We were driving home from college for the holidays when a song came on the radio. We had spent a fair amount of time in grocery stores as the family had owned some in New Jersey and Puerto Rico, so maybe that is why it resonated. Though it hit #2 as Adult Contemporary Song in the US and #1 in Canada on the Billboard charts, its lyrics hit a chord with many. The name of the song was ‘Same Old Lang Syne’ by Dan Fogelberg.
The title itself is a pun on the traditional New Year’s Eve song that roughly translates into “For Old-times’ Sake”, and the title somewhat preshadows the song’s resistance of the typically relentlessly upbeat Christmas music.
The song has an arresting start that shows the deep connection of the food industry with the lives people actually lead:
Met my old lover in the grocery store
The snow was falling Christmas Eve
I stole behind her in the frozen foods
And I touched her on the sleeve
She didn’t recognize the face at first
But then her eyes flew open wide
She went to hug me and she spilled her purse
And we laughed until we cried
We took her groceries to the checkout stand
The food was totaled up and bagged
We stood there lost in our embarrassment
As the conversation dragged
We didn’t know it at the time, but Dan Fogelberg had a high school romance with a woman named Jill Anderson, now Jill Greulich. Both Woodruff High (Peoria, Illinois) class of 1969. The song is the story of a Christmas Eve meeting when they had both returned to their home town to visit their families. Jill was sent out by her family to get egg nog and Dan volunteered to get whipped cream so his family could make Irish coffees.
The song is somehow very authentic. It captures the kinds of moments that life is made of:
Went to have ourselves a drink or two
But couldn’t find an open bar
We bought a six-pack at the liquor store
And we drank it in her car
The music background is well-composed, with the beginning of each verse taken from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Somehow a lush rolling backdrop to a mundane kind of reality. Is it funny — the two of them driving around on Christmas Eve trying to find a bar? Or do we think about the Greek concept of pathos: A kind of sympathetic or kindly sorrow?
As opposed to religion or rationalism, existentialism trumpets the importance of human experience in a universe that is either fatalistic or meaningless. Fogelberg writes a chorus that simultaneously celebrates and laments this:
We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how
Whereas most holiday songs are relentlessly cheerful, this one pays homage to the bittersweet mix that makes up life:
She said she’d married her an architect
Who kept her warm and safe and dry
She would have liked to say she loved the man
But she didn’t like to lie
As we get older, we recognize the loss of our youthful virtue and value old friends in part because they knew us when. We also learn that even the greatest of successes comes with a price:
Said the years had been a friend to her
And that her eyes were still as blue
But in those eyes, I wasn’t sure if I
Saw doubt or gratitude
She said she saw me in the record stores
And that I must be doing well
I said the audience was heavenly
But the traveling was hell
After more choruses, the lyrics tell a story of ending. Like a moment in a cocoon together that can be as magical as any of those Christmas songs and a move to reality that is like the transition from snow to rain:
The beer was empty and our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out
And I watched her drive away
Just for a moment I was back at school
And felt that old familiar pain
And as I turned to make my way back home
The snow turned into rain
The story is of lost love, of wistful, wishes and unfulfilled dreams, but it is also of two souls who go back to their families, drink egg nog and Irish coffee and live full, enriching lives and important lives. She turns out to be a school teacher and, of course, we are writing about Dan Fogelberg right now.
Jill must be a thoughtful and kind person as she never commented on the song until Dan Fogelberg died young of prostate cancer. She said she didn’t want to cause Dan problems in his marriage, which itself tells us a little what the song is about.
After he died, she gave an interview and confirmed, with a little poetic license, the song was all autobiographical.
The piece ends with soprano saxophone solo by Michael Brecker, the 15 Grammy Award-winning jazz composer and performer — a jazz adaptation of the melody of the original “Auld Land Syne” that is hauntingly beautiful.
So, as the year closes, we thought this song was a good present to give. We deal with real things here at the Perishable Pundit. And they are not always happy. But life has, within it, many joys and causes for celebration.
We will hope that in 2018, life will continue to confront people in the grocery store, or in a restaurant or at the dining room table — and we will feel honored to play a little part in that.
Here is wishing you a joyous holiday season and a healthy, happy and prosperous 2018.