Performer: Big Big Train
Songwriter: Gregory Spawton
Original Release: The Underfall Yard
Definitive Version: None.
I’m not entirely convinced that this incredible epic isn’t in fact my No. 1 song of all time. I’ve been listening to it pretty much nonstop for the past three years after a very fortunate recommendation from Jim—the one from the News-Dispatch—at an otherwise dismal Cubs game.
I decided that I couldn’t put a song that I’ve known for only three years ahead of two songs I’ve known for 30. There just isn’t enough time behind it yet. It very well could be that five years from now, if I were to do this list all over again—and I won’t—The Underfall Yard could be down in the 40s. It also very well could be No. 1, without a doubt. I won’t know till I get there, so this seemed like the best place for it—clearly ahead of everything that’s come before but too soon to put it ahead of what’s to come.
So who the Hell is Big Big Train, and how the Hell did they come up with potentially my favorite song of all time? That’s a great question, and, honestly, I don’t have an answer for it. Don’t take my word for it. Go to Big Big Train’s website—go, right now—and listen for yourself. They’re streaming The Underfall Yard—all 23 amazing minutes of it. (Use Firefox. Safari doesn’t seem to work.)
As near as I can tell, Big Big Train has been around for a long time, has something of a railroad fetish and never has come close to making it. I bought both parts of English Electric—compensation for The Underfall Yard, which they used to let you download for free—and while OK, nothing stood out as being particularly notable. So the best answer I can give is that Big Big Train is rock’s answer to Don Larsen—a mediocre career marked by one moment of absolute perfection.
It’s incomprehensible as the end of this here blog draws near, because this task has become an integral part of my life. I expect the first day I ride the train to work not writing about this memory or that, as I’ve done for most of the past three years, will be weird, as though I won’t know what to do with myself. I do, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I was conversing via email with Dave awhile ago, and it occurred to me that it would be appropriate to bring the cast of characters whom I’ve loved and whom, as Norman Maclean famously wrote, I didn’t understand when I was young up to date. Lots of artists, when they don’t know how to end something throw in a Where Are They Now conclusion. I’m going to do that here, because I have to come up with something better than that in two days.
I did a little cyberstalking to learn about some people with whom I’ve lost contact. The following might be incomplete, but it’s the best information I have:
JIN: Jin’s been an L.A. resident now for 20 years, and it hasn’t seemed that long. She’s still in the TV editing game and still married to Paul (coming up on their 10th anniversary this year). Bridget will be eight this year and, undoubtedly, will continue to excel in everything while continuing to simultaneously please and aggravate her mother.
SCOTT: Scott has been in and around Cincinnati for nearly two decades—his 20th year there will be next year. He just celebrated his 18th wedding anniversary with Shani. At some point this month, he’ll have been with her, including dating and engagement, for more than half his life. Leah will be 11 in a month and is a budding artist of immense talent. John, who will be eight in the fall, is hitting above .300 in his first taste of baseball—far exceeding the performance of his uncle at such a tender age.
MATT: I have less contact with Matt than I do anyone else in the family, particularly since he moved to California a few years ago. He’s a big social-media guy, and, of course, I’m not. He’s doing well, moving up the upscale-corporate-restaurant chain.
CASEY: Casey’s been a Chicago resident for years and a substitute teacher at a school district in the far western burbs for a year. We see each other about once a month for dinner with our paramours, with Big Brother picking up the check, as is his wont.
DAD AND LAURA: Much like Scott, Dad now has been with Laura for more than half his life. They’ve been married 36 years, and if you add in the years that he was married to Mom, he’s been married, total, longer than I’ve been alive. That shouldn’t be a surprise, except that he wasn’t married to the same person all those years. Anyway, he’s been retired from his law practice for three years, living the dream at Torch Lake.
MARTY: I lost track of Marty, as I think I mentioned a while back, three decades ago. Well, just for fun the other day, I did a quick Google search, and I found him, on the UAHS classmates site of all places. (I’m MIA on there.) He no longer wears glasses, and he seems to be hugging what would appear to be his daughter or wife. I can’t really tell. That’s all I know.
JIM: I found Columbus Jim on LinkedIn, which, as I mentioned awhile back, is the only social-media site I’m on. He looks much the same except his black hair is now white, although he has most of it. He’s married with three kids and living in Columbus.
MIKE: I lost touch with Mike years ago, and I haven’t been able to re-establishment contact, try as I might, through his parents. The last I heard, Mike went through a pretty bad divorce with Susie—they have three kids—around the start of the decade, and he was with another former classmate from UA.
STEVE: I last saw Steve a decade ago. My breakup with Debbie, as well as the end of the poker parties ended chances for us to see one another naturally as fatherhood responsibilities took hold. As far as I know, he’s still with Katie and his two daughters, living on the outskirts of Columbus.
MATT: I just saw Matt a couple weeks ago, as I mentioned, at his son’s graduation from Wabash. He’s still with Jeanine, going on 13 years, still lives in his hometown of Delaware, but he no longer leads a church.
JIM: It’s time for Michigan City Jim and me to get together for lunch, as we do on a semiregular basis. The Smead Jolley of journalism has been out of the game, in public relations, for nearly two decades. He and his wife live In Huntley, and his son is about to graduate from high school.
DAVE: I see Dave probably more than any other friend, although it’s been a while now. He’s been busy with his new job state government job. He’s still with Julie—26 years and counting, I think. His son, Andrew, just graduated from college, too, and his daughter, Caroline, is about to do the same from high school. (Dave, I know you’re reading, and I apologize for any factual errors here.)
DOUG: I haven’t seen Doug in a decade, and, like everyone else, he finally left Flint (and journalism) a few years back after a divorce from Teresa. He’s now living in El Paso, Texas, his hometown, and doing p.r. for … the symphony, I think? Anyway, I think he’s engaged again, and for all I know, remarried.
CHUCK: Chuck is the last one standing. Of all my friends and most of my associates, Chuck is the only one still in a newspaper gig, although he’s been working in Web production at The Dispatch for at least a decade. (We’re the last two still working at independent publications.) He’s married with two twin boys.
BETH: I’d completely lost touch with Beth after her mother ended communication between us 15 years ago, and although I’d relocated her mother and sister recently, I couldn’t find Beth, because I forgot her married name. Well, I just found her again. She seems to be doing well for herself in systems management, which is a shock considering she showed absolutely zero interest in computers when we were together. I don’t know whether she’s still married to the same guy she left me for or has more than the one son I wrote a poem for 20 years ago, but she still lives in Columbus.
JESSICA: Jessica still is married to the same guy whose wedding I attended in Colorado Springs 25 years ago this Labor Day (two kids, I think), and she works in the northwestern suburbs here in Chicago. Jessica still seems to still be a bit of a rabble-rouser, thank goodness, and she looks just the same—strikingly so—as she did when we met.
MELANIE: Hurricane Melanie seems to have all but dropped off the face of the earth. All I’ve been able to learn is that she married and had at least one kid, and she seems to be living in the Detroit suburbs, where she was from.
DEBBIE: As you know, I still keep in touch with Debbie. She’s still married to the guy she left me for and still lives in the house we bought together. Apparently, a lot of the plants we had were lost to disease or the weather over time, so the place looks different from when I saw it last. However, the locust tree I saved from tentworm in 1998 is about the tallest tree in the neighborhood, Debbie tells me. I’m proud of that.
LAURIE: You all know that.