I've always been a sucker for music. I don't mean that I love it, although I do; I mean I'm susceptible in the extreme to the power of music to sway, influence, manipulate and take control of my actions and emotions. Given the right combination of instruments, the ideal time signature, the critical sequence of notes, and the essential rhythm, I am powerless to do anything but listen and absorb. As adaptive strategies go, not the best formula for success in life. If there's one constant in the various exhortations trumpeted around by the prodders and pushers of the world, it's some variation on the "focus-resolve-persevere-drive-never give up" wheeze and it's difficult to exert any kind of sustained effort when you are constantly being diverted by music. I'm capable of being laid low or unhinged or addlepated or stirred or stoked or stricken at any given moment by a song and that does not jibe with the whole eye on the prize theme. I expect I would have found it quite difficult to resist the various musical calls to arms that governments have used throughout history to exhort young people to apply themselves to doomed causes. Once more into the breach? Sure, just keep blowing on that bugle.
It's not just music that I choose and enjoy that has this effect. I might spend 20 minutes musing about the choices that the composer made when he penned his soup commercial opus. My problem is that I cannot ignore music even if I don't like it. I'm always thinking about how it makes me feel, mentally isolating instruments and trying to divine something about the player from his technique, evaluating the structure and making predictive assumptions about what comes next. I'm always looking for the moments of surprise and pleasure that comes when I hear someone just flat nail it, and it can happen anywhere — commercials, theme music, buskers, whistlers, or maybe just two birds whose songs coincide in (accidental?) harmony, You might think I'd be ideally suited to a career in music criticism, but I take it far too personally to be at all fair or reasonable in assessing musical efforts; what I love, I love fiercely, savagely, and protectively, and what I find it distasteful I consider a violation of the laws governing symmetry and proportion. A good critic must sometimes weigh his subjects on their objective merits alone and I simply cannot do that. I would give (for instance) Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady) a kidney for the asking, even if his own kidneys were fine and he wanted it just to have it. Conversely, I would not waste a single milliliter of my urine to extinguish any conflagrations that might be consuming any or all members of the Eagles. My enmity for this band even extends to Jackson Browne and his work I otherwise have sincere regard for, for co-writing "Take It Easy" with Glenn Frey. Now I realize that among the readership of this fine paper there may well be some Eagle fans and it is not my intention to offend. If that's the sort of thing that spins your turbine, I respect and honor your choice, even if I don't understand it. It's just that I'm 100% certain that Satan has their "Greatest Hits" playing on an endless loop in hell.
As far as being a musician, I am, of sorts, it's that I'm not particularly gifted or driven enough to truly excel at it. I take a great deal of pleasure in playing and singing and I loved writing songs in my youthful punk rock days when they spring full-blown from my fervent and diseased mind. As I grew older and learned theory and develop some technique, though, I found myself constantly tinkering and modifying and mending until the original idea and the emotional content it bore were lost forever. So I do a lot of free-form jamming and reinterpretation of other people's songs, but honestly I get more pleasure from listening to and watching true artists work their magic.
There are a number of songs, stretching from my musical awakening in about 1965 when I graduated from the Chipmunks to the Beatles to the present, that carry a significant enough degree of emotional heft that I don't actively seek listening to them. I don't buy the recordings or download them for fear of diluting their power. When I hear them I simply enjoy the time travel back to whatever serendipitous moment in which the song and event wound 'round one another and became one. The feelings they engender are sometimes bittersweet, sometimes joyous, and often despairing or dreadful; nonetheless, I relish the moments in which I can relive them. Sometimes it's like poking at a sore tooth, others like the deeply satisfying scratch of a hard to reach itch. They can make me feel like the world and everyone in it exists purely for my pleasure or that nothing is ever going to be okay again.
To reiterate my assertion from above, allowing — encouraging, even — my emotions to be so easily and critically swayed by pop music is definitely maladaptive, certainly another symptom of my arrested development, and probably the reason I'm not CFO at Glaxo-Wellcome. But there you go and here I am and that's the nature of things.
There is a song that if not at the very apex of the Deadly Memories Hot 100, is definitely in the top five. It is by its own merits a beautiful and melancholy tune but the event in my own life it attaches to gives it mythic proportions and durability; 40 odd (and I do mean odd) years down the road it still wrings me dry and upends my equilibrium.
Travel with me down to the days of yesteryear — it was early 1973 and the latter half of my seventh grade year. Among my social circle it was the usual Saturday night practice to assemble in someone's basement rec room for a party in which we pre- or barely-pubescent kids would contrive, bathed in black light and redolent of sandalwood, to find ways to kiss the girls. We hadn't yet reached the point where we just paired off and sucked face for hours. That came later. As neophytes in the making out business, we required elaborate setups and ritualized games to get the osculation in motion.
