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

John Scalzi

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

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

  1. Makes perfect sense. Basically the only time John Perry truly seems like an old man is that scene, and the later ones where he’s talking about his wife.

    Which seems perfectly correct to me! My parents are in their early seventies, and they’d feel right at home at the dinner table with the Old Farts.

    Old people, like us middle-aged people, are just 17yo’s with some more decades of experience. They just have a few extra.

    It’s only when they get talking about things that are gone, and maybe were gone before you were even around, that they sound old.

  2. Are you digging around in my personal playlists John? This is getting creepy our musical overlap! Also, this song is the most soul crushing, brutal, heart rending end of a long drinking session questioning every romantic decision I’ve EVER made piece of music. But, like in a GOOD way.

  3. I’ve wondered for a while about what helped set the scene for the opening of OMW and let the author into the right sort of mindset for it. Fascinating.

  4. This is a great story. I’ve always thought that scene had a different flavor from the rest of the book. Thanks for pulling back the curtain and revealing why.

    Are there any other deeper scenes where you’ve used music as an inspiration? I’m thinking of some of Jane Sagan’s ruminations in the first couple of OMW books, or the third coda in Redshirts.

  5. I think this is my favorite NM song. Definitely my favorite album!

    Curiously, this is the first song I have actually recognized in however many you have posted!