Hello, and welcome to the long-delayed second installment of my column, Deep Cuts, wherein I closely examine a song that I love and interview the artist at ridiculous length about it. Today we're talking to Okkervil River's Will Sheff about his song "Black," from the band's 2005 album Black Sheep Boy. Okkervil River plays this Thursday and Friday at the Edgefield with the Decemberists.
"Black" is still a tough song for me to listen to. The first time I heard it, in 2005, it kicked me in the guts. I heard—in short flashes that I couldn't quite put together at first over that cheery, driving backdrop—what sounded like Okkervil's Will Sheff describing the trauma that comes along with caring for someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse. In both broad strokes and unsettling specifics (the name, Cynda Moore, and the date, April 12, piercing through a fog of anger and helplessness), Sheff presents a narrator who is having trouble with the idea that he can't protect his partner or girlfriend or wife or friend from the awful shit that happened in her past. He sees the way this experience has changed her, and he wants to change her back. He would literally kill to fix things, but it's not the kind of thing he can fix.
"Black" is the fourth song on Black Sheep Boy. It took me an awful long time to get to track number five. When I was a teenager, a close friend confessed to me she'd been through something akin to what Sheff describes in "Black." While I'd never compare my relatively small secondhand trauma to what she went through, it still changed who I was in some fundamental ways. I became less trusting, more skeptical and a whole lot angrier. I was mad at the world for letting something like that happen. Mad at God, if there was a God, too. And, like the narrator of "Black," I wanted this guy dead. If just knowing about this friend's pain was a black cloud over my head, I couldn't (and still can't) imagine what it was like for her.
As Sheff says in the below Q&A, "every single person who has known women knows women who awful shit has happened to." It's probably true, but because the topic of sexual abuse is still so taboo—usually spoken about in hushed, shameful tones when it's spoken about at all—it was revelatory for me to hear a story I thought was my own packed into a punchy pop song that first time. It's a testament to Sheff as a songwriter that he was able to bottle the raw emotions that come with an experience like this and turn them into a song so balanced and subtle and tight. It's emotionally complex: There's sadness here as much as there's anger and, as Sheff also points out, there's some silver lining in the emotional gulf between the woman who has come to terms with what happened to her and a man who is just grappling with it for the first time. Time does not heal all wounds—I think Sheff would agree that that's a lie. But maybe in time we can learn how to disempower those who hurt us. Anyway, that's the lesson I'm choosing to pull from a song that still leaves me with an awful lump in my throat.
That "Black" happens to be—for those who don't focus on lyrics—a great little pop song is slightly twisted but fitting. Like Sheff says, "this stuff happens all the time." So why shouldn't it sound like a hit?
I'm coming into your town
Night is falling to the ground
But I can still see where you loved yourself
Before he tore it all down
April 12th, with nobody else around
You were outside the house
Where’s your mother?
When he put you in the car
When he took you down the road
And I can still see where it was open, the door he slammed closed
It was open, the door he slammed closed
It was open long ago
Don't lose me now, don't lose me now
Though I know that I'm not useful anyhow
Just let me stick around
And I'll tell you like before, you should say his name the way that he said yours
You don't want to say his name anymore
Oh, Cynda Moore
Baby daughter on the road
Wrapped up warm in daddy's coat
Well I can still see the cigarette's heat
I can't believe all that you're telling me
What is cutting like the smoke through your teeth as you are telling me ‘forget it?’
But if I could tear his throat
Spill his blood between my jaws
And erase his name for good
Don't you know that I would?
Don't you realize I wouldn't pause
That I would cut him down with my claws
If I could have somehow never let that happen?
Or I'll call some black midnight
Fuck up his new life where they don't know what he did
Tell his brand-new wife, his second kid
And I'll tell you like before, you should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours
You want no part of his life anymore
Oh, Cynda Moore
Don’t lose me now, let me help you out
Though I know that I can't help you anyhow
When I watch you I'm proud
When I tell you twice before that you should wreck his life the way that he wrecked yours
You want no part of his life anymore
Oh, Cynda Moore
And it'll never be the way it was before, but I wish that you would let me through that door
Let me through that door
WW: Hi, Will. So I was actually tossing it back and forth between the song “Black” and the song “Red” when I was deciding what song to talk to you about. Which was kind of random, I guess.
