“Livin’ On Sugar Mountain,” Counting Crows website, November 2001
Livin’ on Sugar Mountain
Neil Young tells the story that in his late teens, before he reached drinking age, he hung out at a club called Sugar Mountain. No one over twenty was permitted in this club, so when his birthday came, he went through deep mourning at his loss of youth and passage into maturity. From this experience, and very much to our benefit, he produced the song:
“Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the Barkers and the colored balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.
You’re leaving there too soon …”
It may seem anachronistic to be talking about an almost comically mournful song from 1971 in association with Adam Duritz’s “Round Here”, released in 1993. I think, however, that as Counting Crows’ signature piece (people who know little more of the band than what they hear on the radio are likely to be familiar with it) “Round Here” is almost doomed to be talked about. As we continue discussing important works of art and literature long after their original exhibit or publication, so I think it is valid to continue talking about the popular music that makes up the lexicon of our experience. Furthermore, it seems to me that there are confusions about “Round Here”, perhaps because it is both an anthem and an elegy to youth. It celebrates the joys of being young while it mourns the pain that comes with dawning adulthood and the inevitability of change.
According to Carl Jung, the student of Sigmund Freud who contributed so much to our understanding of ourselves, the human being is distinguished from other mammals by its tendency to think primarily symbolically, and to be able to manipulate communicative signs. Jung talks about three categories of symbol. The first, the universal symbol, is one that is recognized and carries similar meanings cross culturally, as the sun is associated with the godhead, the moon with madness, mystery and loneliness, and water with life. The second, the conventional symbol, acquires customary meaning through agreed upon conventions. Flags and uniforms, numerals and cars, brand names, dog breeds, and language itself are all examples of symbols that carry a conventionalized meaning for us. Finally there is accidental symbol, which is personal, and acquires meaning through some accident of experience. The scent of dry leaves or pine needles calls to mind seasonal holidays and can affect our attitudes profoundly. A few notes of song, the vision of a building, a ball field, a balloon, a word uttered in anger or love – all call to mind a host of images and emotions. When I was about nine years old, I walked in on my parents while they were making love. My father said, “Scram!”, and even now, so many years later, the “scram” word, the old “s”-word, makes me squirm. I can’t stand it. These are accidental symbols.
“Round Here” is rich with symbolism, as well as with images so concrete we feel they have to be real. This realness comes from the landscape of youth we recognize, the neighborhoods, the streets, the parking lots in which we were children but have finally come of age. It is a landscape that “radiates” the spirit of our present and our past lives and our sense of unity with friends. Note the number of issues “we” are united in: we are “carving out our names,” our individuality, yet we cling to the forms of visual expression that present us to the world as a unified group. “We all look the same.” We are old enough to enjoy certain milestones of achievement: sex, driving, and the right to stay up late. But we are also plagued with adult problems.
The character, Maria, is a case study for adolescent identity integration. She is “walking on a wire” between childhood and adulthood. Although sexually active, her energy to love truly is spent in romantic, and also safe fantasies about Elvis. She is in the process of forming her personal conception of religion, and is “close to understanding Jesus.” Therefore, she is thinking seriously, as we all do at certain stages of our lives, about life and death. When she’s uncomfortable, “she has trouble acting normal”. That is, she has no established personal identity, but must “act” her way through difficult situations. She understands the concept that her problems are in her head, at least to the degree that she can choose how to feel about them. “ There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, II ii. 247-48). But she has not yet learned the adult trick of letting go, emotionally, of the things she can’t control. Therefore she is “crying,” as a child cries when overwhelmed.
The speaker, who is also going through a crisis of change, expresses a melancholy, male bafflement at Maria’s tears, and at his own helplessness. Some part of his youth has already begun to die, and he expresses his sense of it primarily in symbolic language. This dying self survives “like a ghost,” rendered nearly invisible, while his adult self struggles in the fog of his unknowing. Perhaps only angels, he tells us – who witness silently – perceive the lack of integrity between the morality that is taught and applied morality we experience as adults, “the crumbling difference between wrong and right.” Meanwhile the speaker searches himself, moving in and out between the perceived universe, “the rain” and his interior self, and doesn’t turn up much of anything. “I don’t know,” he tells us.
The pivotal contest between child and adult occurs in the parking lot in the exchange with the suicide. She is swilling from an open bottle, drowning the remains of her common sense, and offering shots to all around. But the shot taken is also a sort of mental photograph, an image permanently exposed on the brain. “Round here, she’s always on my mind.” However, this image is a superficial one, and the speaker must accept his own inability, as must we all, to perceive what’s going on inside another person. The answer to the question, “Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?” is: No. Not only can he not see it, but he can not do anything about it. The speaker expresses his annoyance and disgust: “She must be tired of something.” The character is in some sense both parallel and foil to Maria. Both young women feel desperation, and believe they are facing the possibility of death. Both inspire the speaker’s helplessness. The difference is the way the speaker feels. In dealing with Maria, the speaker is essentially compromised by love, but in the case of the suicide, he takes a stand against being made responsible.
All of these characters, the we, the speaker, Maria and the suicide, are undergoing the same conflict with one another that they are feeling within themselves, and all suffer from a certain paralysis, an antithesis between word and deed expressed thorough the symbols of lion and lamb. Yet, in spite of the pain, even grief, that each is experiencing, “Round Here” is, on the whole, an upbeat tune. The confident tone is in part achieved by the music, a progression of chords which doubles the words rather than merely accompanying them. Duritz builds from image to image toward a nearly chorused defiance in the final verse, and avoids sinking on a minor note until he reaches the very last bars.
So when the short series of arpeggios that make up the opening notes of “Round Here” soar over the crowd and you start screaming and singing, you know why. For those minutes, although you know you are “under the gun,” you’re livin’ on Sugar Mountain and you still have “lots of time.”