In praise of Famous Tracheotomies

I’ve spent the past week in frequent tears, emotionally undone for some reason by the opening track from Okkervil River’s In The Rainbow Rain, “Famous Tracheotomies.”

Morgan Enos in Billboard opines that the song is self-explanatory, but I think its genius is a little more subtle than that. On first listen, the synopsis goes: Okkervil songwriter Will Sheff almost died as a baby. He had to have a tracheotomy, and has lived with the scar and the knowledge that he almost didn’t make it, since then. Sheff goes on, in a series of verses, to recount the sad declines of other famous tracheotomy recipients: Gary Coleman, Mary Wells, Dylan Thomas, whose wife got so drunk the night he died that she “had to be restrained.”

At this point, you know the song is going somewhere, but you don’t know where. It seems a little on the nose. Somewhere relatively dark. The last verse starts in the same style: Ray Davies, age 13, in a hospital in London. The pattern repetition has lulled you into complacency— you know the story, here’s another example. The nurses wheel him out onto the balcony to get some air. He looks out over the river, and we roll into the last line.

“And as that evening sun did sink / on London and the river and that freaked-out future Kink”

You already knew that. Ray Davies, along with his brother Dave, is the chief songwriter for the most working class of British bands, The Kinks. Famous for songs about everyday men and women, working stiffs, down-on-their-luck folks caught up in the conundrums of their time. You could see Sheff identifying with Davies even, drawing a line between Davies’s art and his own.

“Waterloo lit up for one sick kid”

Sheff’s lulling repetition has blinded you to the other identification he makes with Davies, that of the everyman who comes close to death but pulls through and makes indelible art. With that buried lede, “Waterloo,” the entire song opens up instantaneously. You know what Waterloo signifies. “Waterloo Sunset” has been at times pegged as the greatest British rock song, the quintessential story of blue collar knobs finding beauty amid the drudgery. You instantly hear in your mind “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise,” and Sheff has already painted the picture of Davies doing exactly that.

“And at 23, he wrote a song about it”

And as you’re hearing Sheff and seeing Davies watching the Waterloo sunset, you hear that last line, and you know that Davies still has his whole career ahead of him, and there’s hope, that the song is about hope. It’s not about dissolution.

It’s about hope.

In the masterstroke, the song then begins to cycle into a wordless repetition of the “Waterloo Sunset” melody, and the chord structure is revealed to have been a companion to Waterloo Sunset all along, and Sheff a direct descendant of a long line of hurting artists trying to find beauty in the everyday. And then, you get to meditate on the song itself, without words – the lyrical melody of the opening verse of “Waterloo Sunset” – and you feel something. Something ineffable and filled with hope.

It’s an old truism – your pain is not the end of your story, it may set the stage for your greatest achievements – but it’s as elegantly painted here as it has ever been, in a subversive and unexpectedly moving way: Waterloo Sunset’s fine.

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