Peter Mulvey

Folk-rock troubadour Peter Mulvey shares the story behind his song “What Else Was It?” from the album Silver Ladder

The story

We all think of our “selves” as a concrete thing. It’s an inescapable part of being human, this constant sense that “I am me.” And of course, philosophically, and even common sense-wise, this just doesn’t hold up to observation. My cells are replaced every seven years, so who am I? I was a child once, so where is that child? On and on.

These are intellectual approaches. But there are others. I’ve read a lot of Jim Harrison, and he has a penchant for a very useful term, “delaminated.” Several of his characters are described as having become “delaminated.” I found the term darkly amusing.

Then, in the spring of my 39th year, I became delaminated. It didn’t take much: my brother’s marriage broke up, my best friend let me know that his transplanted liver had failed and he’d be dying in a matter of weeks. I turned forty, my wife turned forty. My cat died. Quotidian stuff, everyone will go through it. But together, those five firm blows, like the heel of a hand against a doorjamb, coming as they did in just a few short months… I found myself propelled past “garden variety midlife crisis” into “full-blown breakdown.” My friends (bless ’em) weathered months of my spilling over to them, on the phone and in person. And, since many of my friends are writers, they advised me to write while I was in the rapids.

I didn’t follow that advice. I didn’t follow much advice. A psychiatrist I was seeing looked me straight in the eye and told me I was depressed and needed medication, and I looked straight back and said no, not this time. I rode thousands of miles that year on a bicycle. I sat hours and hours on a meditation cushion. And I cried quite a remarkable amount of tears, shouted many incoherent grieving raging sentences, and, nightly, pulled it together for every show, and most other social occasions.

And slowly it all came back together. I felt reborn, gradually. I fended off, as much as I was able, the drawing of any conclusions. When the house has been knocked down, you get to dig around in the foundation, and build a new house. Your new house will look like your old house, probably. Who are you? Who were you? You’re not gonna know. Be grateful. Find work. Thank the friends that saw you through. Eat a sandwich. Live this new life, whatever that really means.

In the spring of my 40th year I started writing a lot of songs: five in one week to begin, and one a week for a solid year after. “What Else Was It?” was among the early ones, and it arrived all at once, as a gift, and I know it came directly from the year I’d been through. That first line is the summation of the hard year: “You took a shovel to the basement / And you blistered up your hands.” There’s no other way to say the things that this song says. Certain people really love this song, and the ones who do, I’m pretty sure they’ve become delaminated at one point or another.

—Peter Mulvey

The lyrics

You took a shovel to the basement
And you blistered up your hands
Danced all night at the wedding
Stayed up drinking with the band
You made love until the daylight
Was creepin’ ‘cross the floor
Tell me: what else was it
You were looking for?

You felt the first chill of November
Steal right inside your coat
Right there where the fragile pulse of living
Fluttered in your throat
You left the house you thought you lived in
Didn’t even shut the door
Tell me: what else was it
You were looking for?

The book of all your precious sorrows
Had come down off your shelf
And so you labored over every empty page
‘Til you finally came back to yourself
And you laughed out loud
‘Cause you were light and free and poor
Tell me: what else was it
You were looking for?

Would you meet me in the clear light
Meet me where the leaves are comin’ down?
And if I learn to say your name
Would you learn to stick around?
We could walk and just say nothing
Say nothing more
Than what else was it
You were looking for?

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Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter