Sunday, October 25, 2009

Self-Discography #12: Soundtrack Singles

"Cry to Me" by Solomon Burke ("Dirty Dancing")

This might be the first time I've really noticed--listened--to old-school R&B. Oh sure, I know some of it already. You don't grow up in a racially mixed neighborhood in the '70s and '80s without at least some understanding. But as kids we gravitate toward hip-hop and pop; we don't often look backward.

I am already ashamed that I am being introduced to this by watching "Dirty Dancing," but I cannot deny the song's emotional impact. It manages to embody both alienation and seduction; it offers physical escape and emotional release with Burke's explosive voice asking over and over "Don't you feel like crying?" before imploring the listener to "cry to me."

It's not only this one line that hits its target. Even though I am only 13, I understand clearly that this line touches on some deep truth: "Nothing can be sadder than a glass of wine alone / Loneliness, loneliness, is such a waste of time."

By the time the song builds to its climax, with the seductive drum beat punctuated by piano--and even xylophone--and Burke's evangelistic wailing, I am a believer. I could care less about Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. What I want is my own darkened, smoky room--a place in which to move, to let go physically and emotionally. A place where there actually is no such thing as loneliness.

It's a tall order for a two-minute song from the 1960s. I know this. Yet from here on out, every time I listen, I get taken away. My mind drifts. And my hips sway.

"Regarding Mary" by Patty Griffin ("Niagara, Niagara")

It's 1999 and I've only recently been introduced to Patty Griffin by Wayne. We've been trading musical suggestions via CDs and mixtapes. I give him Kristin Hersh. He gives me Patty Griffin. It's a good trade. Patty is more traditional in her songwriting. Her acoustic music is sharp and soft at the same time. But she has a voice the power of which I can't deny. I like someone who can belt it, after all.

Her first album is just her and an acoustic guitar, however. I keep wanting to here these songs more fleshed out--with more meat on their bones. And when Wayne hands me the "Niagara, Niagara" soundtrack, he says "You'll probably like the first song the most." He's right.

"Regarding Mary" starts off as a jaunty little tune, bouncy in its mood until the first line: "She comes swingin' in with her tire iron."

Excuse me?

"She hates the morning, she hates the light/Hates the darkness of the night/She hates herself most of all...We try to lose her, but she remains/So maybe we will all go insane just like Mary."

I am pretty sure I know this woman already. To me, she's the relative you can't shake. She's the problem child next door. She is all the horrible people we somehow put up with because they happen to be "family." Maybe it's just that person you just haven't learned how to excise from your life. Maybe he or she really is sick. But is that your problem?

I know that I am ascribing way too much to a four-minute song, but it strikes like lightning, precise and fateful. Wayne knows already the somewhat tangled relationship (or lack thereof) I have with members of my own family. I know the same of him and his. Somehow, all of those stories are here in this one song. I take it as a good sign.

"Goodbye Horses" by Q Lazzarus ("Married to the Mob")

It's lonely in the projectionist's booth. I already know this at 16. You are made to stand in a hot, box-like space, lining up film splices on separate projectors and make sure that the jump from one scene of a film to the next is executed perfectly. Most of the time it works. Sometimes you see celluloid melt across the giant screen out there and you wonder if the audience can hear your cursing, screaming, or moaning.

The perks of working at a movie theater, of course, are the freebies: free movies, free snacks, free movie paraphernalia. The downside: Watching and re-watching the same two minutes of all of the films for which you are a projectionist, day after day.

"Married to the Mob" is one of the movies on which I learn to battle that mind-numbing watching and rewatching. While I like it well enough, what I am really struck by is the music used in it. Curious about it, I hunt down the soundtrack on cassette one day after work. Buried deep on side two of the tape is a song called "Goodbye Horses" by the mysteriously named "Q Lazzarus." It's immediately arresting to me for reasons I don't understand. It makes no real lyrical sense; it's impressionistic, stripped down electronic pop that hovers in a dreamlike state:

"He told me,'I've seen it all before. I've been there. I've seen my hopes and dreams lying on the ground. I've seen the sky just begin to fall.' He said, 'All things pass into the night.'/And I said, 'Oh no, sir, I must say you're wrong. ... Won't you listen to me?'"

