December is a month of traditions. A myriad religious observances, baked goods, decorations and familial obligations. We all have our conventions, taking time to mark the calendar as it leaves while we look forward to the one incoming.
For many years I’ve held onto one tradition that gets me through, something that allows me to process the feelings I’ve held inside over the year, flushing them from my system as I make room for the challenges that a new year brings. On December 1, as early in the morning as possible, I pop on “A Long December,” which as you probably know was the second single from Counting Crows’ 1996 sophomore album Recovering the Satellites.
I first heard Counting Crows on a mixtape I stole from my older sister, one that some would-be suitor made for her to express the things he was unable to voice on his own. Wedged there in between “Be With You” by Mr. Big and the first three-quarters of Nirvana’s “Lithium” was “Mr. Jones,” the band’s breakout single from their debut record August and Everything After.
Lead singer Adam Duritz had a moment as a cultural icon due to his signature jet black dreadlocks and his dancing style which I can only describe as like a marionette in a tornado. By the end of my first listen to “Mr. Jones,” I was hooked. The band was fun and playful in a way that grunge wasn’t, they painted landscapes in their lyrics, crafting scenes you could place yourself in for the course of a song and live in the world of their creation.
“Mr. Jones” gave us the Counting Crows, but Recovering the Satellites that showed us who the Counting Crows were.
By this point, Duritz had a breakdown brought on by the price of fame and the band had skyrocketed from indie darling to national sensation. Listeners both rabid and casual waited with bated breath to hear what “Mr. Jones 2” would sound like, where the band would take that poetic whimsy we had associated with them. Counting Crows countered in surprising fashion, the second single from Recovering the Satellites was a ballad, tucked away just before the end of the record — “A Long December.”
“A Long December” came into my life over the radio, sitting in the backseat of a tan 1985 Toyota Tercel as my sister begrudgingly drove me to the grocery store where I worked. The DJ enthusiastically announced the arrival of the new Counting Crows single and as we heard the sound of a piano solemnly lead us into the song, we were left to wonder if the DJ hadn’t gotten his wires crossed. Then Duritz’s unmistakable voice kicked in and put us at ease. It’s a song best described as solemn, tender in parts and wounded in others. It entered the charts in early December and like “Mr. Jones” before it, was quick to rise to the top.
For a while, my experience with it was solely its popularity on the radio. I would hear it at work over the grocery store PA and it being December working in a grocery store, beleaguered employees would hide in the back and sing “maybe this year will be better than the last” to each other, as we weathered the blows of adults angry that we didn’t have the right kind of egg nog on the shelf. I would hear it being driven home from work at the end of a long day, sitting in silence while lyrics like “the smell of hospitals in winter” wafted over the airwaves, watching the eternal darkness of winter guide our way home.
But it was the video that really drove home the vibe of the song.
Duritz plays at a piano covered in leaves in a dark forest as Courteney Cox, one of two Friends stars he dated around that time along with Jennifer Aniston, writes a letter at a black table, the camera cuts to a chalkboard with dates written and brushed away. It’s moody and pensive and emotional, with Duritz at its center; playing his piano or standing and swaying with arms outstretched. Sometimes he was obscuring his face with a photograph before dramatically releasing it into the void. The scene around him is black with white birch trees for contrast as snow falls gently overlayed. It’s quintessentially ‘90s, a blend of soap opera and community theatre. It’s a perfect music video.
“A Long December” is a song I loved, and then like so many things we fell in love with in the ‘90s it went away. Put it away in storage to make room for newer and shinier things. For years I barely thought about it, until the advent of iTunes and click wheel iPods made having any piece of music your memory could conjure at your fingertips a reality. I bought Counting Crows’ greatest hits at a partner’s behest as we reminisced about our youth the way that kids in their 20s think their youth is some bygone era.
That same partner and I had the sort of back-and-forth lovesick relationship you revel in midway through your 20s, until she got really sick. Over dinner at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Edmonton in 2006 she told me she had cancer. One year later, on a warm Sunday morning, I got the call no one wants to receive: she had passed away the night before. For a long while I didn’t feel anything at all I cut myself off from any and all emotions and just moved through the world like a robot that had only been half programmed. Just enough to get by.
Early December of that year I had to drive out of town for work. I was a construction worker at the time, and I had to drive hours away, down some long Yukon highway, to do some constructing. I loaded into my Ford Econoline van, topped myself up with coffee and cigarettes and an FM transmitter so my click wheel ipod could play through the van’s meager stereo. Somewhere, out on the highway in the dark early hours of the winter, “A Long December” came on shuffle. I pulled my van over to the side of the highway and cried until I had nothing left.
It was the first time I had really let myself feel anything in the months since her passing away and the song brought it all back into my body all at once. “The smell of hospitals in winter” reminded me of visiting her in the cancer institute where she received treatment, when she panicked and had friends come by to do her makeup before I got there so she wouldn’t look sick. “If you think that I could be forgiven, I wish you would” the soundtrack to my desire for her to let me off the hook for not being there to say goodbye, like I promised.
Everyone has a part of the song that hits them the hardest. For me, it’s “drove up to hillside manor, sometime after 2 am, and talked a little while about the year”. It reminds me of days past, when we would reminisce on moments gone by, and allow ourselves the peace of knowing those days were behind us. It reminds me of not having one last chance to say goodbye.
I asked some friends about their thoughts on the song, just to test my theory that I’m not alone in my yearly tradition
Writer Anne Thériault told me “it’s like the perfect distillation of that feeling when you’re at a holiday party and you’re so sad and lonely but you’re trying to trying to pretend like you’re having a good time.”
“This song came on ‘A Long December,’ and I just started bawling and not being able to stop,” says writer Alicia Kennedy. “When I listen to it now, I think it really encapsulated that feeling that life wasn’t going to turn out the way I wanted.” Kennedy says “one of those pivotal moments in your life when your body realizes something before your mind does. I’m always thankful to that song for that.”
Bansplain host Yasi Salek has this to say “The thing about long December is that it is absolutely a fucking holiday song. People who say it’s not are lying. The thing is though, it’s the inverse of a normal holiday song in which usually the music is often cheery and joyful, but the actual song makes you feel very depressed. However, with this song, the music is bittersweet and sad, but the message is one of hope. It has been a long December and there is a reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last. He might be forgiven. She might come to California. I think she should. Additionally, it is a quintessential L.A. song that belongs in the canon of Los Angeles classics. It’s one more day up in the canyons. Is it Laurel, is it Topanga. Is it Benedict or Nichols? Is it simply the Canyon of the soul? We’ll never know. And of course it is one more day in Hollywood. Tinseltown, baby. This song has everything: sorrow, dreams, aspirations, love loss, weather, commentary on the ephemeral nature of life. It is a perfect song.”
Every year, in December, I play “A Long December” first, before I listen to anything else. “Fairytale of New York” can wait. And that line “drove up to hillside manor, sometime after 2 am” makes every inch of my skin stand on end still, as I think about the days and the years gone by, and the goodbyes never said and the goodbyes still to come.
I think about the offer of hope that Adam Duritz offers, so early in the song “maybe this year will be better than the last” and remember that he’s not offering despair or ennui without an exit. “A Long December” asks us to sit in our memories for just a while, talk them through and reminisce and remember how it felt, good and bad. And then maybe, just maybe, the incoming year offers some glimmer of hope we didn’t find in the one we left.