Doesn’t everyone grow up in one of those towns. You know, the kind of town that’s divided between the rich and the rest of us.
In my home town, Oak Park, Illinois, it was the el tracks – the Lake Street el, as it was known when I was a kid; now it’s called the Green Line – that divided us between rich and whatever the rest of us were. Not poor exactly, because that would be an insult to actual poor people. But the kind of people who had a black-and-white television and a used car (one used car) and no air conditioning and whose parents would take the stuffing out of one homemade pillow to add to another homemade pillow whenever there was a new baby in the house. We lived in south Oak Park, with factory workers and auto mechanics and shop clerks … and teachers, too, like my folks … while the north part of town, north of the el tracks, was what native son Ernest Hemingway reputedly said was “a place of wide lawns and narrow minds.” North of the el tacks was where the wealthy people lived in huge houses with porches that wrapped three quarters of the way around, or in Frank Lloyd Wright houses, or in houses with three full stories and finished basements and elaborate landscaping.
So, the first time I heard this song, “Mansion On The Hill,” on a cassette tape of Nebraska I bought shortly after it came out in 1982, the song resonated, to say the least. It was almost like I wrote it myself, the sentiment was so familiar to me. I mean, it was almost like I wrote it myself if I was, like, a freaking genius and could write great songs.
But the point is, from the very first time I heard “Mansion On The Hill” I knew exactly how he felt:
There’s a place out on the edge of town, sir
Risin’ above the factories and the fields
Now ever since I was I child I can remember the mansion on the hill
In the day you can see children playing
On the road that leads to those gates of hardened steel
Steel gates that completely surround, sir, the mansion on the hill
At night my daddy’d take me and we’d ride through the streets of a town so silent and still
We’d park on a back road along the highway side
Sit and look up at the mansion on the hill
In the summer all the lights would shine, there’d be music playin’, people laughin’ all the time
Me and my sister we’d hide out in the tall corn fields
Sit and listen to the mansion on the hill
Tonight down here in the valley I watch the cars rushin’ home from the mill
There’s a beautiful full moon rising above the mansion on the hill.
Man. I get that. It’s beautiful and longing and mournful all at the same time. Jesus, it’s a great song.
Anyway, it’s not that I’ve got anything against those people. It’s not about resenting them. But if you grew up in that other part of town – north of the el tracks, so to speak – you really don’t know what that feels like. But I do.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.