Rob Delaney / Kasey Anderson

 

Rob Delaney uses Twitter better than maybe any other person
alive. Delaney has been a comic and actor for years, but it was not until
Twitter that he gained access to the enormous audience that has allowed him to
tour successfully with minimal promotion or publicity (outside of his Twitter
feed), and to sustain himself as a writer (he recently shot a pilot for Comedy
Central and is putting the finishing touches on a book to be published by
Random House) and performer (his one-man show, Naked and Bloody, and headline stand-up dates have sold out
consistently across the US for the last two years). Delaney is one of the most
thoughtful, intelligent, and generous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to
spend time with, and that comes across clearly in everything he does, including
this discussion of Jimmy Ruffin’s classic, “What Becomes of the Broken
Hearted.”

 

The first time I remember being aware of the song, I
was 13 and really coming into my own as a shitty, self-involved stoner kid.
Empathy was not an emotion I experienced with any frequency, but I heard “What
Becomes of the Broken Hearted” and empathized immediately with the narrator,
not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because of the way Ruffin
delivers it. Do you remember the first time you were really aware of the song?
Did it have an immediate impact on you?

 

This song just rocks me. I’d
heard it as a kid in the background, like on an oldies station driving around
with my mom and didn’t think anything of it. But then as an adult, after having
my face kicked in a few times by “love” and my own stupidity, rediscovering the
song was a revelation. The amount of beautiful human pain, unvarnished, and
loaded into a radio-ready single, is just astonishing. There’s a lot of love in
this song, a lot of pain, and perhaps most importantly, a lot of endurance. It
couldn’t be more beautiful.

 

Exactly. Do you think that unvarnished humanity is
missing from a lot of contemporary pop and R&B or do we just romanticize the
past? “Fuck You” is naked emotion, I guess, but it doesn’t play the way
Ruffin’s song does. It seems to me that there is a distinct lack of sincerity
in pop music over the last, I don’t know, decade or so?

            What really
strikes me about the song is the last word of the chorus: “Maybe.” There’s
absolutely no resolution. There are plenty of great broken-hearted soul songs
(“You Left the Water Running,” “Tracks of My Tears”), but Ruffin delivers those
lines with such a beautiful devastation, which is perhaps even more impressive
given that he didn’t write the tune. Like so many other Motown songs of that
same era, it was written by William Witherspoon and Paul Riser, with lyrics by
James Dean. To some degree, he’s inhabiting someone else’s skin, but he does
that so convincingly that it is easy to imagine the song as autobiographical. I
suppose that’s the mark of any great interpreter.

 

Yes, the desperation and
bleak nature of the song is quite naked. I don’t listen to too much
contemporary R&B or pop, so I’m reluctant to say that this type of idea
exists only in music from the past. I know it wasn’t a Top 40 hit, but “This
Year” by the Mountain Goats has the chorus “I am gonna make it through this
year if it kills me,” and that is another of my favorite “Keep on Truckin'”
songs. It’s an important message that I, at 33, am really only beginning to
fully understand. Yes, you need to work hard in this life. Yes, love is a
necessary ingredient. But one that I really needed to have beaten into me many
times was that patience and merely sticking around are huge parts of a
successful life. So I don’t even look at “What Becomes…” as a guy singing about
preparing to die or give up, but rather it’s a guy fully inhabiting his sadness
and confusion and surrendering to it for the time being, and (thankfully for
us) singing about it.

            And yes, the lack of resolution is a big part of what
makes the song stick with you. It doesn’t sew you up after the surgery that
this song performs. It leaves you on the table to wonder and ask your own
questions.

And
I love that he didn’t write it. I mean, lyrically, that song is airtight and
would be great to listen to coming out of any good singer’s mouth, but
thankfully we get to hear it from Ruffin, who is a mature singer who pretty
clearly understands and has felt and experienced what he’s singing about.

            I first really started to get into it after I was in a
big car accident and was in the hospital and its honesty felt like healing to
me.

 

I don’t know that I’ll look back on “Fuck You” and
have it feel and sound as fresh and raw to me in five years as Ruffin’s song
feels and sounds to me today, 44 years after its release. But either way, the
point you make applies. Those songs are still being written and sung, they’re
just not played on the radio as often. (That Mountain Goats song is maybe my
favorite of theirs, by the way.)

            I
always heard it as more resignation than surrender, but maybe your
representation is closer to the mark, or maybe it’s simply a matter of
perspective. Either way, I think you’re right. In contrast to a song like, “I
Wish It Would Rain,” where the narrator is very cognizant of pride and
perception, “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” seems very much built upon the
concept of accepting, if not embracing, pain and confusion.

Are there other songs or records that
became important – or more important – to you after your accident? I was having
a conversation with Peter Case about this very thing not long ago, about our respective
experiences with listening to music while being physically and psychologically
on the mend. Peter said after his heart surgery, he could only listen to a
couple of albums: Blue Shadows Falling by Ron Franklin and Miles Davis’ Kind of
Blue
(interesting titular coincidence). I was hospitalized for a while and
listened almost exclusively to Tom Waits’ Mule
Variations
. Did you have any touchstones in that way?

 

I’m sure it won’t surprise
you that Pet Sounds is the album I
listened to most while in the hospital for a month after my accident. I
listened to it every day, often more than once. iPods hadn’t yet arrived, so I
just had a few CDs to keep me company. Pet
Sounds
is beautiful and it’s by a crazy person who felt everything very
deeply so it acted as a sort of oxygen or fuel for me as my bones were knitting
and I was having occasional surgeries. “God Only Knows” in particular felt like
a perfect message telling me I would be okay that I could listen to again and
again. So I very much “prescribe” that album to anyone going through a
difficult time.

 

Yeah, there is a very naked vulnerability to Pet Sounds that comes through very
clearly. In that way,
Wilson‘s work – or
that particular album, anyway – is similar to “What Becomes of the Broken
Hearted” in that it encourages an active emotional relationship between
listener and song. In my opinion, that’s when art is most “valuable” and
“effective,” when it comes from someplace meaningful to the artist – personal,
political, whatever – and reaches someplace meaningful in the audience. As an
artist, if you can do that, you can tap into something that will sustain you
for a long time.

 

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