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2012 Winter Issue 8 (March 2, 2012)

Breaking up with Carleton, temporarily

March 2, 2012
By Griffin Johnson

There’s an old pop song called “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” originally written and recorded by a songwriter named Jimmy Webb, who was moderately well-known in his day, but who’s been totally obliterated in the collective memory of our generation. It was made famous by Glen Campbell, another popular-but-mostly-forgotten pop star, and it was one of Frank Sinatra’s favorites. Dean Martin performed it kind of half-heartedly during some dreary recording sessions in the 60s, although not as half-heartedly as Oscar Peterson, who sounds like he’s half-asleep. James Brown’s version sounds a little forced. There’s an extremely syrupy Henry Mancini recording. More recently, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did an inexplicable live version.

It’s a short song built around a series of regretful little chords and a steady, tranquil bass part. The protagonist of the song is driving east on the road out of Los Angeles. The sun isn’t up yet. Our hero, for some reason that’s never explained, has just ducked out of both his home and his commitments to his lover, who was asleep when he left, and taken off, and as he drives down the highway he imagines her waking up and spending her first day alone. All of it is related in very earnest 1960s songwriter’s language:

By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising
And she’ll find the note I left hanging on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part where it says I’m leaving
Because I’ve left that girl so many times before.
And it’s really ideal if the singer holds that “so” for an extra bar.

It found its place in the 1960s and 70s pop singer’s repertoire and then lapsed, like any meme will, from public consciousness as newer things came along. But there’s one version in the welter of different versions that means a lot to me even in this late epoch, and that’s Isaac Hayes’s version, because his version is like nothing else in the world.

Isaac Hayes, like the absolutely unrestricted ham he was, took this tiny little song and blew it up until it was a massive, bloated freakout that no doubt ate up an entire side of the album. Rather than going straight into the song, he prefaces it with a spoken introduction contextualizing the situation of the protagonist with nothing but a one-note bass line and one sustained organ chord, which goes on for nearly ten minutes. Then, he sings the song itself, which is only three verses and goes for about three minutes, and then he howls about how the lady in the song has done him wrong for about seven more minutes as the the organ, horns, strings, drums and bass gradually build up into a giant belch of chords and emotions. It’s nearly twenty minutes long, and the majority of it is Isaac Hayes either speaking in a low monotone or screaming.

Now I have a confession to make, and I feel a little apprehensive – I have the fear that committing this to print will make it a little less special. But here it is: I listen to Isaac Hayes’s version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” every time I leave Carleton. It’s the most important part of my ritual. There are other songs I listen to – some Bob Dylan, some Stones, some Devo, even – but Isaac Hayes is the keystone, because I think his version of the song is probably the best breakup song I’ve ever heard, and for me, the emotions of leaving Carleton resemble nothing more than a breakup.

I broke up with my Big Important High School Girlfriend a few days before I left for Carleton my freshman year, and I remember leaving Ann Arbor with a mixture of regret, bitterness, and total elation. I had an unbelievable sense of freedom. For the first time in two years, really in my whole life, I was well and truly independent. The person I’d left behind was still there, but I no longer had any responsibility to her, or to anybody but myself. I still remembered everything, but all of it was suddenly at a safe distance, and I could think about it, the way you think about a book – or a song.

Eleven weeks later, after an extremely stressful first fall term, I found myself on a bus to the airport with Isaac Hayes’s song in my ears, and it felt exactly the same as it had felt in the fall – the lifting of burdens, the regret, the feeling of freedom and the bitterness and anger were all the same.

You are breaking up with Carleton when you leave. You know you can’t stay away for long – I’ve left that girl so many times before – but for the time being it feels cathartic. It feels free. You no longer owe this campus anything.

There’s no time during spring break to truly decompress, but take every opportunity to reming yourself of this, to adjust your consciousness to a more healthy state before you come back. It might not involve listening to 20-minute soul jams on a bus. But it should be cathartic enough to tide you over, because, don’t forget, you’re going to be back here, soon.

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