WS: Well, they’re related in a way. All the color songs are related. People might not realize that they are, they might just think that I can’t think of a title so I decide to throw a color name on there, but I have pretty strict rules for what ends up being a color song—and in fact I’ve had more recent color songs that I’ve written, that I just ended up not calling them by that name because I liked another name better.
Wow, so do you mind going into what the rules are for a color song?
A lot of it has to do with the way that your family situation when you’re young affects sexuality. They have to do with family and love and sex and sort of the way those things communicate with each other.
Do you know why you started naming them after colors?
To me it all sort of followed out of “Red,”  though I was aware when I was writing “Yellow”  on Down the River of Golden Dreams that in some ways it was an answer to “Red.” Or not an answer to “Red,” but it sort of breathes the same air as “Red” and sort of came from the same place. So I named it yellow after the yellow school bus in the song. And it kind of proceeded out from there. But there have still been a number of songs like that, that I thought of as having that general theme—there’s one from the new record that I wound up not putting on, it’s a color song called “White”—and there’s “Black,” obviously, and you know, it sort of has to do with “When Doves Cry,”  because I think “When Doves Cry” is an ideal pop song. It works beautifully as a pop song: It’s dancey, it’s fun, it has a great hook. But it’s dealing with a pretty subtle and thoughtful and hard-hitting theme. Which is sort of the same thing as the color songs. It’s like “Purple.”
[Laughing] Yeah, it would have to be “Purple.” So does naming them after colors have to do with the idea that when you’re that age, those are such pure memories—is there an immediacy there?
Well, I think it’s a little bit of that, that sort of vividness, and I think that it’s part that there’s a great sequence of things that you can do. Like you don’t start to run out of words. There’s a great sense of things being in a collection when they’re all colors together, and I’ve always been a big fan of things feeling like they are part of a collection. In fact, that’s sort of what a record is. People have talked about our records as being concept albums , but to me they always feel like a collection, like a fashion line or a menu or somebody showing their work in a gallery. That stuff is never thought of as strictly conceptual, but there’s a beautiful wholeness in the way that those pieces communicate with each other. And that’s what I aspire to. So when I’m thinking of a record I don’t think of it in terms of like Tommy or The Wall or something, I think of it more as a fashion line.
Is it ever uncomfortable for you to talk about a single song on a record because it feels like it’s part of that whole, or are you comfortable having each song stand alone for a listener?
Well, I’m comfortable with them standing alone. I think it would be a little bit of a useless exercise if they didn’t stand alone. But at the same time I’m hesitant to go absolutely nuts telling everybody what a song is about. Because to me that’s giving away the store. I really want to feel like the songs have mystery, and I would really hate if somebody loved some song because they absolutely thought it was about something that had some deep personal meaning to them, and then they heard me say “no, that’s about, you know, eating a hamburger [laughs].” That would be such a bummer for them. So for me, I don’t want to give away that meaning. Plus, on some level, it’s about whatever it means to people. If it means enough to you that you’ve made it that part of your life then you deserve some part ownership in it. And I don’t want to take that away by going “no no no, this is the correct interpretation.”
Well, then I won’t try to bleed you for all the details, but I do want to get some impressions on “Black.” But actually, I wanted to first ask you whether you got into words before you got into writing songs—because it seems like you have so much fun with the words, even when the subject matter is dark.
