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Everything Breaks

04:03
Bill Sunkel
Bill & Rob Sunkel

Story

DECODING "EVERYTHING BREAKS"

One of my most frequently misinterpreted lyrics, “Everything Breaks” is not about fatalism or even pessimism.  Rather, it is about impermanence, about how everything continues to change, and about how trying to hold on too tightly to any person, place or thing, or believing that anything in our human experience can last “forever,” is a conceit.

So that’s the message, but it wasn’t what drove me to write this song.  Rather, like many of us who experienced the 2001 World Trade Center attack “up close and personal,” I struggled for a long time to come to grips with my emotions (including rage) about the horrific acts of that day.  In fact, as a lifelong New Yorker, my feelings about that event were so intense that I didn’t want to – frankly, I couldn’t – write about it, for more than a year.

Then, one day, for no apparent reason, I flashed back onto a memory of being down at the WTC in the early ’70s, shortly before construction was completed.  Three of us were coming home from our annual high school trip; we were following our friend Carlos, a semi-streetwise kid from the projects who claimed familiarity with the Manhattan subway system.  We followed him through (what I eventually came to realize was) the WTC construction site, and ultimately down into a subway station (at track level – we had to climb up onto the platform), where we hopped a uptown train to The Bronx.  In the years that followed, I visited the WTC many times, and was always struck by its mass, majesty and presence.  And as those memories swirled around me, I mused, “If someone had told me back then that there would come a day when I would still exist, but these giant towers would not, I would not have believed it.”  And that’s when that little bit of obvious hit me:  Nothing is permanent, nothing lasts forever.  No matter how great or powerful any person, place or thing may seem to be, everything breaks . . . eventually.

So, after the opening chorus sets the overall message – “Everything breaks, eventually/Hard as you stand, you’ll fall to the sea/As the wind and the waves come incessantly/Everything breaks, eventually” (when I wrote that, I was picturing cliffs being worn away by the sea) – the first verse describes my memories of the WTC, before and after 9/11:  ”The bigger they are, the harder they fall” references what were at one time the world’s tallest structures, and how violently they fell.  But I also liked taking that tired cliché and giving it new meaning (one of my favorite things to do lyrically).

“Once there were shadows, now there’s nothing here at all” is a bit thicker:  On one level, it refers to the shadows that had been cast by the Twin Towers over the financial district, and how even they were gone; I like the “double negative,” the reference to the absence of something (shadow) that is itself the absence of something (light).  But, on another level, it was then more than a year since 9/11, and I was referring to “shadows” in the Shakespearean sense of “shades,” or ghosts.  I wanted to convey that everything was gone now, there were just two giant holes in the ground, and even the ghosts of those who died there on 9/11 had (so to speak) “left the building.”  The emptiness of the imagery was poignant to me, especially since it had been a long process getting past my own anger and pain.  When things as ephemeral as shadows, ghosts and emotions are gone, there really is nothing left.

And then the lines turn personal, describing how “I watched them raise our hopes a hundred stories tall/And never believed, I couldn’t conceive/I’d see the day that they would come to be/Laid to waste.”  I’ve been asked whether the first line is “raise” or “raze,” i.e., whether I’m talking about the creation of the WTC or its destruction.  It’s the former.  While the perceived double meaning is intriguing – especially since I was, in fact, witness to both events – I’ve never believed that our “hopes” came down with the towers.

That verse ends with an apparent paradox:  “But take it on faith/Everything breaks.”  Most times people talk about having faith in something, they’re talking about faith in the continuation – the “forever-ness,” if you will – of that thing.  And this is the opposite of that, faith that nothing (at least, nothing in the physical world) lasts forever.  Again, I know that some will see this as a fatalistic, pessimistic message, but it’s not meant to be.  Rather, if we can be at peace with the concept that everything – you, me, our relationship, our house, our country, our religion, our planet, our universe – has a limited lifespan, maybe we can begin to use that revelation to gain perspective, or at least to live for the now and to stop worrying about how to make everything last forever, an endeavor at which we inevitably must fail.

The second chorus talks about the “fools” who “build shrines to their own immortality.”  I think these lines are pretty “on the nose,” so I won’t waste space on them here, except to note that the Bob Stone photo I chose to illustrate this song (in my new Monsters Among Us book) perfectly depicts the chromium cathedral referenced in those words.  The next verse, however, bears examination.  After the 9/11 verse was complete, I pretty much shut down.  I had said all I had needed to say about the worst horror in my lifetime, and, as I believe in a song evolving and building, I simply didn’t know where to go from there.  Another full year passed, and then, one morning, I switched on my computer and read a news story about the largest asteroid in recorded history to have passed that close to Earth.  According to the story, it was the size of a football field and had rocketed over us the previous evening at about the altitude of a weather satellite, or close enough for the Earth’s gravity to have significantly altered its trajectory. Had it hit us, the writer said, the effect would have been akin to the detonation of an atomic bomb. And that gave me the second verse.

