Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fifteen Days of Gratitude 15.10: MUSIC

As an aspiring writer, all I am really doing is rolling up my sleeves and digging elbow deep into evasive, slippery notions and emotions. We tap into veins and trace them backward toward the heartbeat. We identify the nerve endings and flick them, like toddlers thumping on piano keys (Look what I can do!) When I was a kid, I used to sit on the counter with my legs swinging freely, then I would whack my kneecaps just below the patella to see how high my leg would fly in the reflex. At first, writing is kind of like that. Keep hitting the spot until you get an uncontrolled response. As it progresses, it is about trying to string together word pictures and weave nets for catching the "a-ha!" moments, moments that seem as unspeakably beautiful as the sun disappearing beneath the sea, and just as impossible to keep. That's why nets are dicey: some things get away from us. Songs, however, give voice to human ways and emotions, where words alone may falter (therefore this whole effort may be a setup.) So I'm putting my iTunes on shuffle and I'm taking a trip to a place where words fail.
This is the only post that intimidates me more than my post on humor, mostly because writing an ode to laughter is like reading a song or eating a painting. Just isn't right. Besides, writing about how and why I love music is terrifying. It's like eulogizing your best friend (or, if you watched the recent episode of New Girl... your boyfriends father: "I'M NOT ASKING YOU TO DO TOO MUCH! JUST WRITE MY FATHERS EULOGY!!") In that light I'd rather just leave a playlist, or some flowers or a nice card, because all I can hope to do here is impart the feelings, the exhilaration and intensity of a sound that hits a home run. You already know what I mean, I'm sure of it. So here are some notions and emotions about music.
Tonight, I sat with my housemates and watched "The Voice" and tried to figure out what to write about. My roommates are ridiculously talented, and they do music for a living. I'm not exaggerating. No, they don't wait tables on the side and play gigs between and say "I'm a recording artist"... though that is legit, too. No, people fly them all over the world to sing and play, and they have a record deal. They tour. It's fine. And when I'm watching "The Voice" with them... I feel like a six year old watching to the State of the Union address with her dad. Not sure what's happening, I recognize that there are words involved... But mostly I watch my dad's response and when he frowns, I frown. When he laughs in derision, I laugh too. And I want to clap every time someone claps (clapping is fun!) but my dad isn't clapping, because he heard something I didn't hear. Imagine watching the Super Bowl with a football team. I know I like the game... but I don't know what to look for all the time. Suddenly everyone is in an uproar and screaming and I can't tell if they're upset or elated, but they're yelling. I have to assume there are things I don't see yet. Lets train our ears and eyes.