Yeah, I think that’s true that I was always into words and I always have been. That always has really been deeply important to me. I also really liked music, but gosh, somewhere along the line I really started to love music. I don’t know when it exactly happened. There was a time when I wanted to be a filmmaker far more than I ever wanted to be a songwriter, and writing was always something that was going alongside all of that. I liked writing, but I thought of writing as this jumping-off point that could go in several directions. It could go in a film direction or a song direction or something like that. And I never had the ambition to be a great musician. I was never driven to be a great guitar player or anything like that. But somewhere along the line I fell deeply in love with music, and I don’t know if I was like fated to or not, it’s kind of one of those things. But I became wholly devoted to the idea of songwriting. So it came out of a love of words, but at the same time I really hate certain songs by people who fancy themselves to be writers who are sort of slumming in songwriting. Sometimes there these songs—and Dylan is guilty of it, really super-guilty of it late in his career—where I think he just thinks that because it’s a Dylan lyric, he doesn’t have to pay much attention to the music or the melody. So there are these certain songs—I’ve been listening to Love and Theft  lately, and it really bothers me. I feel like there’s not much creatively going on, he’s just sort of spinning his wheels. There’s a complacency to it. And I love later Dylan. I’m a big Dylan devotee. But I hate that philosophy: “Oh, well the words are good, so I don’t have to spend any time with the music.” And in a lot of ways, I Am Very Far represents a rebellion from that. I really wanted the music to feel rich and involved, and I wanted the words to back up a little bit.
That has to be a challenge for you.
It was a challenge. In a way it was more effort: I wanted the words to lure you in. I wanted them to be like a secret treasure that you were desperately obsessed with trying to uncover instead of like a barker in front of a bar saying “step right in, it’s ladies night.” You know what I mean? I wanted it to be this secret prize. And a big part of that is not overwriting them, having them be, like, very mysterious. I think that they’re the best lyrics I ever wrote. In fact, I have no doubt about that at all. But they don’t advertise themselves in the same way.
I’m only a couple listens in, but it seems like a record that is a grower in a lot of ways, so I’m excited to dig back in.
Well, that was the hope.
You mentioned overwriting. Do you think you’ve been guilty of that at times?
I do, I do. And I hate it. I hate when people overwrite. I think it was an excess of my youth and really wanted to get rid of it. I truly don’t think I crossed the line that often. But I do think I crossed the line, and when I hear myself crossing the line in past records, I get really mad at myself and I just really wanted to never ever cross that line again. I mean, there’s a way you can overwrite that’s fun and entertaining and cute and there’s a way you can overwrite that shows a kind of insecurity and egotism that I really can’t stand. And you can hear it in later Dylan and you can hear it in later Elvis Costello and there are some contemporary artists that I’m too polite to say I hear it in, but I hear it and it just bothers me. So I really wanted to avoid that in my own work.
Is it almost like getting carried away with the moment in your writing and having too much fun? You mentioned Elvis Costello, and I’m a huge fan of his, but I hear lines where I think “that’s a great lyric, but does it mean anything to him?”
Yeah, I love him, too. But “You lack lust/ You’re so lackluster/ Is that all the strength you can muster?”  It’s like, yeah, I want to turn that lyric around and say that to him—it’s like, “congratulations, you just said absolutely nothing, and in a very clumsy, annoying way.” But I love him. And I’ve talked smack about him a couple times in interviews, but I would feel bad if I misrepresented the fact that I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan, it’s just that when you become a big fan you feel like you can criticize a person more, because it’s coming from such a place of love.
So, getting back to “Black,” I wonder if you remember the circumstances under which you wrote that song?
Gosh, it’s hard to recall. I’m pretty sure I wrote part of it in Europe—maybe in England—and I’m definitely positive that most of it was written in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where I wrote a lot of the songs for Black Sheep Boy. I don’t remember that much about it, actually. I feel like I had a little fragment and I turned it into something else. I think my original impulse for it was to go for “Gimme Danger,” the Stooges song?  Which it really doesn’t sound like. But that was the original feeling, that it should sound like that. And then it sort of, very organically, became more of a pop song.
Is that when you were putting a demo together, that’s what you wanted it to sound like?
Yeah, sort of that big, heavy, compressed acoustic guitar that’s sort of percussive and maybe a little piano line and the really driving, heavy beat. That’s sort of what I pictured for it. But then as we played it and played it, it sort of revealed that it wanted to be more poppy. And I listened to that.
