It's like pulling away from the maze. While you're in the maze, you go through willy nilly, turning where you think you have to turn; banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they're the shape of your life. It's hard to explain.
An oft remarked historical fact about Cleopatra is that she lived at time that is closer to our time than when the Pyramids were built. This little tidbit is often used to emphasize the vast expanse of the history of civilization, which is of course still nothing compared to humanity’s existence as a species — a mere dusting of thin topsoil on top of a deep geological strata. But within the popular imagination, Egyptian history often gets compressed and conflated with the Hollywood imagery of Elizabeth Taylor and our sense of what happened when — be it King Tut or the fire that destroyed the great library of Alexandria — it all gets a bit muddled (if you are able to speak of Ramses II at any length or discuss the distinctions between Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, you are a more dedicated aficionado than most).
But time and memory can be like that within our own lives as well. Having worked at one employer for a particularly long stint, I’d occasionally get confused as to how certain people didn’t know each other, because after all they’d all worked for this same company. Then it’d be like, oh yeah — he left three years before you got here. It takes photo albums, or perhaps these days, Facebook timelines, to help give us some context our own eras.
The current moment is subject to distortion as well. The ebbs and flows of the clock, whether time seems to drag or be racing at a break neck speed is relative to the observer. Waiting for the day to end at the office when nothing is happening moves at a different rate versus being so inundated with tasks that you completely miss lunch and are a bit surprised when you see how late it is. And if you’ve fallen in love, the duration between rendezvous with your new significant other can feel like a lifetime.
But what is a lifetime? Well, if you’re Time Lord, like the good Doctor, you’ve got a baker’s dozen (or more, as it happens). He (or she, as it happens) has taken on many a new face and new clothes and entirely different personality over the course of his/her existence. But that can be a good metaphor for humans as well. We’re not the same person though the course of our existence — we lead different lives within our time on earth. Sometimes concurrently. With distance it’s easier to see the epochs, the transitions.
I had a specific bit of Doctor Who lore in mind when I was writing “Lifetimes Without You” — a bit obscure, a novelization of an adventure that never ended up being televised called “Lungbarrow” where the Doctor revisits his ancestral home. A lot of thankfully non-canonical lore got introduced like his people being birthed by being woven in “looms.” At some point someone is looking at the Doctor’s DNA, and being a Time Lord with multiple incarnations he had multiple DNA strands — one for each of his regenerations to date (just go with it). The person who’s looking at this remarks that he’s been “burning through lives quickly” or something to that effect. Which for those you know follow the program and try and think about the actual duration and durability of a given body that the Doctor has gone through… well… maybe don’t try and think about it so hard.
So that “burning through lives” — that stuck with me and I felt like there was something there. I just wasn’t sure it would work as a line in the song — would people get it it? This is one of those times where it’s a good thing that songwriting circles exist. I played it at one and someone pointed to that as their favorite line in the song, making it a bit of a "Hey Jude" moment for me (Mac said he felt like the “movement you need is on your shoulder” was filler but Lennon insisted he keep it as it was the best line in the song).
This same person also said that an extended verse about Prometheus and his torture via vulture pecking out his liver was a bit too visceral. So that ended up getting excised in favor of watching water drip, which someone else had remarked they said the song reminded them about. This actually is a lovely contrast to deluge of Igauzu falls as well as the Bosporous and Rubicon — the former waterway between the dividing line between two continents, the other a crossing of historic significance. Prometheus still makes an appearance of course, along with Napoleon, which feels very Dylan.
I’ve mentioned before the association this piece has with “Tea for Two” — the bulk of the piece being a fairly typical (for jazz, at least) ii-V-I chord progression with a bit of 6th and Major 7th goodness thrown in for contrast. It’s really the key changes that are particularly different, and here they become compressed into a short little turn around. It was the turn around that caused the song to really come to life in my opinion. That bit about the pyramids just sort of came out while muttering about through the chords progression trying to figure out what the heck to do with this bit that I liked harmonically but otherwise was a bit at a loss as to what to do with (sometimes an interesting way of developing lyrics is to just let yourself say random stuff as you play through something). I’m guessing the thought process can be traced back to “You Belong to Me” by Patsy Cline (which I know of through a Dylan cover) — “see the pyramids along the Nile” — but at the time it was a bit of a surprise to me. It certainly gave me a direction to go after that.
I have a soft spot for this song, but I guess it's not mainstream enough for songwriting competitions and the like. Fortunately singer-songwriter and classical guitarist Eugene Josephs was a fan of this one and he volunteered to cover it at the very first EGPhest — in his own musings he asked something along the lines “are they Gods?” in references to the protagonist and the object of his desire. Fittingly in that in the revival of Doctor Who, the protagonist has been labeled as “a lonely God.”
It’s also a favorite of Greg Yee of the Complements, and they've covered it as a soulful ballad. Alicia's into my tune “Girls Who Don’t Get the City” (off "Fish from the Sky") but I’d asked Greg to sit in at Doc’s Lab one night on Lifetimes and he became a bit enamored with it so they ended up doing both songs at EGPhest II (overachievers that they are).
Having this sort of vote of confidence from those artists is what in part led to me to decide that “Lifetimes Without You” should really be part of “At Home At Sea.” All songs have a history, and this one is no exception. I saw it as being part of a different set of songs in my catalogue and there was another song I’d originally thought would be in its place on the album, but with each album maybe being your last, one feels one has to choose the songs you really want to be out there and given a chance to be heard.
The ukuleles on the track were producer Ben Osheroff’s brain child. Originally some of those piano lines were done on a uke, but to get them to stand out, Ben switched up the instrumentation. Bringing in Eve Fleishman to do backing vocals, who like me is a fan of Blossom Dearie (who’s version of Tea for Two I had in mind) was a bit of a stroke of luck.
I’ve performed the song a bit more a slow burn, with a bit more emphasis on the heartache, but the album version brings out some of the sweetness and Americana Highways correctly noted that it is ultimately about falling in love and its grandeur as much as it is about longing. There’s, as usual, some personal history in the mix — some big dreams and expectations never got fulfilled from a particular life I led at one point. I did make it to the bazaars of Istanbul eventually, but I’ve yet to get to Igauzu falls, let alone make some grand romantic gesture there.
All that does feel like a longtime ago these days.
Anyway, you can find my name on the wall of the SF Jazz Center, those you enterprising to go hunt for it. The jazz center itself is no longer so new, of course, and I don't get there as often as I'd like these days but it’s well worth a visit if you get a chance.
In the meantime, maybe give this song a spin.
The extended musings of a songwriter.