Buffalo Tom & Songs About Home

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?

With his plaintive, yearning voice, Jimmie Dale Gilmore asked this musical question with his legendary group, the Flatlanders, in 1972. It is the very specificity of the question in the very first line of the song “Dallas” that draws the listener. Instead of something as pedestrian as, say, “Have you ever been to Dallas?” he asks if you have seen it from a DC-9. At night. Paradoxically, though, it doesn’t matter that it is Dallas. Have you ever seen Boston from a 727 at night, as you take off from Logan? Then you know what it is like to leave home, leave the place you love. I have done it often, traveling with my band.

Although I’ve spent the past 25 years in the Boston rock & roll group, Buffalo Tom, I’ve also made a living for the past decade as a real estate marketer/agent in Lexington and the western suburbs. How do I make sense of these two worlds? (That’s not a rhetorical question. If you have any answers, please feel free to let me know.)

It is a question I imagine more people ask themselves in this era than ever before. It seems that more people change jobs, careers, and balance family and other passions than any time in recent memory. The economy has something to do with it, spurring on entrepreneurial independent contractors to take charge of their own futures. That’s what I faced as a 34 year-old erstwhile rock & roller and new father. I could turn back to the road (assuming the other guys in the band wanted to), leaving my family to watch my taillights fade, or try to write a new chapter of my life. So I took off one hat and tried another on for a while. A decade later, and I feel like the balance has been largely successful.

I knew — even hoped — that there might be a little crossover between the two worlds, optimistic that my profile in the band would turn home-searching BT fans into clients. But I don’t think I expected the career change to impact my relationship to music itself, both as a fan and as a songwriter. And yet a sense of place — of specific space, and light, as well as geography — has always been there in my own writing. I listen with more acute interest to others’ songs about the subjects (as well as re-reading Independence Day, by my favorite author, Richard Ford, about his protagonist, real estate agent, Frank Bascombe).

There are some great songs about home, particularly in the country genre. Listen to “Home for Sale,” by Dwight Yoakam, “Green Green Grass of Home,” by Merle Haggard, or “The Grand Tour,” as sung by George Jones.

I don’t think anyone writes about this sense of home more effectively, however, than my favorite songwriter, Tom Waits. “San Diego Serenade” was one of his earliest songs to evoke such sentiment.

I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long

But Tom, who was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, is one of those rare performers/writers who improved as his career progressed. In fact, it is his 16th(!) album, Mule Variations, which is probably my favorite of his. Not coincidentally, the record’s subject matter offers a variety perspectives on houses, homes, and domesticity, both dark, but mostly the light.

In, “The House Where Nobody Lives,” Waits ponders what the structure of a house is if not a container for the lives that are led there. When it is empty and abandoned, what is left?

Once it held laughter, once it held dreams
Did they throw that away? Do they know what it means?
Did someone’s heart break, or did someone do somebody wrong?

….I’ve had all of life’s treasures and they’e fine and they’re good
they remind me that houses are just made from wood.
What makes a house grand ain’t the roof or the doors
If there’s love in a house, it’s a palace for sure
Without love, its ain’t nothing but a house where nobody lives.

But, as recently as a few weeks ago, as I peered down at Boston from an airplane, looking off to the northwest and trying to search as close as possible for the lights of my own house, I was reminded of that Flatlanders song. I also feel like the narrator of one of Tom Waits’ other devastatingly beautiful songs, “Take It With Me”:

In a land there’s a town
And in that town there’s a house
And in that house there’s a woman
And in that woman there’s a heart I love
I’m gonna take it with me when I go

I walk into hundreds of houses every year. I almost always feel vibes of the lives that have unfolded there. But every once in a while, in a house that has been lived in for around 25 or more years, there is a heft to that sense, emotions that I can feel, almost like I am feeling glimpses of those lives wash over me.

A house is more than the roof and the door, as Tom sings. I can only hope that my work pays the proper respect to those who have lived there before and those who will live there in the future.

Leave a comment below — what are your favorite songs about home?

Editor’s Note: Bill and the Buffalo Tom guys are on the road again, with a show tonight in Chicago.