Is that the kind of thing you just have to go with? If you feel a song moving in a direction, do you just have to get out of the way?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, you can get really lost when you have a song that’s really blatantly working, and you have some dumb dream about how it could be different, and you completely throw out the song. When you come back to the original, you think, “well that was working so well.” There’s kind of a zen quality to it that’s sort of a carving with the grain thing that I think all good art—not all, but most good art—has that sort of carving with the grain thing. And when you have lost your sense of where the grain is, you can get really confused.
Is that true with lyrics? I wonder how often you revise songs and how long you can take off before you come back to a song—does it eventually lose its freshness?
I think there is a little bit of that. One of the things you learn about Paul McCartney if you read biographies—and that’s one of my guilty pleasures, is rock bios and artist bios—is that apparently he had a big problem with this. He wasn’t the kind of guy that wrote lyrics right away, so he would have these goofy temp lyrics plugged in and there was always this real danger that if he didn’t write something serious soon it was going to stay that way. Apparently the original lyrics to “Yesterday” were “Scrambled eggs/ Oh my darling how I love your legs,”  and it was very difficult for him to change those lyrics, because they had started to take hold.
There are certain songs I wrote in high school that have something so good about them, and I’ll try to turn them into something I would like now, but it’s very hard, because some kind of juvenile lyric—I can’t explain it, but it’s just very hard to replace it with something I like more. Or some melodic turn that’s too obvious, I can’t think of something better. It’s sort of like, at a certain point, a song ossifies, and the only way it could be fixed would be if a different writer came in and just dismantled it; Somebody who had no organic relationship to the song. That said, I can change a song that I just wrote again and again. I feel like a song retains elasticity for a long time before it begins to harden.
Do you remember if you changed much about “Black” from your first-draft version?
I think I didn’t change it that much. There were certain lines that were a little more explicit about what was happening, and it felt like overkill, so I took those out. I seem to recall that the whole “let me through that door” bit at the end was more of a part of the rest of the body of the song, and it wasn’t really working so I just threw it out there. I think even as I was recording the vocals, that was when I put that “let me through that door thing” at the end. I think it wasn’t there at the beginning. I think the rest of it came really quickly. Which is great—some songs come that way, and a lot of the best songs come that way. But then again, there are some songs I reworked and rewrote forever and ever that are some of my favorite songs, too.
I am curious how many voices [or characters] are in that song, “Black”?
Well, I Am Very Far  has a lot of different characters, and many of them are fragmented. It’s kind of like a face you see in the dark and you’re not sure who it is. But that’s something I didn’t do as much in the past, and in “Black” it’s a very specific one person talking to a very specific other person. They don’t really change.
When I hear this song, I think, “you can’t really write a song like this without being familiar with the psychology of abuse,” and I don’t think that’s something you can learn from a class or a lecture—it has to come from your own experience with people. I wonder if you can speak to that point at all and how it relates to this song and what it’s about?
Well, as far as what it’s about, I think it’s pretty clear. And I absolutely have known people who the things in this song have happened to, and I’ve been very close to them. I think the song speaks to that feeling of watching something like that happen. And it’s never really over. It continues to happen forever, because it changes who somebody is and it acts upon their personality. So watching something like that happen and knowing there’s really nothing you can do about it—knowing that you can offer some kind of support, but in a way you’re just a footnote and you’re not part of it. You know, that’s a painful thing to think about. But I think that’s the only way it can be, and it’s the only way you can write a song from that standpoint, because you can’t fix something, you can’t make it better.
That’s the thing about life, and we all try to forget that it’s true, but life is really fucking unfair and really mean sometimes. Really awful, awful things happen sometimes and they’re not ever going to be okay. Ever. Nothing is ever going to make them okay. I think that’s what, when people talk about the wisdom of older people, this is what they’re not telling us, because it’s too depressing—they don’t even want to say it aloud. The fact is that life is miserable and painful and it doesn’t get better and it just gets worse. [Laughs slightly] It just gets worse and more painful, and then you just die. You learn how to cope with that pain somehow. I’m going on a tangent. But in any case, the only way you can really talk about it is to bear witness to it and say “hey, I’m on your side.” I think that’s what the narrator in the song is saying.
