The Well

In his 1981 essay “On Writing,” the great short story writer Raymond Carver wrote the following:

“It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine—the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.”

In this paragraph, Carver has distilled the essence of his own writing approach. The type of objects that he names in this quote aren’t bestowed with supernatural powers as in a work of magical realism. Instead, Carver’s focus is on the seemingly ordinary, whether it is a piece of chalk or the tiniest bit of a conversation between two people, resulting in a range of slight moments of realization for his characters and to complete, light-from-the-heavens epiphanies.

Within the hundreds of songs that Bill Callahan has written and recorded over the course of his career, whether working under the name Smog or as a solo artist, he has a strand of work that act as standalone narratives. Sometimes, they resemble a short story rather than the free verse approach that he uses for other songs. Callahan’s story songs adhere to a classic story structure with a beginning, middle, and an end, describing a distinct episode or incident. One example is the song “The Well” off of the last Smog album, 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love:

The recording begins with Callahan presenting a little flourish on his acoustic guitar and then helpfully providing us with a simple introduction: “This one’s called ‘The Well.’” This kind of intro is a standard move for live performances, but it is rarely heard in studio recordings. It’s a funny and ironic indication from Callahan that this song is a bit different from the others on the album. 

After that opening, the band begins playing an up-tempo rhythm led by a riff from Callahan’s guitar with a fiddle providing emphatic accents. It’s a fun, driving sound, ideal for Callahan’s narrative. His vocals start with the line, “I could not work.” The line is sung as a kind of squawk/yell delivery, similar to David Byrne’s vocals during his time in Talking Heads. Callahan continues in his regular singing voice: 

So I threw a bottle into the woods
And then I felt bad
For the doe paw
And the rabbit paw
So I went looking for the pieces
Of the bottle that I threw
Because I couldn’t work.

This story song opening shows the narrator’s immediate understanding of his actions, but most of all, he uses his writer’s block as motivation to do something, anything to create action for himself. Callahan continues:

I went deep further than I could throw
And I came upon an old abandoned well
All boarded over
With a drip hanging from the bucket still
Well, I watched that drip but it would not drop
I watched that drip but it would not drop.

The narrator is immediately captivated by the drip that does not drop. There’s so much potential and anticipation in that drop, but no action. It’s symbolic of the impotence of an artist who has an idea, no matter how small, but cannot use it to create something. Callahan continues:

I knew what I had to do
Had to pull those boards off the well
When I got the boards off
I stared into the black, black, black
And you know I had to yell
Just to get my voice back.

The narrator is compelled to act, even in the face of the uncertainty as represented by “the black, black, black.” It’s necessary to do so as Callahan adds the key line: “Just to get my voice back.” The writer’s block or lack of voice is real and sometimes a creator needs to force the issue. 

Beyond the metaphor at play within the song, Callahan remains amongst the funniest of songwriters, especially with his straight-faced, dry humor:

I guess everybody has their own thing
That they yell into a well
I gave it a couple hoots
A “Hello”
And a “Fuck all y’all.”

If a moderator asked at a political debate, “What do you like to yell when you look into a well?” whichever politician that responded with “Fuck all y’all” would be elected in a landslide. Callahan then acts out his well-yelling routine by hooting a few times, and asking “Hello?” The tempo of the music slows down to almost nothing before Callahan delivers the ever-satisfying, “Fuck all y’all.” The music gradually picks up again to the previous rhythm. Callahan continues:

And as I stood like that
Staring into the black, black, black
I felt a cool wet kiss
On the back of my neck
I knew if I stood up
The drip would roll down my back
Into no man’s land.

The narrator stares into the unknown and, while doing so, inspiration hits him as represented by the “cool wet kiss” of the drip. But he is unsure what to do as he does not want the insight to disappear forever as a drip does when it rolls away. 

So I stayed like that
Staring into the black, black, black
Well they say black is all colors at once
So I gave it my red rage, my yellow streak
The greenest parts of me and my blues
I knew just what I had to do
I had to turn around and go back.

With the naming of the colors, Callahan sings louder as if with a previously unknown determination. The narrator is acting with conviction, the drip providing him with what he needed. Now, he is able to see all of the colors at once, representing all the different parts of his personality. Despite the obscurity of the future as seen in the blackest black of the well, he is able to recognize that the unknown can be transformed into something new, namely art. With that, he is able to return home:

And let that drip roll down my back
And I felt so bad, I felt so bad about that.

