I’m not Catholic, and I don’t believe I experience more bouts of guilt than the average imperfect being, but there are a few things I’ve done, or things I haven’t done, that will make me feel “guilty for the rest of my life,” as Randy Newman says.
My guilt tends to be over sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Oh yes, I have indulged in activities that hurt others and I have gone through subsequent periods of remorse and regret. The guilt that really lingers most, though, is over the things I didn’t do when I had the chance. As I’ve gotten older and lost my mom and dad, other relatives, and friends, a recurring feeling, along with the sorrow, is “Why didn’t I do more before they left?” I’m receiving this lesson more and more often, but, alas, I haven’t gotten much better at taking opportunities to be with those I love. The curse of introversion.
“Marie” Randy Newman’s masterpiece, Good Ol’ Boys, contains two of the best songs featuring guilt-ridden ne’er-do-wells ever written, “Guilty” and “Marie,” both delivered as only Randy Newman can (although Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, and several others have done splendid jobs on “Guilty”).
The poor sap who sings to Marie apologizes for being crazy, weak, lazy, and drunk, and allows “I’ve hurt you so.” But he’s trying to make things right, express his love, and be forgiven so that he may mend his ways.
“I’m weak and I’m lazy, and I’ve hurt you so”
“Guilty” The loser who sings “Guilty” is a bit farther down on the “forgivable” scale. He gets drunk, coked up, and stays out all hours getting into trouble. He doesn’t expect to improve: “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’ll be guilty the rest of my life.” Time to move on, sister. Charli, who runs the longtime jam circle I sing with occasionally, does this one even better than Joe, Bonnie, and Randy.
“I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” Randy Newman does a neat twist on guilt in this beautiful song. Haven’t we all felt that way before? We want our lost lover to feel guilty for leaving, and then we wind up wracked with guilt about feeling that way.
“Pretend It Never Happened” A cover band I played in during the seventies focused primarily on sixties pop rock stuff, with a lot of off-the-wall humor, thanks to our frustrated-standup drummer Loz. When we took on a fellow named Showbiz Bob, he added a bit of folkie flavor to the mix. His idol was John Stewart, who’d been a member of The Kingston Trio and in the eighties had a bit of the spotlight in a duet with Stevie Nicks on the song “Gold.”
The song “Pretend It Never Happened” was evidently something John Stewart performed live that Showbiz, who’d seen him many times, picked up. Despite its being a slow-tempo ballad, it was the only song Showbiz ever suggested we add that drummer Loz wholeheartedly endorsed. A sample verse: “I’m sorry I hit you with the car / I didn’t really mean for things to go that far / Pretend it never happened, go out on the town / You can’t let the little things get you down.”
“Down by the River” When I asked my wife if any songs that suited the topic of guilt came to mind, the first song she thought of was the Neil Young/Crazy Horse epic “Down by the River,” long a favorite of mine. I ran through the lyrics in my head for a few moments and then asked, “Is he feeling guilty?” She replied, “Well, he ought to be—he shot his baby.” That’s for sure—but instead, ol’ Neil seems to be talking someone else into fleeing the scene of the crime with him, while his old baby’s lying dead, down by the river.
Monk on LP
“Don’t Blame Me” Thelonious Monk’s solo versions of this standard have crowded out any other versions of it for me—the vocal renditions as well as all other instrumental versions. It’s a perfect example, particularly for those who are familiar with the standard, of how the pianist Monkifies the work of others. His trademark dissonances add to the song’s beauty, and, sans accompaniment, he can indulge in rhythmic playfulness, inserting vaudevillian trills, cascading arpeggios, and pregnant pauses. Criss Cross has an excellent “Don’t Blame Me,” nestled between Monk’s compositions “Rhythm-a-ning” and “Think of One.”
If you want to hear the lyrics, which are actually a declaration of love—not a guilty apology, Frank Sinatra is among many vocalists who’ve interpreted it well.
“Honey, I’ve Been a Bad Boy” Friend and music cohort Toby wrote the lyrics for this nice number for our four-part harmony group. “I’ve been out hanky-pankin’, now I’m fit for a spankin’ / Honey, I’ve been a bad boy—I’ve been an oh-so-naughty boy.”
Honorable Mentions: John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is a nice guilt-ridden apology from Imagine. The Dan Penn-Chips Moman country-soul ballad “At the Dark End of the Street” is one of the most evocative guilt songs ever written. Two cheating lovers remain in the shadows, knowing they’re doing wrong but unable to stop.
I’ve long been captivated by stories of guilt in literature. Writer Graham Greene masterfully explores good old Catholic guilt in much of his best work. Many of his protagonists are bedeviled by their consciences, some to the point of being overcome and even destroyed. Favorite Greene books of guilt include The Power and the Glory (featuring the Mexican “whiskey priest” who feels he never does enough to lift people up), The Heart of the Matter (whose Scobie is trapped in an unhappy marriage and dallies, never to get over it), and The End of the Affair (which involves guilty jealousy of God).