From Big Notebook for Easy Piano
“Everyone’s a theologian,” a college professor once told me, “some are just better than others.” If understanding God is indeed learning to ask the right questions, perhaps asking, “What are we going to do if there is (or isn’t) a God?” is a better question than simply asking, “Is there a God?” “Role Call” is the culmination of all the religious imagery that buzzes around on Big Notebook and its only b-side, “Sick,” and it asks the former, perhaps more important question.
Throughout all his writings, Seth Timbs so fluently uses a familiarity with the vocabulary of Christian religion that I’ve always wondered exactly what kind of background he has with it, sometimes hearing hints of high church and other times noticing references more reminiscent of country churches and gospel music. He explored the topic of religion extensively when he was younger and playing with The Mad Hatters and before, as if struggling to come to terms with what he had been raised to believe, culminating in the hilarious, “Religious Interpretations,” with its chorus,
“Jesus lives in me
But I don’t know where he’s hiding
No, I don’t know where he’s hiding
Jesus lives in me
But I think he’s playing racquetball today.”
Older and wiser, Seth more seriously (but not too seriously) tackles the subject throughout Big Notebook, with “Role Call” at the center. Its title itself is a play on “roll,” as in a list of people belonging to a certain group, whereas “role” is a part played by an actor—the Greek word from which we derived the word hypocrite. With its countless metaphors, the song refers to dying and reaching the afterlife, being somewhat uneasy of what the outcome might be when it comes time to settle up accounts with “the boss upstairs.” And so he says, “I wish I wasn’t me” (another reference to being an actor and the title “role”), wishes he was lost in the mountains of paperwork (likening the inner workings of heaven to an elaborate bureaucracy), or would happily accept the “combo plate” at the expensive feast for all the honored saints in the afterlife.
There is no clear resolution to the plight in this song, but the chorus seems to come the closest to the heart of the matter,
“Where the Angels fear to tread,
Where it goes straight to your head,
And you’re left for dead,
where I wish I was.”
Put simply, he would prefer for death to be the end of it all as opposed to going through with the mind-games of religion (“Where the angels…to your head”) in hopes of finding some eternal reward or punishment after this life.
The live recording presented here is from The Whole Shebang CD release party on July 3, 2004, performed during Seth’s solo set. To this day, my favorite part of this entire show’s expansive recording is in this song, about two minutes and five seconds in, when you hear a sorostitute exclaim, “Damn! He’s good!” while standing in front of the microphones I was using to record the show. The piano interludes and speed with which he plays this truly sounds like he’s having a good time up there, making for a pleasant listening experience.
Download Live mp3