“Day Tripper” is a column of reflections on music and their connection to important times, places, dates and memories by A.T. Bossenger. Each entry will use a relevant date on the calendar as a reference point for these discussions. Mark your calendars and queue up your soundtracks.
Date: October 31, 2014 Occasion: Halloween; AKA All Saint’s Eve; AKA the day preceding National Sugar Hangover Week
Welcome back, day trippers — it’s been a hot minute since we last spoke. I’ll start with a brief confession. As a writer on music, I am in a constant battle between the pursuit of two seemingly opposing forces: Sincerity and timeliness. I want to spend the most time with each album as possible, but the review isn’t that useful if it comes out a month after the record’s release. I hope that each feature I contribute to is fair and well-reasoned, yet I am constrained by the limitations of my prior knowledge and what time I have for further research. It’s inevitable that my opinions and viewpoints, put on display in a particular place on this site, change over time.
When Treble’s editor, Jeff Terich, asked our staff about music that has given us a legitimate case of the heebie jeebies, I thought I gave my best answer possible, quickly summing up the creepy, spoken word narrative that is Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building?” But less than twelve hours later, after the article was already published, I realized I had been dead wrong. In truth, there’s another song out there that terrifies me in a truly deep way, so much so that I tend to put it out of my mind most of the time.
Ever since I moved to the Midwest (I was born and raised in Southeastern Texas, so that term has a loose definition that includes both Kentucky and Wisconsin) I began familiarizing with the region, its peculiarities and it’s most notable moments of history. Being an immense music lover, Sufjan Stevens’ ambitious, short-lived project to create an album inspired by each of the U.S.A.’s 50 states was a pretty useful jumping-off point for my research. The second of those, Illinois (commonly mis-cited as Come On Feel the Illinoise,) introduced me to Casimir Pulaski Day and informed me of the state’s many connections to Superman, but it also gave me reason to deep dive into one of the darker moments in the state’s recent history.
“John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” a short acoustic ballad situated ten minutes or so into Illinois, is the sort of intimate study of humanity that forces the listener to seriously contemplate what they are really capable of. Offering a brisk narrative of the life of the well-known serial killer, Stevens doesn’t justify Gacy’s behavior, but raises difficult questions regarding Gacy’s behavior and what parts of the murder’s personal history led to the unspeakable acts he committed. After detailing Gacy’s not-so-pleasant childhood, Stevens presents the murders in gentle-yet-descriptive detail: “He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the lips.” But the true terror in this deceivingly gorgeous song comes at the end, when Stevens realizes that “in my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look underneath the floorboards, for the secrets I have hid.”
Sufjan Stevens is not a psychologist, and his notions carry a heavy weight of original sin that I find difficult to fully immerse myself in. (The singer/songwriter has a long-storied history of utilizing heavily biblical over- and under-tones.) Still, Stevens’ writing here evokes an empathy and understanding of the serial killer that I had not yet experienced — after all, I was barely eighteen at the time. Before then, such heinous crimes were in a realm of fantasy, something committed by an awful, terrible person. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr,” through its morbid meditations, awakened me to the fact that terrible people are not simply made that way — they slowly become that horrible over time.
So there it is, the song that truly, honestly terrifies me more than any other. A change of tone from my regular Day Tripper entry, I admit, but a fitting one given the season. While I’m not prone to completely agree with Stevens’ insistence that, given the right circumstance, any person could have become Gacy, the track is a true testament to the songwriter’s poet ability. When his quiet voice utters the haunting question “are you one of them?” I have to take a second to convince myself otherwise.
Scared yet? How does this song affect you? Know any other examples of terrifyingly surreal song-writing? Think that I’m too easily scared? Let me know in the comments section below and we’ll have a little chat.
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