I don't know what to do with this song. It doesn't fit anywhere, and yet it's perfectly realized. It's about mood. It's about a kind of catharsis I have not yet experienced. It's emotion I am not even able to express. I wear the whole tape out by listening to this one song over and over.

The memories of the projectionist booth and the impact of this song endure. A few years ago, I rediscovered the "Married to the Mob" soundtrack on CD in the bottom of a box. When I mentioned "Goodbye Horses" to Ryan he looked at me with a funny expression, telling me how it's one of his favorite songs. I later relayed to a few friends about how oddly serendipitous that was, and each one told me the same thing: "I love that song."

Is this a cult? I wondered. Some kind of late-to-the-party Q Lazzarus fan club?

Then again, how many artists create a song that's supposed to be a one-off on an obscure soundtrack and see it blossom into something that endures--time, music company mergers that put their music out of print, the rise and fall of a film director's popularity, and oh so many more variables?

Almost none of them, that's how many.

But here's one. Over 20 years old and still beautiful in its mystery.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

I'm Sure I Left Something in New York

I am fairly certain I did not leave my heart in New York. It had pretty much been deflated and left to gasp a few months before my departure. There was simply not enough to leave behind.

After I moved away in 1998, I swore off returning, despite the number of fabulous people I knew/know there. And then ... well, 2001 happened. And then ... well, I waited. I stalled. I stuttered. It was like I was trying to figure out how to see an old boyfriend who'd been emotionally abusive.

In 2005, I finally returned to New York, shocked to find the city transformed, not only in so many physical ways, but in less tangible emotional ways that left me confused. This wasn't the city that had always seemed ready for a fight. Now that we were both older, and at least one of us a bit better off financially, it felt more like an anti-climactic reunion where there simply wasn't too much to say. Not uncomfortable. Not bad. Just...not what I expected.

What shocked me most at the time was my longing for Brooklyn--specifically the area in and around Park Slope, where I lived for two of the years of my time in the city. When Megan and I had first moved there, we had friends tell us it was too far away and they would never come visit us there. Then, of course, several of them moved in only a stone's throw away from us. By 2005, the whole neighborhood was overrun with people I assume had once upon a time said they would never, ever live in Brooklyn. Normally, I think I would have blanched to see them all wandering around the leafy green, brownstone-dotted streets. But seeing them all as part of a long-delayed visit, it seemed appropriate. This was not my neighborhood anymore, after all.

When I made it to New York again in 2006 and 2007--both for work, both visits padded with extra personal days--I was once again in the zone. I still knew how to navigate the subways with barely a glance at the underground signs; I could easily weave in and out of the people on the sidewalks; I could bundle up in layers appropriate to the cold; and I was content in knowing this was not my day-to-day reality.

By the end of my last visit, nearly two years ago, it was clear to me that my enjoyment of New York depended solely on the amount of time I spent in Brooklyn. When work kept me cooped up in Midtown, Chelsea, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I stared to itch, antsy with the knowledge that I was stuck in this part of the city I never liked--that offered so little to me personally.

When I finally escaped back to Brooklyn and walked above ground I could actually exhale again. It was no longer that I simply missed Brooklyn. It was that, to me, it was New York. It didn't need to be the Slope. It could be Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene, Prospect Park, Windsor Terrace, or even a still-sketchy second-hand store on a weird part of Atlantic Avenue. Any of them felt...right.

As I get ready to return to New York once again, people keep asking me what I am going to do there. They ask about certain places in Manhattan--neighborhoods, stores, restaurants, and the like. I usually say that, of course, there's plenty of art I will see in Manhattan, but I am really looking forward to seeing my friends...and to being in Brooklyn. Some instantly understand. Some assume I mean only Williamsburg. Some look utterly baffled as to how I could gladly leave Manhattan alone my entire time there if not for the art housed on the island.

I don't tell them I simply want to walk around what once seemed like my own personal Sesame Street. I don't spin the story as to how I ended up living in an apartment over an international deli. I don't tell them that my deflated heart had actually still managed to beat there, nor do I explain why. It's simply not necessary. It's just Brooklyn. And it's just a little part of me, still.