My brother and I recently attended the Forecastle music festival, the first concert we’d gone to together since I took him to see Public Enemy when he was thirteen. I don’t know what we were thinking; clearly this is something we should have been doing since at least 1997. I drank moonshine lemonade cocktails and he drank Heineken and we both counted how many people were wearing My Morning Jacket t-shirts and tried to score free mini-hamburgers from TGI Friday’s, but mostly we listened. The drunken keyboard player in Spoon shook the maracas with an insouciant raised eyebrow. Chris Thile plucked the mandolin with delirious intensity. We heard Band of Horses, Trampled by Turtles, Outkast, Nickel Creek. Words that don’t mean anything unless you know what the bands sound like.
Scott and I weren’t really into Jack White’s set on Saturday night, so we sat at a picnic table and caught up on things while he played. When you live two thousand miles apart and have four children between you, that by itself is worth the price of admission. When Jack started in on We’re Going to Be Friends in a monotonous, thankfully almost-unrecognizable blues thump, I observed that it was one of the songs on the iTunes mix I had made for Balthazar’s birth, the one that segued so seamlessly from birth mix to grief mix, and that I hadn’t been able to listen to that song since.
“It’s come on at the gym a few times,” I said. “I always make them change it.”
There were, and are, songs I avoid. I don’t listen to Little Green by Joni Mitchell if I can help it. Can’t Find My Way Home came on in a coffee shop the other day and it was the first time in 28 months that I thought, as I used to, what a beautiful and perfect song instead of get me the fuck out of here. I still can’t listen to Catch the Wind, can’t even let it come into my mind. But Scott brought up something that I had forgotten.
“It really scared me,” he said as we were leaving, exchanging fist bumps with the kid still working the gate, “when you said that you couldn’t listen to music anymore.”
I remember in vivid detail, and have written about, the going blind from grief, but yes, it’s true I also went deaf. There was a period of time in which it was just lost, not only the songs on the sad iTunes mix, but all of it, when the place that music takes you was a place it just hurt too much to go.
My relationship to music is an ordinary kind of love, but that doesn’t make it casual or trivial. Pop music and I have been on intimate emotional terms since Toto declaring that “love isn’t always on time” from the school bus radio touched some deeply sad part of me. I was second chair, second violin in the County Orchestra. I’ve always sung in choirs and choruses and to myself, and I’m fine, but I’m not gifted. It isn’t a great talent or a career but a mnemonic device, a gateway to feeling, a portal to transcendence. No wonder my brother was afraid for me. Not being able to listen to music meant that a crucial part of my soul was grievously wounded, and he, of everyone I know, understood that, because he is the same.
At the end of my grandmother’s long life she had a series of strokes and could no longer live on her own. My mother and her sister made the decision to move her to the Episcopal Church Home. For several months after she arrived there she would grab my arm during every Sunday brunch and say something to me about bringing the car around. At first I thought that she was confused about where she was. I thought she believed she was at Audubon or Big Spring, some country club she could walk out of. Then, as her nails digging into my arm became more insistent and her voice became more urgent, I realized that she wanted me to help her escape.
I don’t know why she thought I was the one to do it. Maybe it was because she’d been telling me to bring the car around since I was sixteen years old, and I had never once disobeyed, even when the car was hers and it was somewhere in the vast reaches of a mall parking lot and I’d ridden there with someone else and had no idea where she’d parked it. It broke my heart that I couldn't do it. That I had to guide her back to her room, which was quite nice as these things go, which had a few pieces of furniture from her house, but which to her was a prison.
One Sunday the nursing home had a man playing the piano during brunch. My grandmother was an extremely musical person and had played the piano all her life. She loved Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and seemed to enjoy herself as the pianist made his way through the standards. But when he started in on the folk song Shenandoah, my grandmother broke down in tears. The stroke had taken her ability to write and most of her speech. But diminished as she was, it was clear that the song made her feel, with a powerful grief, all that she had lost.
After the pianist left, though, my grandmother sat down and played. She didn’t say a word. She played You are my Sunshine and My Old Kentucky Home and all of the others. She played without music. She didn't need it. Her fingers knew exactly where to go.
It’s convenient that my hearing has come back with passionate intensity, because words and I are currently semi-estranged. Words were the foundation of my marriage, so it makes sense that as that relationship changes, everything has to be recalibrated.
There’s a Beatles song with the lines “Someday when we’re dreaming/deep in love, not a lot to say/then we will remember/the things we said today.” It always confounded me. I remember complaining about it to my mother when the song came on the car radio. Why would you ever want to be in a state in which you had nothing to say? That would not be a condition I would ever want to find myself in. I think she smiled at my youthful naiveté and said something like, when you fall in love you’ll understand. But that conviction that there was nothing worth having that didn’t have words attached to it never left me.
This is how writers fall in love, Leslie Jamison writes in her essay collection The Empathy Exams. They feel complicated together, and then they talk about it. I’ve never read a more perfect or true thing in my life. For seventeen years Jonathan and I talked and talked and wrote and wrote until finally we had come to the end of what talking, what writing, could do. I didn’t know there was an end until it was upon me.
Words fail. People say that all the time. And I never believed it. Words don’t fail, only the people using them. I always thought, well, try harder. Work them like clay, knead and squeeze them and mold them into the shape you desire. All it takes is a little effort. And if that effort kept me one step removed from feeling, always analyzing whatever was happening and choosing the words I would later use to describe it, well, that was OK.
Even as I use language to describe its essential failure, I acknowledge that there are other modes of expression that better serve me right now. That has led in what is for me a long-neglected direction. I’ve added people to my life who will go with me to see music and play new things for me. I went to see Three Legged Torso at the Old Church and a jug band at Biddy McGraw’s. I went to see a rockabilly band at The Landmark and The Flaming Lips on the Waterfront and Slint at the Crystal Ballroom. I listened to Blonde Redhead, Afghan Whigs, Jeff Hansen, Wilco’s Summerteeth album. I went to see the Portland Symphony in Grant Park, and remembered that I used to have season tickets to the Portland Baroque Orchestra. I remembered there’s a cd by Bizet still on my Amazon wish list, unbought. Best of all, of course, was the time spent listening to music with my brother. Maybe I’m going to pick up the guitar I was learning to play before Jasper was born so that by the time Scott retires I’ll be good enough to form a brother/sister geriatric band.
On the last night of Forecastle, the Replacements played. The opening notes sent me back to 1989, when they opened for Tom Petty at Riverbend on their ill-fated Don’t Tell a Soul Tour. I remembered the not-so-nice high school boyfriend I went to the show with. I observed that Tommy Stinson looked like the most cheerful, dapper cadaver you’ve ever seen. Was that Billie Joe Armstrong playing guitar a few steps behind the rest of the band? Was that a Muhammed Ali button on Paul Westerberg’s white suit? And then I stopped thinking, stopped taking notes so that I could describe it later. I even forgot about my brother, standing a few steps behind me. I felt the clear, undiluted joy of the rhythm, the familiarity of the melody, the satisfaction of resolution. It felt good. It felt better than good. It felt like feeling. And that was all I wanted, and all I want.