Great lyricists need to play both poet and storyteller, crafting narratives using poetic language that colours their vignettes with drama and emotion. Great songwriters know how to marry their written verse to a musical language that heightens and emphasizes dramatic tension. For over three decades now, Michael Timmins has been a master storyteller and poet. He populates the songs of Cowboy Junkies with memorable, indelible characters and weaves complex storylines with melody and song that make them instant classics.
In many cases, the cast of characters in Cowboy Junkies songs are fully fleshed and finely drawn. Though some, like the damaged souls fleshed out in the character sketches that follow, have always captivated me and begged further scrutiny. Who are they? How have they come to be in the situation they are in? In addition to utilizing both poetics and rich narration, great storytellers also know how dole out detail. They innately understand which aspects of character to sketch out fully, and which aspects to leave open for guesswork. What follows are various interpretations that exist in a moment captured by lyrics that conjure up a deeper tale.
DAMAGED FROM THE START: Character Sketches from Cowboy Junkies
Cast of Characters
(In order of appearance)
Narrator, “Misguided Angel” from The Trinity Session
“I said ‘Papa, don’t cry cause it’s alright / And I see you in some of his ways / Though he might not give me the life that you wanted / I’ll love him the rest of my days’”
All I ever wanted was for my father to accept the person I was, and not mourn the person he had hoped I’d become. Even as an adult, Papa’s approval meant more to me than anything. I think that’s what attracted me to my Misguided Angel most: approval. Acceptance. An acknowledgment that there’s something of value in me. None of my family and friends see the side of him that I see. They don’t understand what it’s like when it’s just the two of us. Yeah, he’s got a temper, I’ll give you that, but he’s never raised a hand to me. Mama can’t say that about Papa, now, can she?
Homeless man, “’Cause Cheap Is How I Feel” from The Caution Horses
“It’s the kind of night that’s so cold, when you spit / it freezes before it hits the ground / And when a bum asks you for a quarter, you give a dollar / if he’s out tonight he must be truly down”
Albert could line up all the bad breaks he’s had like dominos. He could recount the chain reaction that led him to the doorway of Basel’s coffee shop on the coldest night of the year: his dad’s early death; his mom remarrying that good-for-nothing Raymond; the evictions; the part-time jobs that dried up just as quickly as they’d appear; that gold-digging Karen and her snot-nosed little kid; the car accident that left more emotional scars than physical. He was a couple bucks shy of having enough for a decent meal and was determined not to let the cold stand in the way, but the street was empty except for the one kind soul who flipped him a buck when he’d ask for a quarter. It was a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud, but Albert took it as a sign: “Maybe things are starting to look up.”
Annabelle Evans and her neighbour Peg, “Murder, Tonight, In The Trailer Park” from Black Eyed Man
“Murder tonight in the trailer park / Mrs. Annabelle Evans found / with her throat cut after dark / Her pockets turned inside out / her dresser drawers turned upside down / Anna’s neighbour, Peg, identifies the body / lets out a hollow kind of sound,”
Years spent working in the spinning room at the cotton mill left Margaret “Peg” Potter with tinnitus and significant hearing loss, but she’d never admit to your face that she had trouble hearing. She didn’t have much need for conversation these days; only her dog Pooh paid her any mind. All Peg’s relatives had put equal parts time and distance between them and her years ago. The closest thing to human connection that she had was Annabelle Evans, who lived one trailer over with her husband. They kept to themselves and didn’t much bother with Peg, but every morning when Peg let Pooh out, Annabelle, who was sitting out front having a coffee and cigarette, would smile and wave, before asking “How’s the pooch doing today?” That was basically the extent of their relationship, but still, for Peg, it was a daily affirmation that someone knew she existed. That’s why Peg took the news about Annabelle so hard. Watching TV in her trailer, the volume turned way up so that she could hear, Peg was oblivious to whatever struggle ended Annabelle’s life. The police thought her cries of horror and sorrow were at the loss of her neighbour, and to an extent they were. Deep down, though, what Peg was mourning most was the sense that her own humanity had been lost.
Bea and John, “Bea’s Song (River Song Trilogy, Part II)” from Lay It Down
“John says I look at the moon and the stars / These days more often than I look into his eyes / And I can’t disagree so I don’t say nothing / I just stare on past his face at Venus rising / Like a shining speck of hope hanging over the horizon”
Bea and John reached the point in their lives when they’d been a couple longer than not. It had been long enough that people had stopped commenting and asking about the secret to a long and happy marriage. Long? You just stick it out. Happy? You just stick to the script and play happy. Bea wasn’t unhappy with John, though. She didn’t blame him, even though he couldn’t help but blame himself. The change was subtle; it was a slow descent. By the time John realized there was an emotional gulf between them, Bea had floated out passed the point of rescue. She was an island in his sight line, but he had drifted out of reach. That’s what made it so hard for him; John didn’t know how to live alone, or how to be his own man without his beloved Bea. Before the parting, their love and connection had been effortless, natural. He never felt like he had to put any effort into being a husband. Now, he could reach out and touch Bea physically, but for the life of him he didn’t know how to connect emotionally.
Him, “IKEA Parking Lot” from Notes Falling Slow
“I don’t think that I love you anymore / her words like a fist float beside him / the world all around starts to sharpen / a man made hollow / in the IKEA parking lot.”
It was the inevitability of the situation that hit Him in the gut. The verbal sparring, the deafening hours of silence and cold-shouldering, the subtle hostilities that felt routine were suddenly over. Their standoff was finished; She pulled the trigger first. He wasn’t surprised by her words. It was an unspoken truth that they both knew and felt. He wasn’t even sad that She’d said it; He was mostly jealous that she’d had the courage to say it first. He thought about how the narrative would play out with friends and family, how she’d be able to say “It was my decision,” thereby forcing all the pity and sympathy his way. She was emasculating him with eight simple words. The only way to save face, He thought, was to turn the uncertainty of her words back on her. She said “I don’t think”, so what if he countered with, “I know for certain I don’t love you anymore”? He imagined the sting of an indisputable statement. The hurt in her eyes. The catch in her throat. But as he played the scenario out in his head, calculating his cadence and tone, what overwhelmed him was the further sinking pit in his stomach that came every time he heard himself say the words in his own head.