So yet again John Mayer has moved me to write about one of his songs. Unlike last time, this one is not a Grammy winning creation, but it is a piece of art of singular beauty none the less. As I write this, it fills my headphones on repeat, though I have no need of listening to it so often for inspiration. I received that the first time I heard it, and I immediately had to share it with my loved ones. Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967 can have that effect on you.
The title is as offbeat as the starting tune. I have heard of few other Mayer songs named after people ("Victoria" is one, though I wonder whether she is imaginary; Walt Grace certainly is). And I have never heard a song that starts with a distinct instrumental intro, clearly separate from the tune of the song proper. And then the tune itself kicks in, and again its not the guitar that hit me; as one would expect with John Mayer; but the percussion beat. It made me imagine a tiny parade of toy soldiers, or a mechanical whirring reminiscent of the sounds one might imagine in Gepetto's workshop, where he would be busy bringing to life a creature of wood and paint. Mayer's intelligent and easy on the ear rhymes have the same effect on the music.
And the interlude. It is a beautiful soulful instrumental piece, placed between verses two and three. Mayer again takes the road less travelled on this one by favouring a piano in this section instead of his faithful guitar. The music is simultaneously haunting and soothing, awakening something deep within me, and at the same time singing it to sleep. It is a piece that speaks of hope sown into the tune amid a few fears and a bit of doubt, in continuity with the theme of the song.
The lyrics describe the imaginary Mr Grace , who decides that something must be done with his life, something greater than simply the sum of his years or the count of his hours. So he locks himself up in his basement and takes to birthing something uniquely his own, something unseen and unthought of, unexpected and astounding. He builds a submarine.
"Cos when you're done with this world, you know the next is up to you..."
Being employed in the railways, hardly a day goes by when I don't hear about someone talking about their retirement. "Pension and no tension",that holy grail for government servants. Those are the rewards which hang like a carrot in front of our noses and compel us to commit our entire working lives in their pursuit. Somehow I imagine that Walt Grace is one of the same breed, who has done the hard yards, put in the work, brought up his children, and provided for his family. But now, upon retiring, he takes up something risky, something outrageous and unbelievable, prompting the line "his wife told his kids he was crazy, and his friends said he'd fail if he tried..".
But when you're done with this world, you know the next is up to you. Walt Grace had lived his life for others, racing along in the pursuit of happiness, only to realise his destination didn't give him the peace of mind he thought it would. So he set out on a journey, perhaps obsession is a better word, of his own.
And on that journey he found beauty and wonder and belief, and maybe, just maybe, his life's meaning too. Maybe he created a memory, that would endear him to the world and his family in ways his job never could. And maybe he taught us all a lesson on how to live our lives, so that we needn't have to wait till they are almost over to make something extraordinary of them. That ridiculous dreams aren't as ridiculous as they seem. That,"with a will to work hard, and a library card", anything is possible.
The song itself, with a beautiful paper art video on the background: