as if he hits rewind, takes a deep breath, nods, then the familiar bars of intro chords before he starts singing. I’m hung up on why this song works. I mean, it is more than forty years old. Hairstyles from four decades ago look ridiculous through the lens of 2018. Shoes don’t even look the same. Baffled, I consulted some talented musicians who happen to be friends. One friend, Sammy who writes commercial jingles said that he spends a lot of time thinking about what makes music objectively good. He pointed me Leonard Bernstein who, thanks to the internet, will live in perpetuity. Bernstein schooled me on a combo of four notes that forms the beginning of hundreds of songs. There’s a problem though. My music reading skills are suboptimal. I sent the Bernstein link to my friend Lili who sadly informed me that Bernstein’s four notes begin neither Never Coming Back Again nor Hotel California. So what do the two songs have in common? They both adhere to ye ole’ conventional pop music time signature of 4/4 time, which simply means there are four beats in a measure. Beyond that? Not a heck of a lot. Hotel California hardly conforms to pop lyrics. It has a whopping six verses and two measly rounds of chorus but oh do we remember them, “any time of year, you can find it here.” What both songs have in common is a memorable melody at the beginning. The Eagles are pretty steady in terms of tempo throughout so this is where I find Buckingham remarkable. In my opinion, Buckingham goes outside the constructs of conventional popular music by going inside. And then it hit me—Lindsey Buckingham sings like he is making mad passionate love, the kind that I’m not even sure exists IRL through his music—and friends, I was shook.
Love Is a Four Letter Word
Don’t say that you love me
Just tell me that you want me
Tusk 1979 Songwriter: Lindsey Buckingham
Mr. Buckingham, I couldn’t agree more. I’m sick of being told that people love me. I don’t even know what it means. I think it is better to care about people. It carries more gravitas. I love my kid. I used to love my parents but they are wicked dead. I have deep feelings for lots of people but love? It has become a colloquial thing that people throw around like “that’s dope.” But, want? Yeah, I can dig that one. Everyone knows what it means to want something. Yet, I’m noticing something for the first time. You aren’t suggesting that someone has to believe it. They just have to say it. So now I’m freaking hung up on the difference between say and tell. Is there an etymological difference or is it really two ways of stating the same thing? Gotta figure that one out before I commit to an opinion. From what I can glean, the salient diff between say and tell is when you say something, you don’t mention who said it but when you tell someone something you do. I think tell screams commit. Say? not so much. When You tell someone something it is actionable. You are explicitly stating what you want. In this case, “me.” You are telling another person that you want them to tell you that they want you. Yikes. Somehow, it feels easier to say that you love someone. It’s just a word. Telling another human being that you want them can set you up for a world of hurt, rejection and disappointment. Telling another person to tell you that they want you, that they desire you with an abandonment that means that you are vulnerable to rejection because you are giving everything in the moment to someone else, without expectation of anything in return? I dunno. You can ask for anything you want, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. I think there is a difference between telling them what to do and telling them what you need. But being clear about your needs? Telling someone something with such specificity that you are risking everything in the moment? I’ll admit, I’ve never been great at asking for what I want. Need? Fuggedaboutit. I’m no expert on romantic love. I’m not even sure I know what romantic love is. Until I started writing about this song, I thought I knew that I’ve been the physical receptacle of other people’s wants but that is not the same as romantic love nor even desire. This song makes me wander down rabbit holes that I’m not excited about exploring. It occurs to me that want and need are two different verbs.
When It Comes to Music, Forty Is Not the New Thirty
If like me, you’re a person who cares about higher order thinking, the big picture, the grand scheme of things, however you want to label the gestalt of your existence, you are no more risking permanent emotional devastation than stepping on a piece of gum on the sidewalk. It might throw you for a bit on the short term but you’ll figure it out and it will have no impact on the rest of your life. Get out the peanut butter or the Goo-Gone™ or if you’re really desperate, drop the damn thing off at the shoemaker (therapist) but don’t feel sorry for yourself that you stepped in it. You’re gonna be alright. I think that’s the appeal of TUSK. But big picture thinking is a nifty hat trick when you’re trying to get laid. Oh, did I just say that? I’m way oversimplifying it. I mean trying to get laid with feeling. Like you are in a place so transcendent, where your needs and wants are synergistic with someone else’s needs and wants that saying that you love the person is a distraction. You don’t need to, you feel it.
If I told you about the first time I heard this song, you’d wonder why I like it so much. I was in the back of my father’s convertible. My not yet step-mom was in the front. I was sitting behind the passenger seat and my brother was to my left. We were on the “shelf.” No proper back seat in the late 1970s 350 Mercedes SLs. We must have been fighting so my father, who went to the parenting school of react first and ask questions (maybe) later and turned the volume to “11.” I remember being somewhat terrified of his response. A fearful kid, I hated loud anything, yet I was calmed by the repetitive drum beat, punctuated by what I think is a dissonant th-wang, no, not twang, but a distinct th-wang of a guitar that got my attention. I know that I didn’t get the words for sure at age eleven. I understood them literally but I am sure I didn’t ascribe any meaning to the lyrics. [If my lay person’s description is too pedestrian for you, I checked, it is a D minor chord on an acoustic guitar according to my friend, Lili.]
Ok. I’m going to come right out and say it because I’m a grown-ass woman. This song fucking does it for me. (Yeah, yeah, I know that tusk is slang for penis and I’m not sure it is even relevant in context to the song.) The 83 word song has a brass band, a relentless, driving beat, some versions have a guitar and a synthesizer. Mr. Buckingham, are you yodeling? Howling? It has kind of an echo like sound in a canyon/stadium/lonesome cowboy/edge going for it. The most recent version begins with the delicate swoosh* of cymbals that onomatopoeically sounds like a faintly shaking rain stick, the familiar guitar chords and then the drumming, the relentless rhythm, always, the unmistakable beat that I have not been able to shake since 1979, that once begun marches and pounds the words into the floor, “but don’t say that you love me; just tell me that you want me,” and then just the music building and building with no more singing. Is it too much for words? Because when you want something that badly, when you can’t make another person see you for who you really are, there really are no words.
Solo Anthology: The Best of Lindsey Buckingham, a compilation drawn from records he has made outside the Mac since the early Eighties.