“Hey Peter Pan, I’m going home now,” begins the final track on Patty Griffin’s 1998 album Flaming Red. The bare words, stripped of their simple but compelling musical accompaniment, might sound casual, but when uttered in the soft melancholy of Griffin’s voice they are the breathtaking overture to a bittersweet farewell. In a post-iTunes age when we can download single tracks and listen to everything on shuffle, we don’t tend to think of albums as holistic and conceptual entities with consciously ordered tracks. But it’s no mistake that “Peter Pan” closes out Flaming Red; it is the denouement of an emotional journey, the slow descent of tears down a cheek after they’ve spent twelve songs collecting in the eyes. It is a song for the end of the day, when you’re as tired and sweetly sad as Griffin’s lamenting vocals.
The first line of the song sets the stage for the four-minute long goodbye, in which the singer tells Peter Pan, “I’m all grown up / You’re on your own now.” Griffin tries to ease the double-sided ache by explaining, “I wrote a note to tell you how you matter,” a line that evokes the sincerity of a child’s love—the ability to convey to someone with simplicity how much he or she is valued without the same hesitations and difficulties of an adult tongue. Yet Griffin’s voice then makes a delicate turn to grapple with the lines: “When the rain came down all the letters scattered / And washed away, drifted off to never / Where you’ll be safe from me now forever,” implying a mature cognizance of the harm one might cause to another. Children, thankfully, do not tend to conceive of themselves as forces from which to be protected, but the “all grown up” singer is painfully aware of her ability to inflict and absorb pain. For all the benefits of maturing and coming into one’s own, there is a distinct tragedy, too, at the heart of growing up. What the longing ache of the instrumentation reveals is that this tragedy is the most quietly simple one we endure. That this simultaneous growth and devastation is universal makes it all the more poignant.
But then, what if Griffin’s “Peter Pan” isn’t really about growing up at all? As a symbolic figure that resists the natural progression of age and celebrates eternal youthfulness, J.M. Barrie’s legendary character has lent himself easily to adaptation and co-optation. Maybe I’d do Griffin a disservice to say that she enters into this dialogue only to speak of the end of childhood. What if the song is about realizing the need to move on from loves, from places, from dreams? What if it’s the painful realization we might sometimes have that our lives as we’re currently living them are in some way incompatible with who we’ve become?
Patty Griffin is not just a singer. She is a poet and a storyteller with a subtle but deep ability to make us learn more about ourselves without needing to do more than push the play button. She doesn’t need to tell us she’s sad, she doesn’t need to use the word tears, she doesn’t need to utter goodbye. It’s implicit in her words and embedded here in the fragility of her usually strong voice. So I won’t hold you up any longer. Go ahead and push play.
- Nora Curry
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