Those Lonely, Lonely Lents
March 23, 2022 | Jim Angehr
The history of 20th century music in New Orleans is at once a tale of great success and constant defeat.
Exhibit A on the plus side of the ledger: jazz. As in, no New Orleans, and say good bye to the the absolute pinnacle of America’s musical creations. Not only that, but the Big Easy even if it didn’t birth rock and roll was a wildly successful early adopter and innovator. Native NOLA piano player Fats Domino sold more rock and roll records than anyone outside of Elvis in the 1950’s, and arguably the best of rock’s first wave, Little Richard, waxed the lion’s share of his original 45’s in a little studio on the edge of the French Quarter. Likewise after mid-century, artists all the way from Dr. John and the Neville Brothers to Harry Connick Jr. and Lil Wayne have done right by the city’s legacy.
At the same time, I quite possibly love New Orleans music all the more for its lesser known artists who generated wonderful music but never made it big, whether by burn out, flame out, poor sales, or mismanagement––or all of the above.
One of the greatest-but-not-famous NOLA artists is a guy named Earl King, a singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer that began recording in the 1950’s and maintained a steady stream of output for decades until his death 2003. (Fun fact about Earl King: for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, he would spend “office hours”––eating, drinking, pontificating––every weekday morning at a specific donut shop in Uptown New Orleans. Pilgrims from all across the world would make their way to that Tastee Donuts where King would hold court.)
For my money, Earl King’s single best song is “Trick Bag”: is it funk, rock, blues, or pop? On the other hand, if you want Earl King at his most searing and bleak, you need to reach for “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” On this 1955 classic from Ace Records, you hear all of the hallmarks of vintage New Orleans R&B––the fat double saxophone lines, the swampy tempo of the backbeat, and Fats Domino himself banging out his signature triplets underneath everything else. For all of those qualities, however, it’s King the singer and songwriter that kisses this single with a measure of transcendence. The protagonist of “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” is, in fact, hella lonely. Most classic rock, especially coming from the place where the good times always roll, avoided lines like, “It's been dark since you've been gone/Baby please, bring back the lights/Baby please, come back home/And free me from these lonely nights.” This is the dark night of rock and soul.
I’ve been thinking a lot about loneliness recently. For starters, journalist Jennifer Senior’s recent piece in The Atlantic on the difficulty of modern friendship, “It's Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” got my wheels turning like few things I’ve read over the past couple of years. In the article, Senior discusses the hidden reality that if we tend to give a lot of thought and attention both to succeeding in romantic relationships and also in self expression/actualization, the unintended “coaching gap” between romance on one side and self on the other is friendship. Friendship, however, is a) super tricky, and b) probably more important for wellness than self expression and possibly as determinative for happiness as falling in love.
Additionally, there’s problem #3: recent factors like personal mobility and pandemic place entirely new levels of stresses upon our ability to make and retain deep friendships. Senior observes:
Were friendships always so fragile? I suspect not. But we now live in an era of radical individual freedoms. All of us may begin at the same starting line as young adults, but as soon as the gun goes off, we’re all running in different directions; there’s little synchrony to our lives. We have kids at different rates (or not at all); we pair off at different rates (or not at all); we move for love, for work, for opportunity and adventure and more affordable real estate and healthier lifestyles and better weather. Yet it’s precisely because of the atomized, customized nature of our lives that we rely on our friends so very much. We are recruiting them into the roles of people who once simply coexisted with us—parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians.
In other words, when it comes to friendship, we find ourselves trapped in the ultimate Catch-22. Because we’re so individualistic and mobile, many of us have left behind traditional cornerstones of community such as extended family and hometowns. Those shifts have created a “relational vacuum” for which friends and found family are crucial. Nevertheless, deep friendships can seem impossible to keep precisely because we’re so individualistic and mobile. We're stuck.
So, we increasingly face some lonely, lonely days and nights. But this is where Lent comes in.
One of the foundational stories for this liturgical season is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan, which itself began with Christ spending 40 days and nights alone in the desert. In this period, Jesus was without his friends as he anticipated a showdown with the Evil One. Similarly, Jesus’ isolation is recapitulated at the end of his life in the garden of Gethsemane, when despite repeated pleas to the contrary, the disciples fail to stay awake and on watch with the Son of God.
Part of the whole point of Lent is that through our putting down and taking up certain practices––whatever they might be––we spiritually go out and meet with Jesus in the wilderness. Zoom in a little more closely, though, and you’ll find that during Lent we encounter not just any Jesus, but a lonely one.
I suspect that as a culture we don’t know what to do with loneliness. Instead of sitting in it, we’ll try to numb our way out of it whether with binge watching, social media surfing, or doom scrolling. How is that working for us?
An alternative. If you’re lonely this Lenten season, sit with that loneliness and seek solidarity with a lonely Savior. Trite as it may sound, Jesus is the only friend who won’t let you down and will never leave you nor forsake you, even when you mess up, stress the friendship, and do or say things with which Jesus doesn’t align. (Jesus doesn’t do the polarizing, disappoint-me-and-I’ll-drop-you thing that’s so common today.)
This is the church-in-Lent. Broken, lonely people in relationship with a lonely Savior that was broken for us.
Between our fellow sufferers or our faithful Lord, we’re not alone. Press in.