While the message of the first verse was simply “everything breaks, no matter how big or strong,” and involved man’s destruction of two giant man-made towers with two man-made jetliners, the second verse upped the ante with a potentially even more destructive force of nature.  More importantly, the “everything breaks” message had evolved to include:  “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Last night an asteroid passed close overhead/A hundred meters wide, or so the morning papers said/As I lay sleeping, in my sweet unknowing bed.”  The helplessness of those lines is palpable:  Most of us weren’t aware of the asteroid’s passing while it was happening, and had we known, there wasn’t anything we could have done about it anyway.  And that leads to my favorite line of the song (another twist on an overused phrase, “the life you lead”):  “And for all your strength/And for all your speed/How can you talk about a life that you lead?/We’re just caught in the wake/And make no mistake/Everything breaks.”

The bridge talks about the universality of the “nothing lasts forever” concept, and warns not to interpret the song as promoting any particular brand of ideology:  “Doesn’t really matter in what truth you believe” (what your religion may be); “Doesn’t really matter where the dim lights will lead” (in general, whenever I refer to “the dim lights,” you can bet I’m talking about our esteemed political leaders, though not any particular individual); “Doesn’t really matter what the tarot cards show” (your mystical persuasions are equally irrelevant).  And then, again, the lyric dives down into the personal:  “I’ve been around enough to know/There’s only one way it can go.”  On one level, this sounds like the same fatalism I denied earlier, i.e., “It doesn’t matter what we do, we’re all going down.”  But then the music does something that suggests the exact opposite:  the key modulates up a whole step, suggesting optimism and positive/forward movement, followed (at least on some versions of the song) by an uplifting instrumental break – why?

Okay, so now we’ve talked about the destruction of the tallest buildings in America in the first verse, and a near miss by a cosmic cannonball in the second.  Where do we go from here?  It took a while, but the last chorus managed to go bigger still:  “Everything breaks, eventually/You weather the storm perpetually/And then a kiss brings you to your knees/Everything breaks, eventually.”  Contrary to some interpretations, this was not some syrupy reduction to how true love prevails in the end, but rather a reference to the destruction of Christ, betrayed by Judas with a kiss. What’s bigger than a skyscraper or a planet?  God?

P.S.  Decisions, decisions.  There are now four distinct variants of this song:  the original version (from Desperate Measures’ Speaking in Tongues CD, available on CD Baby and iTunes); the full tilt bells-and-whistles “New York City” production with horns (also available for download on CD Baby and iTunes); the kinder, gentler “Nashville” arrangement with slide guitar by A Night with Janis Joplin guitarist Steve Flakus (unreleased, but shoot me a note at billsunkel@billsunkel.com and I will email you an mp3, gratis); and, the no-frills “Singer-Songwriter” model, with naught save acoustic guitar and voice.  I struggled long and hard over which flavor to include here, and will no doubt take some serious flak from those who prefer another iteration.  Although I dearly love my horn section and the cool, sophisticated noise they make, and the slide guitar version has its own warm, unique glow, I decided that the barren, un-pretty, post-Apocalyptic acoustic track recorded in my cold basement was the right one to conclude my performance on this solo effort.  What I like most about this particular presentation is that the vocal is stripped naked, making the (hopefully now less cryptic) lyric the true focus of the song, as it should be.

Lyrics

EVERYTHING BREAKS
 
Everything breaks, eventually
Hard as you stand, you'll fall to the sea
As the wind and the waves come incessantly
Everything breaks, eventually
 
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Once there were shadows, now there's nothing here at all
I watched them raise our hopes a hundred stories tall
And never believed, I couldn't conceive
I'd see the day that they would come to be
Laid to waste
But, honey, take it on faith
Everything breaks
 
Everything breaks, eventually
The fool is the kind who's too blind to see
Building shrines to his own immortality
Everything breaks, eventually
 
Last night an asteroid passed close overhead
One hundred meters wide, or so the morning papers said
While I lay dreaming in my sweet unknowing bed
And for all your strength, and for all your speed
How can you talk about a life that you lead?
We're just caught in the wake
And, baby, make no mistake
Everything breaks
 
Doesn't really matter in what truth you believe
Doesn't really matter where the dim lights will lead
Doesn't really matter what the tarot cards show
I've been around enough to know
There's only one way it can go
 
Everything breaks, eventually
You weather the rain perpetually
And then a kiss brings you to your knees
Everything breaks, eventually