The narrator is allowing artistic inspiration to overcome him, though it makes him feel bad because he is unsure if he used it all up. Is artistic inspiration renewable? It’s become a cliché to say that a lack of ideas means that the “well is dry.” Here, Callahan is depicting that metaphor through the story song. He continues:

But wouldn’t you know
When I turned to go
Another drip was forming on the bottom of the bucket
And I felt so good about that.

The tempo slows again as Callahan sings about the drip forming. His voice becomes softer. The music picks up again after expressing his satisfaction that the potential energy of a new drip has returned. At this point, the fiddle produces a new sound, holding the same note as long as possible until the song ends. This protracted note on the fiddle represents through music the new drip holding itself as if in mid-air waiting for the next release. The song and the story ends with the satisfying conclusion knowing that the well is, in fact, not dry.

In a 2006 interview with The Other Journal at the time of the release of A River Ain’t Too Much Love, Callahan was asked about the inspiration for “The Well.” He replied:

“Well, there ARE woods behind my house and I HAD been frustrated and I HAD held an empty bottle in my back yard. But the art imitating life ends there. I did not throw the bottle, I wrote the song instead.”

Going back to the essay that was quoted at the beginning of the post, Carver provides us with a definition of the short story as provided by the writer V.S. Pritchett: “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Carver seizes on this conceit and expands on it further:

“First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky…have even further-ranging consequences and meaning.”

The creative process that Carver illustrates is borne out by Callahan in the composition of “The Well.” Callahan’s initial glimpse of the story is the setting (i.e., the woods), the mood (i.e., Callahan’s dissatisfaction in not being able to write), and the empty bottle as a catalyzing agent. Together, these elements serve as the Pritchett/Carver glimpse that catapults an idea into a story song. As “The Well” plays out, Carver’s “further-ranging consequences and meaning” is epitomized by Callahan’s use of the drip as a symbol for artistic potential. In fact, “The Well” is Callahan’s own attempt at demonstrating the power and impact of artistic creation. The story song of “The Well” is an extended metaphor that testifies to the same impulse as Carver’s words in the first quotation that good stories endow seemingly ordinary objects with “immense, even startling power.”

Two other Callahan story songs include is his song “Pigeons” off of 2020’s Gold Record:

This song tells the story of a limousine driver who is driving around a pair of newlyweds. The groom notices that the driver is married and asks for some advice. The driver responds:

When you are dating, you only see each other
And the rest of us can go to hell
But when you are married, you’re married to the whole wide world.

He further expounds on this advice and after dropping off the couple at a “fancy dancy boutique hotel,” Callahan finishes the song by sharing the driver’s quiet epiphany: “And I drive off alone, but I’m not alone.” In this story song, the Pritchett/Carver glimpse is a character, a married limo driver who drives around a newly-married couple. That’s enough for Callahan to create a narrative in the form of a story song. 

Another example of a Callahan story song is “The Mackenzies” also found on Gold Record:

In this story song, the shy, almost reclusive narrator allows himself to be taken in by previously unknown next door neighbors. As the story song develops, the three characters play out a scenario in which the narrator plays the part of the couple’s dead son. The narrator happily occupies the space of this lost son. The Pritchett/Carver glimpse of “The Mackenzies” is that all three recognize that what they are doing is a fantasy, but do so in order to feel something, anything if only for a short time. 

In a 2019 interview with The Quietus, Callahan shared the following on the power of stories:

“I do think those archetypal, mythical images are kind of the backbone of our existence…There’s an invisible world, we are physical bodies here and we are rushing to get to work and do the little things we do every day. If life was all just surface things that are very apparent to us then we would have committed mass suicide. I think it’s important to recognise all these other stories, this other world that’s occurring from childhood. To have those interacting and recurring images, not just come up once and disappear, all of the things stay with us for our whole life. These things they keep changing. They are our parables for living.”

Callahan identifies certain “archetypal, mythical images” that resonate for him as an artist which he observes as having universal appeal. This works as another way of describing Pritchett and Carver’s glimpse. Callahan is able to utilize these images in his own work and create something new and whole. “Pigeons,” “The Mackenzies,” and especially “The Well” are excellent examples of Callahan operating in this mode as their enduring impact confirms Callahan’s own storytelling skills. “Story songs” is one way of characterizing this compelling strand of Callahan’s work, but his phrase — “parables for living” — is an even better description. One can choose any way to describe these types of songs because, as Callahan sings, “Everybody has their own thing / That they yell into a well.”

Image: Down the Well by Bill Nicholls, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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