“Girl of Mysterious Sorrow”
Burning the Daze
I’ll make a confession. I did not get, at first, that this song was about graveside remembrance. In fact I felt quite clever to figure it out. Listening to it again, it now seems pretty obvious and I was just dense the first time around. There is cleverness in the song, in that he never comes out and says he’s at a graveside, but it really isn’t as subtle as I had thought. In any event, it seems clear now that this is a part of his Missing Mother triptych (along with “Ghost Train” and “Momma’s in the Moon”). It would be trite to comment that losing one’s mother, especially when young, will be a formative experience that naturally influences everything else that comes in life. It’s no surprise that he’s moved repeatedly to engage with that loss on every album. Here he tackles head-on the lack of answers to questions he never had the chance to ask.
I’m coming to see you, tomorrow sometime
Gonna bring you some roses, gonna tear off the vines
Gonna talk to the wind that blows through the trees
Kiss you like always from down on my knees
Gonna ask you some questions, get no replies
Wipe all the tears, falling down from my eyes
‘Cause the one that I wanted, I never could know
I think I was misled because I was still in my literal stage of lyric comprehension. I probably should have remembered that roses grow in bushes, not on vines, and thus the second line is about clearing a tombstone. The first of many heartbreaks comes with “Gonna ask you some questions and get no replies”.
Gonna park in the street, gonna open the gate
Walk to the spot where you always wait
I’ll be shaking my head like I usually do
‘Cause the name and the dates tell me nothing about you
Here we see why he keeps coming back: He has the facts of his mother’s life but not the truth of it. She died when he was very young, before he could know her as a person at all. One imagines he’s had family stories (although most likely people have been circumspect even in those), but he has nothing to connect them to. He’s looking for meaning, for a connection that was broken far too soon, and this patch of ground is the only place he has to look for it.
But I’ll sit in the shadows and let you explain
All of the sadness and all of the pain
Did it all seem so hopeless you just had to let go?
This is odd at first. How can he wait for her to explain? She’s dead. But that’s the point: He’s spent his whole life waiting for understanding that simply isn’t going to come. There’s also the first hint of something even darker here. I have no knowledge of the circumstance under which Marc Cohn’s mother died but this line makes me think it might have been suicide. If not that, then the end of a long drawn-out illness. People who die suddenly, unexpectedly, usually wouldn’t be described as having “let go”.
Yeah I’m coming to see you but I really can’t stay
There’s just a few things I needed to say
Like why were you hiding so much of yourself?
Why were you living for somebody else?
The lyric site I consulted has this as “but I really can’t wait”, but that’s pretty clearly wrong. First, why would he be eager to visit? The rest of the song sounds resigned and reluctant. Second, of course, is the deeper meaning. His life, unlike hers, moves on. He can visit her in the past but he can’t linger there.
It might be putting too much import on a word choice probably motivated by rhyme scheme, but I think it’s significant that he doesn’t ask the questions; he says them. He isn’t really expecting to understand. He’s just expressing bemusement and confusion. He might not even believe there is an answer.
Well I know that I’ve always been looking for you
But lately it’s not such a hard thing to do
‘Cause it seems like inside every woman I know
There’s a girl of mysterious sorrow
A bit of self-analysis for Cohn, here. He knows that his mother’s death has cast a shadow over everything he’s done, even when he wasn’t conscious of it. Her death informs his life, all the choices and desires and hopes and fears. He’s been searching his whole life for the connection he can never make. And then he’s explicit: He’s been looking for his mother in all the women he’s known. He senses there’s something universal to her story, to her plight (which is one reason why I believe it might have been a suicide). The “mysterious sorrow” is that unbridgeable ineffable something that he can’t quite puzzle out but which he sees reflected around him.
This song speaks to me on two levels. First, I recently lost my mother in a car accident. Although I haven’t visited a grave yet, and though I had the joy of knowing her throughout my life, I can’t hear Cohn’s plaintive loss without feeling an echo resonate in that empty place that has erupted in my heart. There’s something primal about losing one’s mother, something universal and personal all at once.
Second, I did lose a parent to suicide, though it was my father and not my mother. I was closer in age to when Cohn lost his mother, too, right on the edge of teendom and looking for answers and guidance as I grew into a man. It took me four years to even begin asking the questions, much less finding the answers, and like Cohn, I really can only say them, not genuinely ask them. There is the same unbridgeable gap between what I feel and whatever my father felt. Part of me worries I will never understand. Part of me is terrified that someday I will.
More on my father and I when this compilation hits “Rest for the Weary”.