Track 11 – “You Don’t Come See Me Anymore” by Malcolm Holcombe
t’s a Thursday night in Micaville, and at the intersection of NC 80 and an ice cream shop, Malcolm Holcombe is smoking on the porch of the OOAK Gallery. He’s halfway through playing for three dozen people seated on fold-out chairs, and what the crowd lacks in size it makes up for in devotion. This is the second time I’ve heard him play in the past few months and it’s always the same: nobody knows who Malcolm Holcombe is, except those who do. And those who know really know. You listen to him and you become evangelical about his music, this scarecrow of a man folded over his Martin guitar. The way the eyebrows raise and the teeth bare, the way the head shakes, as if to disavow whatever he’s just sung. Holcombe is sixty-two; he’s recorded fourteen albums in over twenty years. You can listen to them and conclude that you are encountering genius, an American original in the vein of William Gay or Flannery O’Connor, an Appalachian poet who, though rooted in these mountains, thinks, as Jim Wayne Miller put it in his “Brier Sermon,” “ocean to ocean.”
Or you can simply pull up a fold-out chair.
It must have been 2004 when I first heard him, A Hundred Lies dropped in my hand by an old Southern Lit professor down in the failing hills of South Carolina, where I grew up. It was, and still is, a land of red clay and waterfalls and shuttered textile mills gone to the Maquiladora belt of Mexico, of Sunday suppers in the mosquito heat. Sticking that CD into the deck of my ’89 Jimmy, I knew, I simply knew I was listening to a truth that, though it was all around me, I had never quite heard articulated outside of books. I’ve been listening to him ever since, but until tonight I’d never met him.
I wait until a huddle of well-wishers in jeans and boots breaks up, and then I walk over. He’s in a misaligned blue shirt, his stringy hair brushed to the side, a Pall Mall between his fingers. When he sees me, he cocks his head as if sighting down the barrel of a gun.
Around the time that I first encountered Holcombe’s music, I received a writing fellowship that allowed my wife and me to quit our jobs and fly to Europe. We traveled until the money was gone, or nearly. She came home, but I stayed on a bit longer, alone in our tiny flat in Prague. I was trying to come to terms with the presence of what might be called God, though I didn’t know this at the time. In place of knowing, I had a routine: I would pray the Jesus prayer every morning for as long as I could bear it, and then I would get up and run along the Vltava River for eighteen or twenty miles, breathing Lord Jesus Christ with one stride, have mercy on me with the next. When I came back from running, I would shower and read Dostoevsky until night. It was a recipe for crazy, and I suppose crazy was what I had become. But with the crazy came clarity and hunger. I carried both back with me to the United States.
That fall, my wife and I started attending a tiny mountain church where something—God, the Holy Spirit—was moving, whether you cared to believe it or not. Much of this had to do with the pastor. He was the purest embodiment of love I had ever met, and I decided to become him.
I failed, of course—how could I do anything but?—and for years, that failure haunted me. When I first heard Holcombe’s “You Don’t Come See Me Anymore,” a gorgeous ballad about aging and about exhaustion, about the way love so often flickers and then flickers out, I knew I was hearing the self I might have been calling back to the self I had become. It was a mournful, though understanding voice: “I know your eyes are sick and tired and sore.” But the repetition was clear: I had abandoned what it was I intended to be.
It was years more before I realized the song is no more indictment than absolution. It catches the glare of what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is,” and though that glare is harsh, it exists without judgment. It is simply, and beautifully, a song about the way we grow old, the way we can become lonely for selves unrealized, homesick for the very ground we stand on. But in the end, none of that matters. There is only the ground beneath us, and the two feet on which we stand. It is a song, as Malcolm puts it, about the way our “rather beens don’t matter more and more.”
Standing outside that night in Micaville, I ask Malcolm what he remembers about writing this song.
He nods and takes a drag.
“It’s just about getting lonely, I guess,” he says, “about getting old and lonely.”
And then he turns, touches me gently on the arm, and goes back inside.