Just before Christmas 2013, I wrote a lengthy blog entry called “Songbird over the Rainbow.” Ostensibly about two musicians (Eva Cassidy and Christine McVie), it was really about the revolutionary effect of letting music and art back into one’s life. What follows is a distillation of the December piece:
December 23, 2013…
Mere weeks ago I had my head down, dragging the blade through the shadowy depths, when I heard a sound. It was not a songbird, but a human voice. Speaking about song. And I looked up from the deep dark trench and realized, there was light up there. Light…and sound. The sound of music.
When did the music stop being so important? The answer for each of us differs in time, but it is approximately the moment when we become less important than the things we do. When the trench gets deeper than we are, perhaps.
So it was one day when I heard a voice, talking about songs the way I used to feel about songs… Music is a mystery. It makes our bodies move. It slithers inside us and alters our feelings. It lifts us up, and brings us down; it speeds up the pulse; and it amplifies the ache of a breaking heart. When you jump in a pool, you get wet. That’s what music does. Which is probably why we stay out of the pool. And once out, we acquire a gradual deafness brought on by the rushing sound of “real life” as we know it. But now, watching this person’s face as she described her early life with music, hearing in her voice how much it mattered to her, I felt it myself. Look up, there is light.
That afternoon I returned to the office where I seem to live, to the chair where I spend most of my time, looking out a window high above a city slipping into early November dark, and I began to…listen. Again. Like Scrooge when we wakes up and finds the bed curtains have not been torn down, I was awake and suddenly charged with glee (deliberate use of the word) at, well, almost every tune I heard. Every plonking of every guitar string pulled inside me; every sweet drifting dream of a voice, sliding up and down a tune, tripping and stopping, caught my ear. I was hooked.
When you are hooked on something, it enters and alters you. You become a different version of yourself (“this is your brain on music.”)
And that is what happened to me. I started listening. Listening not to what I remember about old records, or what I have read or believed: just listening to what is there, and how it affects me. In this process one becomes truly, briefly, genuinely here.
There is a universe of songs out there, up outside the trench, in the light. It can flood you, lift you up. And it can hurt like hell. What it cannot be, if you are listening, is ignored. As I say, all this music can be immensely inconvenient.
So be it. The problem of being human is that it is impossible not to feel something, when you feel it. You can try to forget it, but that’s like forgetting yourself. You can try to ignore it, but somewhere under the skin you’re still feeling it. You can tell yourself it’s just not real (“lie to me, I promise to believe you” – see what I mean, the songs are everywhere) but then you’re just a liar. You can’t be honest if you’re not willing to see (or hear) the truth. What Eva has reminded me to do, I hope, is to listen. Not to my memory of something, but to what it is present. Not to my nostalgia, but to what is taking shape in the days ahead. Not to the notions that have calcified in my mind, but to what is true.
This goes beyond art. It is about the people around us. If I can hear something old, anew through the voice of a long-dead stranger, can I hear something real in the voice of someone whom I think I know? Can I be as open to who you really are, what you really care about, as I am to a song? To be honest, I don’t know. I can only want to be. What is clear is that it is work to pay attention to what is around us, as opposed to what we think is around us. It is work to meet a man and not judge him for what we imagine, but for who he really is. But it is necessary work.
I grant that it is difficult to let go of our preconceived ideas about people, even our impressions born of experience – or worse, of inexperience. We cannot accept everything at face value. But we can look at it. And if we are truly listening, not to what we are afraid of inside our own heads, but to what is really there – well then, we stand our best chance of knowing what is true about someone. And as I do not wish to judge too quickly, so too I do not wish to be judged that way.
Autumn gives way to winter. Now the world is flooded with Christmas tunes, drowning the ears and senses. Yet even in all that, if we listen, there are sweet gems to be found, old recordings we thought we knew, to be heard anew, and felt anew. And perhaps to make us act anew. Like never before.And the songbirds are singing, Like they know the score, And I love you, I love you, I love you,
Like never before.
And I wish you all the love in the world,
But most of all, I wish it from myself.