observations and opinion
People typically go deaf slowly; a world of sounds goes blank, in small pieces, until you are surrounded by silence. That is what happens to us as we plow the narrow furrow of our daily lives. The trench gets deeper and deeper, the walls steeper and steeper, the sounds of the world feebler and feebler, the light weaker and weaker, until you are swallowed up in darkness. Not unlike the grave. You might forget that there was a world out there at all, save for the sound of a passing songbird.
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.
There is a moment in Mad Men when Don Draper asks “when did music become so important?” That’s the moment he knows – or should realize – he has become separated by age, affluence, arrogance and the sheer tonnage of life’s chores – from the magic of the world. For those of us born to generations after Don Draper, the question is something else: 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. I should explain that I spent the better part – genuinely the better part – of my early life caught up in music, singing it wherever I could, writing it as best I could. And listening to it always. 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. The fact that we were on the same page about most music (except Andrew Lloyd Webber stuff, which I dutifully have gone back to and tried again, to no avail) surely helped stoke the fire.
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.”) Things that went unseen or neglected suddenly burst into the foreground of your mind. Strains of random sound slip into the rapidly cracking walls of your mind – this morning I caught a whiff of a tune in Starbucks and became completely alert to it, like a dog sniffing a squirrel (the squirrel in this case was by the McGarrigle sisters but I haven’t found the track yet). If the effect is sweet, you yearn for more; if the effect is sour, you may (or may not) be able to break free.
It has been immensely inconvenient. There are, to be boring and obvious, only so many hours in the day. There are tasks and projects and most important, people who form my world who have not fallen in love (leaped really) with music. Aside from the few souls who seem to “get it” – people who exchange Youtube links (“have you heard this?”) and like to hear Joni Mitchell behind my office door – it is a lonely addiction.
Now, I am not entirely to blame, as I have had enablers pushing the drug at me with cunning and guile. I have resisted, feebly. But any chance of getting the monkey off my back was lost when into by Inbox dropped a cover of “Fields of Gold” by someone named Eva Cassidy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyPBrYI22ec and Christine McVie’s original recording of “Songbird”.
At first reading of this I was unmoved. A cover of a Sting song, by someone I’d never heard of and something by Fleetwood Mac, whose “Rhiannon” seems as ubiquitous and enjoyable as ads on one’s Facebook page. But okay: Sting seems a bit of a prat, but his voice and songs are a small guilty pleasure. “Fields of Gold” is a good one, so I clicked the link on Eva Whoever. And that was that. The moment is burned into my memory, the way you re-live car accidents or ocean sunsets.
It was amazing. How does a song I know so well, become a different song – yet stay so faithful to the tune? The sheet music came alive, the notes sprouting red rosebuds and yellow sunlight breaking through the bars. This recording was like starting a casual conversation with someone you think you know, and discovering they are so much more than you imagined. They dance. They sing. They climb mountains. Who the hell is this? And so I had to know: who the hell is Eva Cassidy? And so I found out who she is.
She’s dead. That’s who she is. Eva Cassidy played guitar and sang pretty songs in a way that, for a small and ardent fan base in Washington D.C., lit a candle in the heart. She recorded some albums, didn’t sell many and then suddenly died of cancer, all of 33 years old, in November 1996.
What happened next to Eva Cassidy, or more accurately to the recordings she left behind, is both wonderful and sad. Eva Cassidy died just as the Internet was being born. Her voice – and her spirit, because that voice was rich with spirit – passed mysteriously from Eva into the ether, resting briefly before being discovered by British radio and of course, millions of people everywhere with a computer, tablet or phone. Eva Cassidy was reincarnated, right here where we are, right now in the place we used to call “cyberspace” back when Eva was still here with us (if you have 18 minutes to hear how she was discovered, go here).
There is almost nothing one can say about the Internet that is not trite. It has all been said. If you knew the world before it, you know that world after it is a different place, a place of dazzling possibilities and dangerous dependencies. A world where we have to be alone, to be “connected.” A world where we can be witness to almost anything, but cannot touch who we speak to. A world where intimacies hang on photons, relationships burst out between strangers in bubbles of script, where we can create in our minds whole persons from scraps of words and pictures – false pictures, often. A world where we are all artists of the mind, drowning in a sea of pictures and noise.
