EARWORM! The Angels Turn To Ashes

Dream lovers are wondrous things. In our thoughts, they grow magnified until perfected, until there is no simple way to tell their story anymore. They’re archetyped. Emmylou Harris, who has loved and lost in a manner that immortalizes her even while alive, has a mythologized dream of her own.

Last night I dreamed about you
I dreamed that you were older
You were looking like Picasso
With a scar across your shoulder
You were kneeling by the river
You were digging up the bodies
Buried long ago
Michelangelo

Last night I dreamed about you
I dreamed you were a pilgrim
On a highway out alone to find
The mother of your children
Who were still unborn and waiting
In the wings of some desire
Abandoned long ago
Michelangelo

The object of Harris’ 2000 gem “Michelangelo,” it’s already clear, is long gone. Protagonist-lovers who are “dreamed” are most often in the past. This one is described in terms of a seeker frozen in time, who didn’t live to become as old as the singer now envisions him, and who while present brimmed with potential that was never discharged.

Were you there at Armageddon?
Was Paris really burning?
Could I have been the one to pull you
From the point of no returning?
And did I hear you calling out my name?
Or was it forgotten long ago
Michelangelo

Last night I dreamed about you
I dreamed that you were riding
On a blood-red painted pony
Up where the heavens were dividing
And the angels turned to ashes
You came tumbling with them to the earth
So far below
Michelangelo

This song came to me in a dream. I read a lot and I find myself very moved by language. There’s almost a direct steal in this lyric by Carl Sandburg. I just kinda rewrote it. One of my favorite things about the recording is that is that it is a one-take vocal with just the three of us on the track — Malcolm Burn, Ethan Johns, and me.”

She had a box
with a million red silk bandannas for him.
She gave them to him
one by one or by thousands,
saying then she had not enough for him.

She had languages and landscapes
on her lips and the end of her tongue,
landscapes of sunny hills and changing fogs,
of houses falling and people within falling,
of a left-handed man
who died for a woman who went out of her mind,
of a guitar player
who died with fingers reaching for strings … 

In the most explosive portion of her career, Emmylou Harris knew just such a guitar player.

Last night I dreamed about you
I dreamed that you lay dying
In a field of thorn and roses
With a hawk above you crying
For the warrior slain in battle
From an arrow driven deep inside you
Long ago
Michelangelo

Did you suffer at the end?
Would there be no one to remember?
Did you banish all the old ghosts
At the terms of your surrender?
And could you hear me calling out your name?
Well I guess that I will never know
Michelangelo

Harris has never explained the intent, if any, behind the song, and she’s played coy when asked publicly. It may not be about Gram Parsons at all. But dream lovers are made up of imagination and memory, and Parsons surely looms large in Harris’ memory, just as he does in ours.

Last night I dreamed about you
I dreamed that you were weeping
And your tears poured down like diamonds
For a love beyond all keeping
And you caught them one by one
In a million silk bandannas that I gave you
Long ago
Michelangelo

I read a Phil Kaufman quote: ‘If Gram hadn’t been married, then definitely something would have happened between the two of them.’ Do you think that’s true?

“Oh yeah. And if he hadn’t died. We were definitely moving that way. A couple of weeks before, I’d finally accepted the fact that I was in love with him. But, you know, why even tell him? I was going to see him in a few weeks. I had all the time in the world. And then he died, so I never even got to tell him.”

Emmylou Harris — Where Will I Be


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