[Intro]Withering tree, bearing no fruit
You're too young to live in a world full of lies
So you take to “the touchables” who touch liquid skies
And cry through the eye of a needle…Fighting the fish up from the deep
Three months after Cream issued its closing album Goodbye, Traffic issued its farewell with Last Exit. However, the members of Cream had written a song apiece for the studio cuts on Goodbye, whereas the studio cuts of Last Exit were extra tracks that Traffic had recorded for their previous eponymous collection, initially intended to be a double album, released in October 1968. In early 1969, when Steve Winwood announced (prematurely, it turns out) that Traffic would no longer be recording, their recording company Island Records scrambled to get at least one more album from outtakes.
Traffic had been moving away from psychedelic music and the best work on Last Exit is in a progressive jazz-rock format. The most prominent example of psychedelia, a Dave Mason leftover Just for You from their Mr. Fantasy album, with its use of sitar sounded dated in 1969, and as such, was rather an embarrassment. However, because of Chris Wood’s unusual tenor sax playing that sounds like weeping and the familiar psychedelic waltz time, I believe Withering Tree to be a good example of Traffic’s last successful release of a psychedelic tune.
Withering Tree was written to provide the theme song (subsequently rejected) for an obscure 1968 movie named The Touchables (thus the awkward B section where Winwood sings “touchables” instead of using the more graceful “tangibles”). According to the blog site A Dandy in Aspic, the film was about four mod girls who kidnap a rock star and keep him as a sex toy in a geodesic dome. I have no idea how the metaphor of the withering tree fits into the story of a kidnapped rock star. However, I find it a useful metaphor for the state of psychedelic music about the time of the song’s release. The underwater context, popular in psychedelic lyrics, is there…the tree seems to have fallen to the bottom of a lake in the second verse. The drowning branches of psychedelia reach for the sun. The song seems to imagine that though the inspiration for psychedelic music is shriveling up, its broken branches will find themselves “eternally” valued and used as parts of other musical projects in the future. But perhaps this metaphor would be equally useful in expressing, upon its (assumed) demise, the eternal value of the work of Traffic itself.