For me, it's like the chorus to Boston's "More Than A Feeling," which I used to lose my mind for in high school. It was like a frenzy when that song came on. Heads banging, windows shaking, people mildly concussing. Or there's Christine McVie's haunting (it's about witches so I get to say haunting) piano intro in the live performance of Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon." It gives me chills, even though it lasts for maybe 5 seconds, tops. I'll never forget hearing "Paradise" by Coldplay when I was driving through a mountain pass over the borderline from Cork into Kerry.  The song began, and as though I were in a music video, suddenly I topped the hill and before me was a panoramic chorus of color and landscape that was more beautiful because of that soaring symphonic arrangement that yanks your breath out of your chest, almost like the moment after a swimmer jumps off the starters block in a heat, but right before they hit the water; or when you fly over the crest of a rollercoaster and your stomach and your lungs and your heart bang around like fireworks in a telephone booth.
You remember in the movie Hot Rod, when they talk about the Tai Chi move that makes a grown man crap his pants? Yeah, well, music can probably do that Tai Chi move. It can stir up almost anything. Laughter, tears, rejoicing, harlem shaking, that Ally McBeal baby dancing. It can even make you die a little... like the slowing of your step when you wade into the water. Or like parachute pants. You tell me what it stirs up in you, they're your pants. For me, there's the song "It's Me" by Sara Groves; it's about a fight between a woman and her husband. I've never even been married but the lyrics still seem like I could've written them. That's a powerful kind of writing... to make strangers believe you. And the music of it! It's so simple I doubt many people would be stunned by it, but therein lies the beauty. There is a point in the song (3:56) where the electric guitar makes a wailing noise like (what else) the song of a whale. A disappointed, surrendering sort of sound, like a flare that is burning out over a sinking ship.... a long, last parting look.
Or if you're not particularly into pained glances... check out "Shipping Up to Boston" by Dropkick Murphys. The whole song is like the musical equivalent of a rumble, West Side Story style, except they're Irish rather than Puerto Rican, so instead of stabbing each other to death, everyone gets in a few blows, feels like they won, and keeps drinking.  If you could literally walk on sunshine, I don't think it would sound like Katrina and the Waves said it would... I think walking on sunshine would sound like "Dreams" by the Cranberries. The thrill of love at first sight? "Sweet Disposition" by The Temper Trap. Longing? It sounds like "Never Let Me Go" by Florence and the Machine or "On My Own" by Samantha Barks.
Melody and percussion move in like a wave that catches you off guard when you've gone into the water just far enough that you are out of your depth. Suddenly it's pulling you and pushing you and coming from out of your lungs and your eyes and your skin... that's why I listen to music when I exercise!  It's like an interior gas pedal. When I don't want to move, music makes me want not only to move, but to run. Or punch, or pedal, or ignore the shredding of my tendons. Whatever. i like to listen to "Down with the Sickness" by Disturbd when I'm doing squats and lunges: I go from zero to Lara Croft in 30 seconds... more than 30 seconds and I turn into the Hulk. And I can run for many miles further than I should with either "Take Us Out" from the Rudy soundtrack or Lady GaGa's "Americano" on a loop.
When Napster first became a thing, I would spend hours on my dads computer, crafting playlists to accompany me on "tasks" that would take no time. Playlists to listen to while I cleaned my room, while I wrote a paper, while I worked, while I got ready for school. It's like drinking wine as you make dinner... only you're making top ramen. The music was actually better, and more important to me, than anything it was accompanying. It never occurred to me that music didn't matter to people. In fact I have only met one person who was somewhat indifferent to music, so I'm hoping that is an anomaly, like the baby born pregnant. I will go ahead and assume that all of you love music just as much as I do.

I still have those playlists... they're like time capsules. Isn't it astonishing, the way music transports you? "Select... play... BAM!" The soundtrack to Garden State is also known as the soundtrack to my first breakup. I couldn't hear it without getting wistful, which really pissed me off because I liked that album. So one night I sat in my car, in the dark, and forced myself to listen to it over and over and over, and I squeezed out that reserve of tears and sentimental associations, until I didn't associate it with anything but the dashboard of my car, the pink lei hanging from my rear-view mirror, and the bright lights of the football field across the street. (7 years later, I can still see it) If you were to put my heart on puppet strings for this week, you could make one string Adele, one string Florence + the Machine, and one the Epilogue from the Les Miserables soundtrack. I once sat in a parking lot, waiting for my car to get towed and listening to that song, openly crying. When the tow truck operator arrived, he looked at me and said "What happened?!" I shook my head and smiled bashfully and said "I was just listening to the Les Mis soundtrack." He looked at me blankly and said ", what happened to your car?"

There's a Rolodex in our brains for music. We forget, until we hear a few introductory notes and then there it is, that snapshot of a memory, looking at you knowingly and tousling your hair and punching you "playfully" in the arm, just hard enough to knock the wind out of you and make you hope no one saw. It's personal, uncomfortable, mysterious, and glorious, and it's all yours. The "shuffle" button on the iPod is like hitting that kneecap until you get a kick. I've been writing with my iTunes library on shuffle this whole time (just to slow me down) and as I stretched out on the couch with coffee by my side and holes in my socks, I went all over the world, through a myriad of memories and moments and heartbeats, through the maze from childhood to college and beyond, from bad decisions and raw, exposed nerves to pure bliss and back. Someone said "music is what feelings sound like." Well it's half past 3 in the morning and I feel really tired. What song is that.


Becky Moriarty said...

Where did you come from??!??

HM said...

I don't know if I should be the one to tell you this, Mom...

James Moriarty said...

One song came immediately to my mind... Frank Sinatra singing a Johnny Mercer classic, "One for my baby"