When we are young, most of us fall in love easily. This is natural enough. I recently heard the musician Mike Watt say, “The only thing new is you finding out about it.” He was speaking about music, but it applies to everything. Still, when we are young, everything is new, so we fall in love with boys and girls and books and movies and music. And because these are our only experiences – because we have not had the chance to “find out” about that much – this love is particularly electric.
When we get a little older and those first loves fade or vanish, it’s hard not to feel that something is lost. How can I feel like that again? We feel this because we do not understand enough about second loves.
Second loves are those people and things that grab us after we have had a bit of experience. Often they are things that would have been first loves if only we had met them sooner, but just as often, they are things that require our experience. We could not love them the right way if we had met them first. Youth is enthusiastic, but it is also brash and reckless.
When I was seventeen, I fell in love with the music of Eric Clapton. I was tragically in love with a girl in that seventeen-year-old way and there isn’t really anything better than Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for that. I fell in love with the heartache and, of course, the guitar playing. Clapton is why I fell in love with music and why I started playing the guitar, but he was a first love.
A few nights ago, I saw Richard Thompson for the fourth time. Thompson is the kind of musician who can’t really be a first love. He’s too obscure (though he’s been around for more than 40 years). You need someone to tell you about him. And anyway, if you’d met him first, you might have been foolish enough to walk past.
When Cate and I watched him play the other night, he was, despite a few hiccups at the start, transcendent. I won’t bore anyone with the full set list, but it was loaded with the kind of dark, complicated songs he’s known for. His most famous, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” drew a roar from the 500 or so people in attendance that would have drowned out many larger audiences. It is a traditional love ballad about a criminal, a girl, and a motorcycle. This is why people come to Thompson. He writes songs about infidelity on both sides of a marriage while one is away working on a cruise ship. He writes songs with obscure mythological references. He writes songs from the perspective of newly freed and unrepentant criminals.
Within his songs, he often smirks knowingly at himself or us. When has youth, when has first love, ever done that?
And he writes lines like this:
They say she even married once/a man named Romany Brown/But even a gypsy caravan/Was too much settling down/And they say her flower is faded now/Hard weather and hard booze/But maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.
That wonderful verse comes from Beeswing, a song at least partially responsible for my marriage, but it’s so clearly a second love kind of song. Who wants to think about fading flowers while still in the first flush of love?
And, of course, he can play the hell out of the guitar, which he did. But again, I don’t think I was ready for his guitar playing when I first discovered music. Thompson is frequently referred to as a musician’s musician. I get that. When I was first learning to play, I think I would have been totally overwhelmed by RT. So much of it is so complicated. When I came to him, after I’d been playing for several years, I got what he was doing, but I don’t know if I could have at the time. Even now, I still feel like I’m figuring it out.
And that’s the most important difference between first loves and second loves. First loves are charged with millions of volts, but they spend most of our lives in the past. They are about who we were. Second loves stay with us. They are about who we become. And, of course, sometimes they still give us a charge.