Having gone to the USA for my first and fourth choice, I choose to stay there for my fifth. And alight on a song that jumped out at me from Kris Kristofferon’s debut album, when I bought it in 1970. And stood out in an album containing several other very strong songs like Me And Bobby McGee; To Beat The Devil; For The Good Times; and Help Me Make It Through The Night.
I refer to Kristofferson’s magnificent Sunday Morning Coming Down: a song written in the late 1960s and first recorded by Ray Stevens. It is a song that a listener like me who grew up in a South Wales Valleys town just after World War 2, could easily relate to, even if the Welsh Valleys did not have the “Sunday smell of someone frying chicken”: it might well have been the Sunday smell in Tennessee, but it sure as heck was not in my native Rhondda Valley...which, as a teenage deliverer of Sunday newspapers, I can attest to being the smell of boiled cabbage.
That said however, the Wales of my early boyhood was diametrically different to the Wales of today: in those far off days, it was a more restricted society, and I was 14 years old before the pubs in my Valley were even able to open at all, on a Sunday...!! The chapel pulpit reigned supreme. And this feeling of the towns seeming closed down on a Sunday morning, is captured brilliantly in this Kris Kristofferson masterpiece.
First, let me present you with the lyrics...oh and by the way, I will call him “KK” from now on...
Sunday Morning Coming Down Well I woke up Sunday mornin', with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad, so I had one more, for dessert Then I fumbled through my closet, for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt And I shaved my face and combed my hair and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day I'd smoked my brain the night before on cigarettes and songs that I'd been pickin' But I lit my first and watched a small kid cussin' at a can that he was kickin' Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken And it took me back to somethin', that I'd lost somehow somewhere along the way Chorus On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin' Lord, that I was stoned 'Cause there's something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone And there's nothin' short of dyin', half as lonesome as the sound On the sleepin' city sidewalks, Sunday mornin' comin' down In the park I saw a daddy, with a laughing little girl who he was swingin' And I stopped beside a Sunday school and listened to the song that they were singin' Then I headed back for home and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin' And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday Chorus On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin' Lord, that I was stoned 'Cause there's something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone And there's nothin' short of dyin', half as lonesome as the sound On the sleepin' city sidewalks, Sunday mornin' comin' down.
There are various versions on YouTube of KK singing this song. The most interesting in many ways is this original recording (see next link), coupled with a brilliantly inventive montage of clips from movies featuring KK. It has been bravely put together by some imaginative YouTube poster, in an effort to match the video to the lyric: and it largely succeeds, e.g. in depicting deserted Sunday morning sidewalks looking like as though the neutron bomb had fallen...though, at the same time it should be added that the clips fall short when it comes to depicting him shaving his face...!!
Anyway, please click this link, but only view the visuals on a second or third playing. For the first play, please click here and immediately then go to the lyrics above and let their meaning really register with you: one reading should suffice, because KK’s diction is impeccable and won’t be hard for anyone to understand, even if English is their third or fourth language...
So let’s explore the song. And start at the opening line: and what an opening line it is...!! I recall being utterly arrested by it when first I heard it all those years ago: and even now, nearly half a century later, I am still bowled over by it ...despite having heard it a zillion times.
The sheer audacity of starting a song with a line like this...
Well I woke up Sunday mornin', with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt
What a zinger of a line, eh? Talk about a songwriter not bothering with a gentle attempt to set the scene for the listener...?! Ha... Here he makes you instantly dive into the song from the highboard at the deep end: and doesn’t even go through the social niceties of checking you can swim.
Now, many songwriters would be happy to coast through the next three lines of the stanza, but not the young KK, who was in his early thirties when he wrote this, and back then had talent and energy to burn.
So what does he do? He only goes and more-than-matches that line with one even better...
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad, so I had one more, for dessert
And now he feels tempted in having a rhyme scheme of a/a/a/b...and amazingly he trumps those two great lines with this stunning third...
Then I fumbled through my closet, for my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt
Dissolute bachelors could certainly relate to the opening couplet, but now with the third line, all bachelors (even teetotallers) can relate to the song following that magical “cleanest dirty shirt” image...unless that is, he lives with his mum and is pampered.
And he ends that opening verse with...
