The third song on Bill Callahan’s 2020 album Gold Record is called “35”:

The song starts with a simple guitar part from Callahan before Matt Kinsey joins in on a second acoustic guitar and provides a big bluesy fill. Callahan sings the first verse:

I can’t see myself in the books I read these days
Used to be I saw myself on every single page
As nice to know a life had been lived before
But I can’t see myself in the books that I read anymore.

It’s a straight-forward enough sentiment that Callahan shares in the opening lines of “35,” and with the following quote, he provides more context for the song:

“It’s definitely an experience that I had, where I felt like I’d read all the great books and would just be disappointed or feel alienated from any new authors that I would try to read. In your late teens and early twenties is when you read great books and you kind of take them on as if they are books about you, or books that reflect your inner world perfectly. But whenever I try to go back to those, I’m just not interested. I look at it as a good thing: You are kind of unformed in your twenties, and then hopefully, by the time you hit 30, you are somewhat formed. I think that it’s like you’re getting your wings to fly. When you’re unformed, when you’re a fledgling person, you can’t really express a lot. I think it’s a good thing to have that feeling of not connecting necessarily with art, because it prompts you to work on your own.”

Callahan and his band move on to the bridge that continues exploring the theme of maturity and finding one’s self:

Tired eyes wander
Into their own sight
Leaving a body unscripted
And forced to improvise.

Here, Callahan is describing the feeling of an older person — one with “tired eyes” — who is still pushing themselves to create art. After the word “improvise,” Callahan’s acoustic guitar moves into the forefront of the song and he ad-libs a neat little guitar passage. Callahan uses the phrase “tired eyes” as poetic shorthand to refer to an older person who grows weary of reading the books of a younger person. It’s also the title of a song by Neil Young from the 1975 album Tonight’s the Night (through recorded in 1973 as any good Neil Young freak will tell you):

The song opens with Young woozily and wearily reciting words that sound as if they are the ramblings of a guy at a bar who is half talking to himself and half talking to the other patrons:

Well he shot four men in a cocaine deal
And they left them lyin’ in an open field
Full of old cars with bullet holes in the mirrors
He tried to do his best but he could not.

Later in the song, the song’s narrator appears to be talking to himself more than anyone else:

Well tell me more, tell me more, tell me more
I mean was he a heavy doper or
Was he just a loser?
He was a friend of yours.

In between verses, Young and the assembled band plead, “Please take my advice / Open up the tired eyes.” It could be an appeal to the four men shot in the drug deal, hoping beyond hope that they aren’t truly dead. Or, the words of the chorus could be the song’s narrator talking to himself again, attempting to jar himself out of a self-imposed haze of booze and drugs to try to comprehend the actions of a friend. Another interpretation is that Young and his band are singing directly to the listener, beseeching them to truly look at the state of the country around them and our collective desperation and deep need of compassion and love. “Tired Eyes” is an intense and forlorn cry for help by Neil Young.   

In the lyrics of “35” and in the quote above, Callahan refers to works of literature from his youth that he is not able to connect with anymore. He doesn’t mention music. Inserting the phrase “tired eyes” could be a gesture to the Neil Young song, a nod to a song that, in Callahan’s youth, was powerful and spoke directly to him, but now cannot feel its significance anymore. Not only is Callahan older, he’s married and a father, and it’s difficult to put himself into the position of the song’s narrator, distraught over a friend’s participation in a failed cocaine deal that left four dead. 

The story within “35” takes a curious turn after Callahan improvises on the guitar. The realization of not being able to connect with works of literature loved by his younger self causes the narrator of “35” to go on a metaphorical journey and lose his way. Without this foundation of art, Callahan sings:

I could no longer find my way, Lord
And the moon came up high
And I said take me home
To anyone as bright as day.

The narrator beseeches the moon to take him home to his loved one, needing direction since he is lost and untethered without a relationship to the art of his youth. Callahan continues:

With the fact of the sun comes
The fiction of the moon
The moon can make a false love feel true
It can make me still wanting you.

The narrator feels the power of the moon, though it a “fiction” since it has the ability to “make a false love feel true.” Could this “false love” be for a person as is implied by the final line in the verse? Or, could the moon have the capability of reawakening the narrator’s connection to art of his youth? Callahan moves on to the next verse:

I watched that old girl leave her stable tonight
And neither she nor I could look away
As she drew a map for me, on the back of the master plan.