I was a bit of a slow starter and hadn't really gotten any serious action, a few Truth or Dare pecks was the extent of my experience. I had high hopes for this particular night though as I was hosting for the first time and presumed this would help both my cachet and confidence and result in me being inducted into the making out elite.
My buddies and I worked all day Saturday getting the basement in shape. We set up five or six blacklight tubes, put up posters bearing the legends "Stoned Again" and "Keep On Truckin'," and pinned batiks to the ceiling to create a harem effect. Several incense burners were placed strategically about the room, loaded with the scents guaranteed to put the girls in a kissing mood. Albums were carefully chosen and set up in the order in which to be played with "School's Out" kicking it off and "Fragile" closing it out. The first game to get underway was Spin the Bottle, and the way we played was the girls would choose partners and you would keep that partner all game, kissing her when the bottle pointed your way rather than randomly kissing whoever each time. Placing yourself in the proximity of the game meant facing the possibility of rejection but as I said I was feeling myself for real and ready to get busy.
I was chosen by a dusky sloe-eyed beauty named D'ava Porter, a girl to whom I had barely ever spoken and certainly never considered myself in a league with. But there she was, holding out her hand and inviting me to join her and I wasn't even the last guy on the couch.
I passed the rest of the night in a kind of heavenly swoon, although I must have acquitted myself well enough in the bottle spinning, for we remained partners in the ensuing games of Truth or Dare and Seven Minutes in Heaven
I sailed through the next week several feet off the ground, blissed out and deeply in love. I saw D'ava several times and although she smiled and said Hi, we didn't really speak. No problem. I would make my move and solidify my position at the next party which was the upcoming Saturday.
The big night rolled around and I was in Mike O'Dell's basement with a knot of other guys, laughing and joking, waiting for her to arrive, stomach flopping nervously every time someone came down the stairs. She finally arrived — actually, I heard her first, her laugh, which I realize I recognized, and I began to make my way to the staircase to greet her. When she came into view I noticed that she looked absolutely stunning, second that she was not alone, and third that the abomination with whom she was, fingers entwined, descending the stairs, was a sixth grader named Bryce Henkel. How did he even get into the party? I was devastated and humiliated. I wanted to kill them both, myself, everybody. I plopped down on the couch, burning with shame and resentment and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, D'ava was apparently so eager to get her lips onto this callow interloper that she initiated the Spin the Bottle action before they even sat down. And the first time that Fortuna's wheel, in the guise of a 10-ounce Coke bottle, landed on the deceitful pair and she tilted her head charmingly as she leaned in, the needle dropped on the stereo.
Cut to the year 2015. 42 years later, I'm still not really over it, but I've learned to live with it, and at the infrequent moments when I hear that song (as I believe I've made my feelings about classic rock quite clear), I am flooded with emotion and reminded of the awesome power of a 12-year old heartbreak.
Here in 2015 I have made the perhaps ill considered choice to watch a Breaking Bad mega-marathon, that is, every episode from beginning to end for five hours every night and all day on the weekends. At first I am enthralled and rapt. This is amazing television. But I find that as I become more deeply embroiled in Walter White's travails, I am sleeping less and thinking more and more about the show when I am not watching it. I become completely enmeshed in the narrative and think about little else.
As the end of the show nears I find myself in a state of more or less constant dread and unease. As Walter's situation approaches a terminal condition my own emotions are at a critical level, both from the intensity of the drama onscreen and the knowledge that soon the show will be over.
The day of the finale arrives and I'm not ready. I don't, but do, want it to be over and I'm nervous and angry and sullen and scared all at once. The show unreels and as it builds to its glorious heartbreaking climax I'm right there with it, swelling with emotion and anticipation. And when the inevitable happens, as Walter is bleeding out on the floor and breathing his last, I hear it. I hear it and I literally cannot believe it.
Guess I got what I deserved — left you waiting there, so long my love.
"Baby Blue," by Badfinger. The same song that from that long-ago basement is now attending the death of Heisenberg and I am reeling. It's too much. I feel both a complete temporal disconnect and a sadness verging on despair.
In the days following, I find I cannot not think of either the song or the scene and every time I do I start to cry. Clearly, drastic measures are in order. I procure the CD and listen to the song a few hundred times, then pull out my guitar and tease out every note. By deconstructing and demystifying the song, I hope to rob it of its intensity and evocative power. It works, for the most part; immersing myself in the song has kind of made me sick of it, but that makes me sad too, losing that link to my childhood.
Damn you, Heisenberg. Damn you!