On Cat Power’s “Willie”

When I wrote about Woody Guthrie’s “Along in the Sun and the Rain,” I ended by telling you about my job, how I was not committed to it, and now feel committed to it. I told you how I think “job” is synonymous with “vocation.”

I started writing about Guthrie’s “Along in the Sun and the Rain” because I was listening to Cat Power’s “Willie.”In this song, she also sings about getting a job done. I was listening to “Willie,” thinking about getting my job done, which lead me to Guthrie. But now I’m back to “Willie.” I am in fact at Stories Cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, listening to Willie on repeat on big black headphones.

“Willie” is a beautiful song, maybe my favorite Cat Power song. It’s hard for me to articulate why I love this song so much, I don’t think I even understand yet. But I can focus on a line or two and start there. We’ll see where I go from there, what happens.

Let me start by talking to you about Willie and his commitment to his job. The verse is as follows:

Willie was shot once in his mind
His cry out saved his own life
The second time was through the heart
The doctors pulled the bullet from inside

He had a job to do, he said
That’s his way of life

Willie was shot twice. He should’ve died. Most people don’t survive one shot but he survived two. He survived the first because he cried out; his voice saved him, he saved himself. The second time he lived because “he had a job to do, he said. That’s his way of life.” The second time something bigger than him saved him, the second time his calling saved him. This is a powerful and simple idea:  Willie is alive for a reason, Willie will die once his job is done, and that’s his way of life.

I want my life to be like Willie’s. I want to have job and do it, I want to die when my job is done. Right now I do feel like I’ve survived this far for a reason. Right now I feel like I have a job to do. I don’t want to go into the specifics but I feel the shift. I once felt strayed, I once felt lost; now I feel focused, now I feel rooted.

I want a life like Willie’s and I want a love like Willie’s. Cat Power begins the song by telling us about the relationship between Willie and Rebecca.

Willie Deadwilder and Rebecca
They knew that they loved one another

Gonna have a real good time
No more sad sad bad times

It’s all they’ve been waiting for
someone to knock at the door

She tells us more about their relationship, toward the middle of the song.

I tell ya there are some people living alone
I tell ya there are some people with nowhere to go
There are some people who don’t believe in love
But Willie and Rebecca prove ’em all wrong

I want a relationship like Willie and Rebecca. I want to meet someone and feel like I’ve been waiting for them, like they’re knocking on that door. I think that’s a pretty common feeling, but for a long time I did not want a relationship like Willie and Rebecca’s. I was one of those people living alone, with nowhere to go, who didn’t believe in love. It was a strange and hard time. I would listen to this song and think of Willie and Rebecca, I would think of how they could prove me wrong, and when I thought of them, I felt hope.

This verse is followed by Cat Power singing about two men in her life and it’s clear that she does not have a love like Willie and Rebecca’s. I think Cat Power (or the singer) wants a love like Willie’s. The first man she tell us about is John.

A man named John wrote a song for me to sing
And the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen
He is a very good man

And he has been an even very good man to me
I hope one day his song I will sing

He has been an even very good man to me. It’s as if the singer is surprised a good man could be good to her. It’s a sentiment I’m familiar with, a sentiment to which I can relate. I love the way Cat Power sings the word “sing” in the line “I hope one day his song I will sing.” She doesn’t pronounce ‘ing’ so in the song, sings sounds like see. And I think she is also saying, I hope one day I will see. I hope one day I will love this man who is so good to me.

The second man she tell us about does not have a name.

Another love I still love
Familiar face to me
A standing arch above my heart

I’ve never been to reach
He’s laid my head on the bed
And told me sweetly I am not
Crazy like all the others said

No, he’s not crazy like me

Here’s a man she loves and she’s loved for a long time (I still love, a familiar face) but he’s out of reach. It is not a love like Willie’s, it is not someone knocking on her door. It is a love like an arch that is out of reach. This arch is high, so high above her head that she stretches her hand above her and still cannot touch it. But there she is, in bed with him, and he’s telling her that he’s not crazy like everyone says, and she tell us, No, he’s not crazy like me.

She’s surprised John the good man is good to her and she believes she’s crazier than the familiar face. Then she sings:

Please don’t bring me down
Please don’t let me go

She ends the song by singing:

I’m on the same side as you
I’m just a little bit behind

These are lines that repeat throughout the song. In the beginning she sings:

Please don’t bring him down
Please don’t let him go
He’s on the same side as you
He’s just a little behind

The lines repeat but the pronoun changes from “he” to “me.”

There are times that I’ve let people go because I thought they weren’t on the same side as me. There are times I’ve been wrong, they were on the same side, they were just behind. Maybe if I waited, they would’ve caught up. There were times when people let me go; we were on the same side but they didn’t see it that way. They didn’t understand I was just a little bit behind. Maybe if they waited, I would’ve caught up.

This song serves as a reminder for me to be kinder, to be patient, to hold on to people who are good, even though sometimes situations can become complex. And when I feel like someone is letting go, that they’re giving up on me, I sing this song, I sing the last line in my room or my car and hope that they’ll see that we’re on the same side.

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