I do not recall the first time I heard Lightnin' Hopkins' song "Needed Time", but I do know I discovered it sometime just before March of 2003. The looming threat of an impending war with Iraq was building to a crescendo, and Hopkins' soulful, plaintive cry encapsulated exactly how I was feeling at the time: disenfranchised, neglected, betrayed, sorrowful, afraid.
I was 22 and had been feeling for the first and only time a palpable urge to be a soldier and to express my patriotism with a signature and a shave and a farewell to the safety of my American home. The attack on 9/11 gave a sense of purpose to my life, as it did for all Americans. But that feeling didn't last. It was swiped away by President Bush's misdirected decision to involve us in a different, completely irrelevant fight. I was pumped for the mighty American revenge on al Qaeda and bin Laden, but there was absolutely nothing in my heart for a war against Saddam Hussein. My electric patriotism faded into a cold, sweaty confusion. It was like standing at the edge of a steep cliff and accidentally dropping something important to you and having to watch it fall slowly down into the abyss and away from you forever. It was a needed time.
We could only watch. I was learning a powerful lesson about politics and life and destiny. So much of it is out of our control. There are bigger machinations happening all around us all the time. Gears turn and history grinds in dangerous ways. There is nothing safe about life. We all eventually get caught in the works.
And I listened to Hopkins sing this song with its spare lyrics, the barest of melodies, and its bouncing guitar rhythm. I listened and I got it. I too wanted Jesus to come by here, even if not for long. Just for a short while, for a little comfort, a little there there, it'll all be alright. And if not Jesus, you know, then something else. Anything else, because it didn't have to be Jesus. Hopkins called for Jesus, but any of the saints would have been fine, any of the devas or Bodhisattvas. Hell, any poet or even a librettist would do.
I kept listening. I played it over and over, night after night. The week the war began, I was in Paris with a friend and one night we laid awake and listened to it together on repeat. I believe he got it, too.
If I could have played it then for the entire world, everyone would have got it.
The more I listened the more I found buried inside. There are really only four small lines in the entire song, but the repetition builds a powerful scene. A man, alone, his eyes wide and searching, his voice pleading, his heart aching, but his resolve unwavering. It is a testament to and a tangible experience of faith's ability to straighten one's spine, to lift the chin, and to give strength to muscle.
The war in Iraq came and went. The war in Afghanistan goes on, malignantly. It is still a needed time, and it always will be. I again listen to the song and am consoled in whatever lays heavy on me at the moment. Hopkins continues to beg for help, keeps praying on his knees, and though Jesus never will visit, the sentiment is enough to console.