I Know the Truth About You

I enjoyed “Santa Monica” during its radio run, but I only became an Everclear fan when I watched them perform “Everything to Everyone” and “I Will Buy You a New Life” during an ESPN broadcast of Winter X Games 2. After that viewing, I dragged my parents to Borders so that I could buy a copy of So Much for the Afterglow, which a bored hourly employee really shouldn’t have sold me considering that the album came with a parental advisory warning and also that I was clearly and visibly 11 years old. But sell it to me they did. My father, significantly less bored and substantially more aware of how old I was, confiscated the album the next day.

As a credit to my dad, he didn’t just take it and insist that I’d learned a lesson. No, he was legitimately worried about whether or not I should be exposed to some of the explicitly adult content in the album, so he burned a copy of the disc that removed two tracks from the original, painstakingly created a copy of the jewel case art and CD booklet that omitted those two songs, and gave me this sanitized version of the album for my listening pleasure. While I didn’t feel this way at the time, as a parent now myself, I see that it was a very thoughtful and generous bit of childrearing. Maybe even more impressive: A few years later, when he thought I was mature enough (or had simply forgotten why he had an Everclear CD in his collection), my dad voluntarily returned the original. And so I finally came to know the two mysterious, missing tracks from So Much for the Afterglow, an album that I had already and incompletely come to love: “White Men in Black Suits” and “Why I Don’t Believe in God.” The former is probably the album’s weakest track and its lyrics, which are almost exclusively about sex and violence, easily explain my father’s censorship. The latter, well, the latter must be more complicated, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, right?

As best I can tell, “Why I Don’t Believe in God” had been removed due to its title, pure and simple. Ours wasn’t a religious house, but anything titled “Why I Don’t Believe in God” opens more doors than the parent of any 11-year old wants to manage, so it got cut. The song is about Art Alexakis, the man at the center of Everclear, coming to terms with the way his mother’s mental health impacted his childhood. Set over a simple, countrified arrangement, Alexakis paints a vibrant, painful picture of a troubled woman and her frightened, lonely child. The entire song is worth reading, so let’s do that.

I heard the truth about you / and it doesn’t really read at all / like the whipping stick you raised me with / scared woman in a private hell / hushed voice like electric bells / strange talk about Edgar Cayce and the long, lame walk of the dark ‘70s

I heard the truth about you, yeah you / oh Mama, they woke me up / I was deep in an idiot sleep / I was just eight years old / heard big words with a horrible sound / why’d they have to call my school, tell me my mother had a nervous breakdown

I wish I believed like you do, yeah you / in the myth of a merciful God / in the myth of a heaven and hell / I hear the voices you hear sometimes / sometimes it gets so much, I feel like letting go / sometimes it gets so hard, I feel like letting it go / sometimes it gets so goddamn hard, I feel like letting it all go

I ran away and went looking for you / back to Culver City and the old neighborhood / need to know if you were really gone / need to know if you were gone for good / I ran through the projects at night / hide in the dark from my friends in the light / hide from my brother-in-law / hide from the things he’d say / said you weren’t losing your mind / yeah, he said you just needed a rest / he said you’d be coming home soon / said the doctors there would know what’s best / said that maybe I could go live with them for a while

I know the truth about you / I know the truth / I know the truth about you

Mama, they woke me up / I was just eight years old / sometimes it gets so hard, I feel like letting it go / sometimes it gets so hard, I feel like letting it all go

Alexakis has done tremendous, deft, nuanced work here. He’s wrapped mature concerns in childlike syntax and pulled towering emotions out of simple phrases. When he sings “I hear the voices you hear sometimes,” I can feel the plea for maternal understanding but also the injured hint of blame, just as I can hear the longing, pleading, disappointed ache when a slim harmony stretches out over the line “said that maybe I could go live with them for a while.” The honesty, the vulnerability, and the sense of betrayal on display here are heartbreaking.

And then the song hits its climax:

I know the truth about you / I know the truth about you / I know the truth about you / I know the truth / I know the truth / I know the truth / I know the truth / I know the truth about you

Alexakis’ performance is excellent, but his words are greater. I know the truth about you. It’s a threat, isn’t it? That someone should really and truly know the truth about you is frightening. We guard our truths—our deepest, most internal truths—with ceaseless vigor, and for someone to uncover one that we did not want to share is to realize one of the fundamental fears of personhood. Because of that, Alexakis’ iterative claims—I know the truth, I know the truth, I know the truth about you—can be more terrifying than any slasher film.

Of course, if Alexakis’ narrator is accusatory, it is largely because he is speaking from a troubled place. Remember, the song ends with the narrator once again admitting that “sometimes it gets so hard, I feel like letting it all go.” Whatever the impact of his mother’s illness and indiscretions, the narrator is not in a healthy state. But maybe they’re on their way to one. Because what is this song if not the narrator’s truth? In sharing that truth, the narrator has accepted the risks of authenticity and vulnerability, and exposed himself to the possibility of not only hurt but also understanding and trust. And aren’t those things—the things the narrator most wants from his mother—the immovable foundations of friendship and love?

And look, obviously I’m coming at this from a position of privilege—at similar ages, Alexakis was wondering if he’d be allowed to live with even one of his parents, while I received a neat arts and crafts project, carefully made by my father to lessen the pain of valid censorship. I can’t liken my personal experiences to that of Alexakis or his narrator, but I can illuminate the power that this song exerted on me: I have thought about “Why I Don’t Believe in God” almost every day for almost a quarter of a century. It’s so simple and rich, so angry and loving. It is the sound of anxiety and the sound of relief. It is a reminder that nothing is easy, that no outcomes are binary, that the world and everyone in it is full of complexity and nuance. I love it, and all that it has meant to me, dearly. Maybe we can share that truth.

This song originally appeared in the Songs & Stories newsletter. Be a friend and sign up here.

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