Thursday, July 17, 2008

Self-Discography #4: Music to Die By

"True Colors" by Cyndi Lauper (1986)

Even at the age of 13, I was aware that hearing this song, at this moment, was almost absurd--nearly funny. Except for the fact that the sounds emanating from the radio in my room on this warm September afternoon had tears streaming down my face.

I was standing in my bedroom, aching to throw something through the window. My mother was in a car, devastated, driving away with a neighbor who lived across the street. She'd earlier answered a phone call and then slid past me and my friend Amy--who was watching me try to figure out my first algebra homework assignment on the living room floor--and left the house. Amy had excused herself immediately after, more aware than I that whatever that call was it could not be good.

It was only when my mother reappeared with the neighbor and I saw the dismal look on her face that I knew that the hospital had called. My father, who only weeks ago had come home for a couple of weeks, was now miles away literally and figuratively. I don't recall exactly how my mother told me he was dead. I only remember the crush of her weight on me, copious hot tears coming from both of us and then the worst moment: when the news has been delivered and you pull away from each other and it feels like everything in the room--indeed, the entire world--is leaning in on you, pressing against your chest. You go into practical mode: "Now I must do this, and this, and then this." There is no "after." There is only now.

My mother needed to go with the neighbor to the hospital. I was told to go across the street and stay with other neighbors. But I said I'd go to Amy's. It was all mechanical because none of it was real yet. It was simply something told to us that sounded so horrible and yet had not been proven.

And as my mother left, I wandered upstairs, not even sure why I had. And there in my bedroom I stood, bathed in afternoon sunlight, with the radio introducing "True Colors"and the gentle lead-in to the first lyrics: "You with the sad heart..." I stood there, unable to process that this was simply a single released by a record company that paid to have it on the radio. And the voice continued to sing, as if it was a promise: "If this world makes you crazy and you've taken all you can, then you call me up because you know I'll be there."

And in that moment, it was just for me. Before I had to walk up the street and watch Amy come out of her house to hug me--the first time in our young lives we'd ever done this. Before I had to go to school and watch as everyone took a step or two backward, awkwardly unsure of what to say to me, if they managed to say anything. Before I had to endure a memorial service that made me so angry because it did not represent my father as I'd known him. In those three minutes, before any motion had begun, I simply stood. And listened.

"Gazebo Tree" by Kristin Hersh (1998)

I'd grown to hate the phone because it only seemed like bad news came from the receiver. No one ever called me to tell me all the great things happening in the world. They called to tell me that someone's sick; someone's broken. Or, as I'd been dreading the last few weeks, that someone was dead.

My stepsister and I were not close. We were never confidants, and, when we did live in the same house, conversation was at a minimum. She'd gotten pregnant as a teenager and had a son while I finished college and moved to New York.

But New York had slowly been unraveling around me. I was in the midst of breaking up with a boyfriend and deciding whether I would leave the city. I was nearly 100 percent self-absorbed, so inwardly focused that when my mother had finally called to tell me that my stepsister was gravely ill, I didn't, at first, have a reaction. And almost immediately I was intensely angry at myself for it--a real emotion at last.

But I also wasn't really kept in the loop. My mother and stepfather were not only enveloped by her being so sick, they had no ability to communicate what it felt like. So when the phone rang and the news that she had passed actually hit my ears, my reaction was not to move. I couldn't afford to fly home. My mother even told me not to, saying I should pay my respects when it wasn't so awful and forced, remembering my dad's memorial service.

For two weeks, as the dismal late winter refused to abate, I sat on the floor in my tiny bedroom in the Brooklyn apartment I shared with three other people and sequestered myself in writing a letter to my mom and stepdad, trying to express some bit of comfort for them. I didn't sleep in-between trying to find the right way to say everything about my stepsister I'd never voiced--in fact, never considered. And my only companions were my cigarettes and this song--a mournful organ line running behind what sounds like an acoustic campfire song sung on a cold clear night in the high desert. "Bless my baby eyes/Don't you know Jesus died/Spare me your moon shining/In my rainy gazebo tree." It seemed like a prayer. Late at night, with my headphones on, staring at 7th Avenue and the garbage trucks, hoping that there was some solace in what I wanted to send home. I imagined a woman alone in a tree gazing up at the night sky, feeling utterly at peace, with no need for human companionship. I couldn't write it down, as it wouldn't make any sense, but it still hangs in front of my eyes every time I hear it.

"We Float" by PJ Harvey (2000)

This should be an elegy, I thought. But would Owen have liked it?

He'd only been dead a few months and I was still wanting his opinion on the music that had just been released. He might think this is too maudlin, I thought, and then ruefully laughed to myself, feeling even sadder in the windy heat of the Los Angeles fall.

Owen had housed me and my things on and off for months when I first moved here. He'd artfully arranged boxes of books in his living room to make them part of his furniture. He'd eagerly agreed to let me have my mail sent to his stifling Studio City apartment, and, when I did stay with him, he'd talk to me incessantly about music. Damn Geminis, I thought. So chatty. But even for keeping me up until the late night jabbering about 4AD releases, why Frazier Chorus was so underrated, and whether that new Massive Attack CD was really that good, there was pleasure to be found in the stream of words that seemed to never slow down.

His sudden death wasn't from illness like so many of the others I had known. No, instead, it was wrong place, wrong time in Los Angeles. Botched robbery of an armored vehicle. Gunfire. And finding out that someone you knew had simply been making a run to the store while he did his laundry was suddenly, irrevocably gone.

And past the horribly hot memorial service and its cast of characters--some treasured, some totally random--we were simply left to wonder, "What now?"

And the music started coming.

CD release dates. I had no one to call up and say, in earnestness, "Oh my god, _____ is coming out in two weeks. I'm so excited." And as the summer turned, oh so imperceptibly, into fall, I found this one of the hardest things to bear, as ridiculous as it seemed.

It wasn't even that Owen was a huge PJ Harvey fan. And when her latest album was released two months after he had died I had no epiphanies about what he would have thought. But then there sat the six-minute album closer between me and forgetting. It was unexpectedly affecting, underscored by something dark, buoyed by something tender: "So will we die of shock?/Die without a trial?/Die on Good Friday/While holding each other tight?/This is kind of about you/This is kind of about me/We just kind of lost our way/We were looking to be free/But one day, we float/Take life as it comes."

Maybe it is maudlin, I debated. I even imagined Owen's fingers tapping out the drum beat while still screwing his face up at the lyrics. I would have had to look at him and say, "Just listen." Only now it was up to me.