There are, to my thinking, few more perfect love songs than Tom Waits's Johnsburg, Illinois.
It's the simplest of tributes, 13 short lines of adoration – a distillation of love, in a way. "She's my only true love," it begins. "She's all that I think of. Look here in my wallet, that's her."
Waits wrote Johnsburg, Illinois for his wife, Kathleen Brennan, though the song never mentions her name. Instead, he points to the "place on my arm" where he has written it next to his own, and he keeps all other details similarly impersonal yet oddly intimate: the photo in the wallet, the place on the arm, the small midwestern town where she was raised. This circling of affection has always seemed appropriate considering Brennan's famous reticence: "She doesn't like the limelight," Waits has said, "but she's an incandescent presence on all songs we work on together."
Waits met Brennan at a New Year's Eve party in New York, the day before he moved to Los Angeles. Four months later, they met again, an event Waits termed "love at second sight". They married in the summer of 1980. Brennan has, for the past 25 years, been Waits's great collaborator and co-writer, and he credits her not only with saving his life from alcoholic disintegration, but also with bringing to their songwriting partnership the beguiling qualities of "blood and liquor and guilt".
He once described Brennan like so: "A remarkable collaborator, and she's a shiksa goddess and a trapeze artist, all of that. She can fix the truck. Expert on the African violet and all that. She's outta this world. I don't know what to say. I'm a lucky man. She has a remarkable imagination. And that's the nation where I live. She's bold, inventive and fearless. That's who you wanna go in the woods with, right? Somebody who finishes your sentences for you."
Johnsburg, Illinois was written early in their relationship, appearing on 1983's Swordfishtrombones, and is a pleasing combination of bright new love and timeless affection. He lets the song wind her around him – warmly, tenderly, with the delicate touch of a man who can't quite believe his luck. This isn't a giddy new love, rather there is a sense of relief, a calm to its simplicity; it has the same sigh of quiet delight as the weary wanderer finally arriving at his destination.
Though it is about a person, it is rooted in place – Waits gives such attention to "here" and to "where" and most particularly to "there"; to the arm and the wallet and the precise location of Johnsburg. It seems an effort to pinpoint a love, delivered in a familiar tone, as if telling where you'll find the nearest gas station – after all, it seems to say, don't we all know the geography of love, haven't we all been to Johnsburg, Illinois?
At the same time, it owes much to absence. Waits says little of Brennan's actual attributes; no talk of trapeze artists and African violets here. Instead, after giving us all those locations, he presents a kind of lonely nothingness: "You see I just can't live without her," he sings. "And I'm her only boy."
We overcomplicate love. We make it perform tricks and climb mountains, we dress it up and put it on parade. Our songs portray that complication: they are frills and fusses and curlicues. But Johnsburg, Illinois tells a simpler truth: when you love someone, they become the place where you belong.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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