Callahan is once again employing his horse-as-significant-symbol trick as previously explored on Recliner Notes here and here. As in the previous Callahan songs, the horse holds an allure to the song’s narrator, not allowing him to look away as she somehow composes “a map for me, on the back of the master plan.” It’s a funny line as the master plan doesn’t hold any answers the narrator hoped it would, and it takes a horse of all things to provide the necessary direction. Perhaps the narrator realizes the foolishness of his circumstances since Callahan sings, “I wished that I was like that moon on her path / Or that train on her track.” Now Callahan is utilizing a train metaphor, connecting it to the moon and how both have a predetermined course. Maps have already been drawn on the backs of the master plans for both the moon and a train, and the narrator yearns for that certainty of purpose. Callahan ends the song by singing:

‘Cause when I looked out back
The road was pulling out so soft, fast and black
You know it takes what it gives back
And I’ve got your book in my lap.

Thanks to familiar symbols such as a horse, the moon, trains, and the road, the narrator of “35” is able to find solace as well as inspiration from art as seen in the line “I’ve got your book in my lap.” He’s able to read and see himself in art once again. Earlier in the song, the phrase “tired eyes” may have been a nod to Neil Young and not being able to relate to his music anymore. The symbols that the narrator turns to all have significance in Young’s work as well. Train imagery abounds in Young’s songs, including “Southern Pacific,” “Train of Love,” and filling the soundtrack to the 1995 movie Dead Man with as many train sound effects his guitar can produce as possible. Young’s train obsession became so extensive that he entered into “I love the product so much, I bought the company” territory, leading a group of buyers to purchase the Lionel model train company in 1995. The moon too is ever-present in Young’s music and persona. “Harvest Moon” is one of his most popular songs. Additionally, Young has recorded albums during full moons for years because he “can feel the energy when the moon cycles change.” As for horses, well, his most famous backing band is named Crazy Horse, and Young’s song “The Old Homestead” is at least partially about his connection to Crazy Horse. In that song, the main character is a naked rider who “still feels the pull” to the moon, his horse, and, by extension, to his imagination and creativity. 

Callahan turns these motifs for artistic renewal as well, not only in “35,” but also the last song on Gold Record, “As I Wander”:

The ending of the song sees Callahan employ a train metaphor as he sings:

The babies make me feel at ease with eyes like honey-drunk bees
As I wander the aisle between them
Tickets please
It’s times like these
That the forces at work begin considering me
As the link between death and dreams
For some sweet minutes, everyone is counting on me
To get them home
Before the track ends
Through the wayward symphonies of steel on steel
As the city falls away to single bricks in the field
As if I were the conductor and this train were real.

In a 2020 interview with NME, Callahan commented on “As I Wander”:

“My challenge to myself was to write about the entirety of human existence in that one song….But yeah, it’s also definitely me stepping in at the end. The author coming out from behind the curtain and taking a bow.”

Creating a song that summarizes “the entirety of human existence” is certainly a lofty goal for Callahan! But in trying to put all of human existence into a single song, he acknowledges his own place in that continuity. He accepts his responsibility to help people navigate through their own “death and dreams” by writing his songs. Like Neil Young, he returns to the image of the train to assist him in communicating his role and purpose. As seen in “35,” Callahan knows only too well that audiences can lose their ability to relate to art. He knows that the moon, horses, and trains that he sings about are merely metaphors and not solid. With “As I Wander,” recognizes that symbols, songs, literature, and art may not be enough as he sings, “If I were the conductor and this train were real.” Callahan is asking the hardest questions an artist can ask themselves: What is my legacy? Will I be forgotten? What is my true purpose? Callahan knows he will not be able to answer those questions, but will attempt to do what he can through his art. He will continue to engage his audience and his loved ones in his song and “get them home…before the track ends.” 

Image: Night scene on the New York Central Railroad., American Express company’s special express train. , ca. 1884. Apr. 11. Photograph.

One thought on “35

  1. Thanks so much Scott for sending our way!

    We did come across Bill Callahan awhile back and enjoyed thoroughly, so thanks for refresher and reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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