North American Review 276.4
I heard it again last night in a Denver restaurant, a pretty good version but a bit too cleaned up, not quite raw enough for my taste. I've played and sung Me And Bobbie McGee and I've listened to others play and sing it for thirty-five years. I've recorded it, slow and bluesy, accompanying myself on guitar. I've recorded it up-tempo with a friend singing harmony and playing second rhythm guitar. I've grown up with the song.
Kris Kristofferson wrote it in the 1960s, a song that combined a seductive call for freedom with the quixotic insight that reduced to its purest state, freedom was really nothing at all, like a beautifully wrapped package that's empty inside. This pull toward freedom played against very real needs for continuity and community continues to be a restless and powerful dynamic in my life. And the song has stayed with me as I suspect it has with many of my generation.
"Bobbie thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
Took us all the way to New Orleans."
Kerouac started it with On The Road. Every young male I knew in the early 1960s wanted to thumb across country with a beautiful sexually available girl like Bobbie McGee. I played an uncompromising steel string guitar back then, no finger pics, no amplification. Bobbie made music, she sang the blues! In my mind's eye, she was clean and mean and light and right, a sweet tough no nonsense girl with long hair whipping in the wind. Street smart and sassy. Soft as a kiss.
"Then somewhere near Salinas I let her slip away,
looking for the home I hope she'll find."
Bittersweet memories. Regrets. But the only other possible ending to the story was a marriage that would, even in the best case, subtly but inexorably erode the freedom that defined a man. Jean Paul Sartre, the philosopher of freedom for my generation, wouldn't marry Simone de Beauvoir — he wouldn't even permit himself the bourgeois comforts of cohabitation. Women eventually found or created homes, even women as freewheeling as Bobbie McGee. Men, if they wanted to be existential heroes, kept on truckin', sustained by the purity of their vision. No permanent attachments. No mind numbing straight jobs.
That was a young man's view. The song had other messages, and eventually I lived long enough to get back to the chorus. Nothing left to lose was appealing at twenty, less so at fifty. Love and work, family and career — these quotidian cycles define and sustain even as they bind and ensnare. My personal pursuit of freedom carried stubbornly into middle age and finally brought me to a place as clear and open and empty as the wind. Divorced with no children, financially secure, independently employed — I was beholden to no one, no debts, no long-term responsibilities. Wasn't that the archetypal male fantasy? And having fought my way to this clearing, the paradox of freedom inverted once again and I felt the restless need for a lot more in my life to lose.
I felt the need to begin looking for the next, and deeper, set of commitments, the next, and probably final, set of delimiters to my freedom.
Over the years, many artists with many different styles have tried to put a rope around Me And Bobbie McGee and claim it. But to get where the song wants you to be, the only version to listen to is Janis Joplin's, and the only way to listen to it is at or near top volume (although not on Sunday morning if you have neighbors). It opens with a slow tease, a single acoustical guitar and that plaintive, bruised voice, and then builds and builds to a screaming climax with electric keyboard and guitar that never fails to raise the hair on my neck. By the first chorus I'm on my feet, fingers snapping. By the second chorus I'm dancing helplessly at breakneck speed, grinning from ear to ear, lost in the music, whirling, jumping, transcendent.
Is this, finally, freedom?
Do I really need a better definition?