so alex chilton died today. it's always sad when someone talented leaves the world, especially someone who can write song lyrics the way he could. the way the man could wield simplicity always cuts me to the bone. he wrote what is possibly my favorite mushy love song, and one that's sadly become kind of mainstream, "thirteen."
on its face, it looks like a sweet little ballad about teenage love. "won't you let me walk you home from school? won't you let me meet you at the pool?" awww. it's about eighth-graders being awkward and halting around each other. even the music, a simple acoustic chord progression, is simple, charming and almost hesitant. but by the last verse, the concept takes a remarkably mature and resonant turn...
won't you tell me what you're thinking of?
would you be an outlaw for my love?
if it's so, then let me know
if it's no, then i can go
i won't make you
simply perfect. obviously, this can be read a number of ways, like something as simple as making out in the back of a car when you're, well, thirteen. it could also describe something secret, something forbidden, something that requires a leap of faith that a lot of people wouldn't accept or be willing to make. that's the reading that resonates the most with me. i mean, hell, i'm becoming the master of the secret and forbidden.
this is the deal i made with the other boy: be an outlaw for my love. i won't make you, but that's what i'm offering. i undoubtedly took advantage of him; the stage was set, the circumstances were perfect, and i knew what he was thinking. i knew resistance would be token at best. but the setup was risky from the start, and i made it clear that he never had to give more than he felt comfortable giving. this frustrates me. i've set myself up for confusion and discomfort by granting him all the freedom here. but that was the way this would work best. and sure enough, he's been willing and able to break the rules with me. it comes with conditions, but it's still there. in his way, he let me know.
truly gifted songwriters can wind a lyric so tightly around your heart that you're simultaneously grateful and overwhelmed by the power of the emotion. that's what alex chilton did for me with "thirteen," and that sort of contribution is worth noting.