And there is the noise that Eva Cassidy made, with six strings and a wooden box and ten fingers and a throat and lips. It was a beautiful noise. To those immersed in her songs, Eva has become an avatar, I think a symbol of a certain kind of hesitance, gentleness, shyness and modesty. She had a lovely voice, honeyed and strong and note-perfect. And there is more in the voice than perfection: there is imperfection, and bravery. I can find no English word to name it.
But there is a German word. It is Sanftmut. A merger of “gentle” and “courage”, or “soft” and “nervy”, Sanftmut connotes precisely what listeners hear in Eva Cassidy’s glowing voice, and what witnesses see in fragments of film: a gentle courage. It is a trait which women seem more commonly imbued with, and which women also seem more attuned to value. Sanftmut can be such a lonely virtue, such a rare and good one, and it rings out at us when we listen to the brilliant, halting re-inventions of songs by Eva Cassidy.
The song that did it, that brought Eva Cassidy out into the world which somehow missed her when she was alive, was “Over the Rainbow.” As with “Fields of Gold”, her rendition of the Judy Garland anthem somehow preserves the old song while converting it into something else; there is a yearning in it, and a weird absence of sentimentality: an honest, adult hurt. You listen to Eva sing “Over the Rainbow” and get the distinct feeling that yes, the bluebirds fly but “why oh why can’t I?” is not a hopeful entreaty but a recognition: “I’m not getting over that rainbow.”
But of course, she did. She entered eternity and, through the magic of the new world we live in, she has entered our lives. Mine, anyway. And she entered it purely, as a voice from the past, disconnected from any real knowledge of her as a personality. Eva is what we hear and what we feel, when we hear her. She is not a memory, not nostalgia – she is only her art. And as I have been reminded, this is a uniquely good way to discover an artist. Which takes us to the other song in that message, “Songbird” by Christine McVie.
Christine McVie of course lived the opposite experience to Eva Cassidy. McVie was part of a fabulous travelling circus of the 1970s called Fleetwood Mac, selling more records than anyone who ever lived before. She wrote songs, sang and played diligently, while the bedazzling witch girl of rock n’roll, Stevie Nicks, inhaled the spotlight. McVie embodied her own kind of Sanftmut – maybe a little more mut than sanft – pounding on the keys as Fleetwood Mac became airborne, crashed and later learned to walk.
Fleetwood Mac always seemed like a decent enough band that got an injection of rocket fuel (and a lot of other substances) when Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks signed up. But despite their fame and phenomenal record sales, they were hard to like: too slick, too much show and not enough soul, too much sleeping with each other and breaking up and writing self-indulgent dirges about it all. So there was absolutely nothing surprising when they did the classic 1970s over-the-top unnecessarily long and boring double album denouement called “Tusk” (Elton John did the same with Captain Fantastic. It was a thing then). The bubble popped, the band stopped working for a while and the individuals staggered on into a dope-filled haze of solo careers. Once Bill Clinton borrowed “Don’t Stop” for his 1992 campaign song, this was well and truly a nostalgia act.
Except for one thing: the records. Someone who did not live through the original Fleetwood Mac years told me how she discovered Stevie Nicks without all the show and the nonsense. She just heard these recordings and listened to them. And in fact, it is true: if you listen to Fleetwood Mac the way you listen to Eva Cassidy, you just hear the songs and the singers and the fingers on the strings and the keys. It is pure, it is interesting and it can be, if you let it be, powerful stuff. Falling, falling, falling.
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. Eva Cassidy recorded “Songbird”, in a lovely and ethereal way. It is new and fresh and worthy. But it’s not as good as when Christine McVie recorded it. Where Eva had her throat to carry her feeling, McVie’s less perfect voice had to find its way out through the song. In this jewel McVie speaks the aching truth of loving someone, who may or may not welcome that love. She isn’t shy about what she really wants: sure, I want you to feel loved – especially if it’s by me:
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.
Christine McVie. Who knew? Andrew Lloyd Webber? Well, maybe there’s a limit – but I will give him another chance, someday. 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.
If I can give Eva Cassidy (or Christine McVie, or even Stevie Nicks) the time of day, and hear them for who they were, and what their songs still are, then it cannot be too much for others to greet me the same way – can it? 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.