Nancy McCallion

Songs for Sinners

Magic of a Melancholy Tear

Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?
Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye
Tom Waits

I’ve always been able to relate to Victor Hugo’s definition of melancholy as “the pleasure of being sad.” Tom Waits is the master of melancholy and captures it achingly in “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night” from his 1974 record of the same title. The mournful melody combined with the image of this guy combing his hair, gassing up his car, “trying to wipe out every trace of all the other days in the week” imparts a nostalgia for youthful optimism that makes me tear up every time. But it isn’t just nostalgia, it’s the sense that the singer isn’t really going to find the “heart of Saturday night” that invokes the melancholy, because who hasn’t felt that hope, that sense that something is going to happen, and how many of us are still waiting?

So what makes this pleasurable? The guy is going to dress up, comb his hair, search for the heart of Saturday night, and find himself hung over the next day and back at work the day after that.

My fourteen year old daughter suggests that seeking “pleasurable sadness” is a form of defiance against the pressure to be happy; we are told that we’re supposed to be happy when, in fact, frequently we’re not. And of course, there’s the element of catharsis, the purging of our fear and pity at the expense of some poor sot who stumbles into a temporary respite from the working week.

But it’s more than that, I think. Aside from defiance against happy, happy life affirming drivel and the cleansing purge of our emotions, there’s the sympathy, the connection we feel towards the character. I know this guy. I love this guy. He’s me at 19, paying my cover charge and strutting into a bar in my new black boots that cost me half a paycheck. He’s me and my best bud Catherine back when she was Cathy, cruising Speedway, bar hopping, looking for live bands and gigs, throwing down money from our tip jar and dreaming of fame and fortune. Just the thought of it brings a melancholy tear to my eye.

Catherine and me, 1982

Catherine and me, 1982


  1. One of my favorite Waits songs. Beautifully written piece. Pretty much exactly how feel about the tune but with less adverbs. I also notice that in about 90 per cent of her pictures, Nancy looks like she just did, or is about to do, something naughty. Just sayin.

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