There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she hears the song ‘These Days’, written by Jackson Browne, first recorded by German model and actress Nico in 1967.
Maybe she first hears the track when a boy, trying very hard to impress her with how much he knows about 1960s American pop music, plays it for her at his apartment. The boy calls albums “records” even though he’s playing CDs because it’s 2002, or he’s playing the songs on Spotify because it’s 2022. After ‘These Days’ he plays something from The Velvet Underground (of course), followed by a Rolling Stones deep cut before moving onto motown. At the time, the girl — and the girl is you — doesn’t know much about American pop music except for the Beatles, so it’s all bit intimidating. But when the boy puts on a Sam Cooke record, you and the boy start making out, and after that, you know something about 1960s American pop music too.
Or maybe you heard ‘These Days’ for the first time in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s a memorable scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, with her kohl-rimmed eyes and stick-straight strawberry blonde hair pinned back in a tiny barrette, steps off a bus and walks toward her adoptive brother. For a full minute, Gwyneth moves in slow motion toward her love (played by Luke Wilson) and there is no dialogue, only soundtrack: it’s pure pathos, set to music, and the music playing is ‘These Days’ by Nico, until she reaches him.
It’s definitely possible you heard ‘These Days’ at a party. (Incidentally, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is another well-known track on Chelsea Girl, the album — sorry, record — on which ‘These Days’ appears.) I wasn’t at the party where you first heard ‘These Days’, but I know what kind of party it was. I certainly what kind of party it wasn’t. It wasn’t a party with a beer pong table. Chelsea Girl doesn’t hang out at parties with beer pong tables. The table at the party where you first heard ‘These Days’ had wine bottles on it and someone named Sascha standing nearby expounding on Kant with modest success and, depending on how long ago it was, there were a couple of ashtrays in active rotation. Come to think of it, maybe I was at that party … I remember those ashtrays.
I intensely dislike ‘These Days’ by Nico. If I hear Jackson Browne’s unmistakable fingerpicking come through the stereo/computer and I’m in a position to do so, I’ll pop up and skip it immediately. If I’m in a situation where I can’t do that — if I’m at a party, for example — I’ll excuse myself to use the ladies’ room or make my way to the wine table to check on those ashtrays. I don’t want to hear it.
The reason I don’t want to hear it is because for me, the song reminds me of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s famous 1963 novel. There comes a time in every young woman’s life when she picks up The Bell Jar; it’s sometime after she reads Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret and before The Story of O. Plath’s novel is brilliant because she was suffocating when she wrote it and when you read it, the novel all but suffocates you too. That’s how right Plath got it. I remember how the Esther, the protagonist — and the protagonist is Plath — would go for days without talking to anyone, sensing she was somehow underwater, being rolled over and over in the current of an all-encompassing sadness. Here’s how the first verse of Nico’s dumb song goes:
I’ve been out walking
I don’t do too much talking
These days, these days
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to.
There are three more similarly suffocating verses and then it ends with this one:
I’ve stopped my dreaming
I won’t do too much scheming
These days, these days
These days I sit on cornerstones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten
Please don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them
I bear no ill will toward Nico. She was an Andy Warhol ‘Superstar’ by the way, and I’m an Andy fan. But her voice sounds like she’s been eating jam all day. And there’s a brief staccato section in the beyond emo string arrangement that is 1000 percent referencing Eleanor Rigby (it came out one year before) and we all know what a feel-good tune that is.
‘These Days’ is silence and suffocation and I don’t like it one bit. ‘These Days’ makes me feel bad, and I’m not fond of feeling bad. I’m particularly fond of feeling good, as a matter of fact, and I ought to be feeling good these days. In many respects, these are the best days so far.
Which this is why I’m confused that for the past several weeks, ‘These Days’ has been firmly stuck in my head.