Soundtrack of my Life: “God Give Me Strength” by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach


There is a delightful and underlooked gem of a film called Grace of My Heart, directed by Allison Anders and starring the incomparable Illeana Douglas. Anders is a highly acclaimed independent film maker responsible for the amazing Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca, but my favourite is the still Grace, a film of warmth and tenderness filled with incredible pop songs. The soundtrack is as perfect as the film is, and the highlight is “God Give Me Strength”, co-written by the incomparable Burt Bacharach and one of my musical heroes, Elvis Costello. It really is one of my favourite songs of all time.

Of course, it’s about unrequited love. So it also makes me cry. A lot. A lot a lot.

Bacharach, another of my all time musical heroes, is unmistakable. I can tell a Bacharach song without fail, so distinctive his gifts are. Teamed with Costello, as gifted a pop lyricist as we have, they wrote the song that weighs heavily on my heart and mind now, twenty years later.  The song is beautiful, but the lyrics are bitter. Devoid of all hope and spiralling into self-pity, Costello’s words define unrequited love laced with frustration. “Now I have nothing.” “If I’m strong I might still break.” “She took my last chance of happiness.”  The song builds as only a Bacharach orchestral pop song can, as Costello spits out the bridge- ” I might as well wipe her form my memory, fracture the spell as she becomes my enemy.” But it doesn’t end there- it peaks again seconds later as Costello repeats “I want her to hurt”, launching the song into soaring strings and muted horns. Then it returns to “Since I’ve lost the power to pretend that there could ever be a happy ending.” Yeah, I know, E.C. There is no such thing. Thanks for the reminder.

You cannot help who you fall in love with, and you cannot make people love you in return. Such is life.

So I watch Grace of My Heart.  A lot.  It’s full of cheery sounding pop confections. Then you get to the Jay Phillips part of the film (about an hour in) and Illena’s character Denise (neé Edna, who never quite fits in, so very much me in so many ways) sings “God Give Me Strength” in a cavernous studio as Jay ( a totally still hot Matt Dillon) stares at her with such intensity it borders on uncomfortable. Ah, yes. Passion. The fire that feeds my soul and creativity but is, after all, merely an illusion. Or so I’ve been told. So I shove it as far down as I can. I don’t leave the house and I don’t talk to anyone. I might actually tell someone how I feel if I do. Feel nothing at all is my motto. Deflect, distract, and distance.

What life has taught me is not to trust anyone. Don’t let anyone in. I’m not worthy of love and companionship. I am to be treated like dirt, because that’s how I’ve always been treated. Happiness and passion are jokes, and when I allow myself to feel either, even for a second, there is someone there to tell me I am an idiot. It’s not love that hurts. It’s the realization you don’t deserve it and you will never get it. And if you love someone who doesn’t love you back, it confirms everything you have ever thought about yourself. You have so much you want to give and share, but they don’t want it, so clearly what you have to give and share is worthless.

One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Stephen Chbosky, he who wrote the teen novel adults like me adore, Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was twenty-three when Perks was published, coming off the worst year of my life and still somehow trapped in the hell I created for myself. “We accept the love we think we deserve.” My mistake has always been that I thought I deserved it in the first place. Turns out no, I don’t get that part of the human experience. But I guess that means that Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach wrote “God Give Me Strength” for me to hold on to. As far as trade offs go, it could be worse.

I’d rather not make that trade at all.

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