Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 19: “Beloved Wife,” by Natalie Merchant

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I don’t think most people would make a connection between my military science fiction novel Old Man’s War and the works of the famously earthy-crunchy singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, but there is one, and it’s pretty significant: her song “Beloved Wife,” which was originally on her 1995 album Tigerlily, but which I first encountered on her Live in Concert album a few years later (and is the version I’ve included here). The song is from the point of view of an elderly man grieving the loss of his wife, and Merchant captures perfectly the plaintive devastation that a stoic, hurting man of that age feels but doesn’t necessarily say out loud. The song feels like an internal monologue; a storm of emotion, all kept inside.

I, who at the time had been married only a handful of years, was nevertheless struck by the song — even at that early point in my marriage to Krissy, I knew how I would feel if she were suddenly gone. It would be a lot like the man in Merchant’s song, although I would probably neither be as quiet nor as stoic about it.

The Live in Concert album came out in 1999; fast forward a couple of years to 2001, and I have begun writing Old Man’s War. I knew that for the purposes of the book, and my own personal inclinations, I needed to have the book start with John Perry, our protagonist, at the grave of his wife, saying goodbye to her for what he believes will be the final time. I also knew I needed to convey a lifetime of his love and feeling for her in a relatively few pages. I was 32, and this was my second attempt at a novel, and so I might not exactly have the life experience, as a human or a writer, to convey what John Perry, at 75, would feel.

So I put “Beloved Wife” into the CD player, let it run, and let how it made me feel sink into my bones. And then with it in mind, I wrote the scene at the graveside that begins the novel.

Anyone who has read the novel (which, at this point, is probably a lot of you who are now reading this) knows how important that visit to the graveside is to the rest of the novel, in establishing who John Perry is and how and why he reacts to certain events later in the story. Now you also know that “Beloved Wife” is the soundtrack to that scene. Again, not a connection people would necessarily make on their own.

But it exists, and I’m grateful that Natalie Merchant wrote and performed a song that helped me to convey a depth of feeling I might not otherwise have managed to do as well. This is how art inspires art, sometimes in surprising ways.

— JS

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