And I shaved my face and combed my hair and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day
Don’t you love the “stumbled down the stairs”...and the fact that he is going to “meet the day”: no suggestion that the day could meet him, by him opening his bedroom window and singing à la Tom Paxton... “Behold, I give you the morning, I give you the day.”!! No, there is no joyous embracing of the new dawn: but rather, more a feeling of a dead man walking off to meet his executioner.
And then we arrive at KK’s achingly beautiful chorus...
On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin' Lord, that I was stoned
More about the use of the word “stoned” there in a minute... when we come to Johnny Cash championing the song. Let us first look at the next line...
'Cause there's something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone
Too true. There is indeed something about a Sunday morning, even today in a world ruled by Mammon. It is different: one does feel more alone that day, for some reason.
And then the next line...
And there's nothin' short of dyin', half as lonesome as the sound
Yes, even blowing tumbleweed sounds convivial by comparison to the deathly hush of a city’s deserted downtown early Sundays, before the tourists descend...
On the sleepin' city sidewalks, Sunday mornin' comin' down
And here is KK walking down Memory Lane...and telling the story of John Cash’s artistic bravery...
And now the second verse...
I'd smoked my brain the night before on cigarettes and songs that I'd been pickin'
Kris Kristofferson has claimed his original lyric was "I smoked so much the night before, my mouth was like an ashtray I'd been licking". I’ve often wondered whether he is pulling our leg here? Methinks he probably thought of the line a year or two later: why else would he have thrown away such a brilliant image? And why of course it is superior to the line he chose to run with, is because conventional cigarettes would hardly have “smoked my brain”: that image does not work.
As an ex chain-smoker I can testify that a heavy night on tobacco does nothing for the brain, but certainly screws-up one’s chest and circulation for the next day. (Perhaps, one might suggest that he is speaking “in code” here: for it was after all, the 1960s, a time when selling waccybaccy was strictly illegal throughout the United States. And so just maybe, the cigarettes KK refers to here, were “funny” ones.)
And of course, if that suggestion is correct and I am not flying a kite here, it could well add another meaning to the “coming down” of the title. He is, this Sunday morning, coming down from the marijuana high of the previous night. Add that possibility to the title being a reference to the last line of the first verse: his stumbling “down the stairs to meet the day”. One thing for sure: his use of the word “stoned” is interesting.
Yes, it can refer to being drunk: but essentially it is a word used for marijuana rather than alcohol. Either way it becomes apparent that this Sunday morning’s empty streets have brought him down and made him feel very lonely and wanting the highs of the previous night.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid cussin' at a can that he was kickin'
Consider a little kid playing imaginary games on his own, unaware he is being observed. How uninhibited he can be. KK captures it beautifully here.
And then this couplet...
Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken And it took me back to somethin', that I'd lost somehow somewhere along the way
Marcel Proust (and his madeleine cake) lives on...!!
And then the final verse...with this glorious last line...
And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday
Little did KK know when he wrote this, that Failure which had him “locked out on the wrong side of the door”, would suddenly relent and that the “disappearing dreams” would all suddenly come true. He would become a megastar, marry the sexiest R&B vocalist in the world, and this brilliant song would be declared Song of the Year at the 1970 CMA Awards.
A just reward for a masterpiece.
I leave you with this shockingly edited clip from the night Johnny Cash was honoured at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC. We get a glimpse of KK (then still in his pomp at 60) starting out on the song...and a sick looking Johnny Cash sitting next to the Presidential party.
I marvel at POTUS #42 and Hillary smiling at the opening of the song: he knew what it was to be stoned alright, because the idea that he “did not inhale” is about as laughable as his famous claim “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.
KK’s quirky singing voice is still there in 1996...not “shot” like it is today. And 23 years ago it was demonstrably the same voice that had first made such an impact on me when I first saw KK in the flesh: I was one of the 550,000 at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival...the biggest crowd (before or since) ever assembled for a music festival in the UK ...an even bigger crowd than attended the legendary 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York State.
And from the moment I set eyes on him nearly half a century ago, I knew he was very special.
And I respectfully suggest that indeed, this song was his artistic highwater mark.
Dai Woosnam, firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credits: (1) Dai Woosnam, (2) Kris Kristofferson, (3ff) LP Cover (unknown/website).