But I also think that, you know, when you say “you obviously have known people who this kind of stuff has happened to,” that’s true, but I’d like to point out that this stuff happens all the time . It’s not just this particular case and this particular song. Every single person who has known women knows women who awful shit has happened to. Everybody on Earth knows a woman who something really deeply unfair and awful has happened to. And there’s nothing that makes it not have happened. That doesn’t mean that people are just victims and they’re scarred and they can’t rise above it. In fact, I think the woman in this song has risen above it. She’s kind of over it, and it’s really more of an issue with the guy in this song at this point. But, you know, I think it’s pretty universal that women get a fucking raw deal in life.
I wonder how much you hear back from people on a song like this—I imagine you’ve had some pretty heavy conversations with people in your audience about songs like this.
Yeah, I have, and I’m really deeply honored that my music means anything to anybody, and particularly when it’s able to be some kind of use to people when they’re unhappy or when something painful is preoccupying them, because I think that’s what art is. It’s a useless useful thing. It’s something that has no actual concrete value, but in some ways that’s useful. And I don’t mean that to sound like it’s supposed to be an after-school special or because art is supposed to be good for you, because I think that’s sort of a boring idea. But I do think in some way it’s useful somehow. So yeah, in fact it’s the thing I’m most proud of in my entire life, is if I can have some kind of moment where I make people feel better or was comforting. That’s the best thing I’ll probably ever do. I don’t know if I’m gonna have kids, and I don’t know if it makes the world better to have kids at this point. I’m a pretty useless human being from day to day, but I do have going for me that I have occasionally made people feel better. So I’m proud of that.
Are you a Louis CK  fan, by chance?
I just thought of him when you said it just gets worse and then you die.
It’s true though! It’s so unbelievably true. There are moments when that show is so, it’s not even comedy, he’s just saying the awful things you don’t want to think about. Which is really what comedy is on some level. There’s some theory about comedy that is, you know, comedy and tragedy are basically dealing with the same thing, and it’s that life is unfair. Like, you can view slapstick comedy, the lowest form of comedy. In a way, the subject of slapstick comedy is that “it’s embarrassing having a body” and that your body lets you down and betrays you and humiliates you. The physical world betrays you and makes a fool of you, that’s really the subject of slapstick comedy, but it’s a tender take on it—it’s a release valve so that we can chuckle about it. That’s really what all comedy is, I think. I love the image of some deeply unhappy couple that hate each other’s guts going to see some comedy show and laughing about couples who hate each other, that unacknowledged thing. And at that moment they’re really enjoying themselves. But yeah, there are moments in that show where you’re like “God, this isn’t even funny, it’s just something I spend most of my life trying not to acknowledge.”
I do think that once you start to get a little bit older and you get this inkling of like, you know, something like your parents dying—it just always sucks. It’s not ever going to be better. There’s no answer to it. I don’t think that you ever get better, I just think you carry more and more and more pain on your back.
But is there some reward somewhere involved in that?
Yeah, absolutely, there is. You can help other people and you can comfort other people. I think the real takeaway from all this is that the problem is that we are tricked by culture into believing that life is supposed to be great. And the cult of the individual is a big part of it. Our whole culture teaches us to embrace our identity and be proud of ourselves and have high self-esteem and be empowered and be empowered consumers and have an exciting life and be creative and all this stuff. The truth is that this wonderful self that we put so much love on and put value in, is going to grow old and rot and die—and be gone. And we’re not special, either. The whole reason you find something funny or beautiful is that you’re human and there are a bunch of other people who find it funny or find it beautiful. Not everybody, but there’s an audience for this and that.
I know it’s not my right—nobody ever promised me that I was gonna be happy all the time and I was gonna be cheerful forever and that I was gonna always have energy and that my parents were gonna live forever—nobody ever promised you that, but somehow you feel like they did. And you just have to realize that it’s about helping other people and being good and focusing away from yourself and truly, truly appreciating and not taking for granted the moments when life is really beautiful—and not taking for granted the time that you are alive. That’s sort of, I think, what you do take away from all that. And when I say there’s just more and more pain, I’m not a Woody Allen kind of person, I don’t mean it as this nihilistic kind of thing. But I do think there’s a lot that people don’t want to think about. There’s a darkness and unfairness to life that people just try to tune out. But if you tune it out, you’re tuning it out at your own risk. Sooner or later your life is gonna be ruled by that. At some point you’re gonna have a really, really low, scary point. So you have to face it.
A song like “Your Past Life as a Blast,”  off of our new record, that’s me trying to write a really happy song. But I think if you’re going to try to write a happy song you have to acknowledge pain and you have to acknowledge all this other stuff. Because otherwise, people know in their gut that you’re lying to them. That’s why people get so mad at “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”  or “Shiny Happy People.”  They know [those songs] are so patently bullshit. The only people who like songs like that are people who are in the most annoying kind of denial. We know this is complete bullshit. But when you hear Lou Reed writing a happy song , you’re like “you know what, I’m going to totally accept this because you’re Lou Reed and you’ve written about all this other completely depressing shit." So I’ll take it.
Is the idea of a happy ending a shitty cultural thing that you try to not cop to in your art?
No, I mean, I think there is happiness. In real life, there are never endings to anything. So I don’t really believe in an ending, period. You could look at everybody’s life as having an unhappy ending in that they die, but that’s only if you look at it through that lens I was talking about before, which is this glorifying of yourself. Everybody dies, that’s just the way it is, but in any number of ways maybe that’s not the end. I think a happy ending is great. I enjoy movies with happy endings, and I feel like I’ve written songs with happy endings. To me it’s just a matter of not lying to people—not telling them something that’s not true.
I think “Black,” in a way, is a positive song. There’s a darkness in that song, but the woman in that song has risen above what happened to her. The guy in the song is tormented, but he also is coming from a place of real love for this woman. So in a way it’s a song about two people who love each other a lot and one person has got more of a sense of strength than the other. So I think in a way that song does have a happy ending, or at least the kind of happy ending that you can believe in.
It seems like that song speaks to the hopelessness of revenge, too, and I wonder what your take on revenge is.
Well, God, I have fantasies of revenge just like anybody. I’d like to personally kick the shit out of John Boehner . I would really like to watch Dick Cheney  be killed.
Would you really like that?
Well, a part of me would. I really hope that there’s a hell, because I think that those guys should go there and burn forever. But, on another level, I don’t think that [laughs]. I realize it’s an awful thing. You know, right after those shootings in Arizona —on some level, didn’t you want to see that guy get executed? I mean, even if you don’t believe in the death penalty, for a second you do. And I think that all that stuff is only human: Anger and rage and the desire for revenge. But the truth is that it doesn’t make anything better. It doesn’t un-destroy America to kill Dick Cheney, although it certainly would be entertaining. It wouldn’t make anything better and it’s only making you a more hateful person. That’s what I truly believe. I’m swept over by anger sometimes, and the narrator of that song is incredibly violently angry, but none of that is gonna change the situation.
It’s an anger that comes out of love, that he’s trying to defend her when he can’t possibly defend her.
Yeah, that’s another one of those tough realities that you just have to face. Killing somebody who killed somebody else isn’t going to bring them back—that whole cliche about capital punishment—I can’t think of an argument against that. I think that it’s true. You have to punish certain people for certain things that they did, just because society has to function, but I don’t believe that revenge makes anything better.
Okay, I know I’ve kept you a long time here, but I did want to ask, lastly—there’s a name in the song and a date in the song. Can you talk about either the name or the date?
It’s the name of one of the characters and the date that something happened, that’s all.
But really, thanks so much. I’m really glad that this went off in some different directions, because that’s exactly what I hope this column can do—just treat a song as a launching point.
Well, good. I’m sorry that certain topics get me off on a very excessive state of mind. I would hate if it came across that I was some kind of Woody Allen  kind of person who thought that life was misery, because in fact that’s not at all how I feel.
11. Louis CK AV Club interview
(Sample quote: "To me, as long as it’s compelling, as long it’s something worth watching, it’s okay if we’re not getting laughs.")
Special thanks to Will Sheff for his time.