This story is about when I realized that my permanent residence was forever changed and how I used music to get me through the realization.
When things get too much for me, I retreat to my iPod. I know. It’s not very romantic. I don’t sit in the shade of a favorite tree, contemplating my finiteness in the midst of a larger world. I don’t lose myself in a sea of words penned by the great authors, displacing my psyche into a fictional dimension. I don’t have a significant other I run to for solace and a shoulder, discovering comfort in the arms of another. (Ed. Note: I do have that significant other now, who I can easily turn to in times of need. But when I wrote this, I didn’t.) Instead, I plug in. I pick up the iPod, insert the buds into my ears and hit play. I let the music transport me. Who needs the choppy, abbreviated beauty of Hemingway and the biting satire of Heller when you have the cryptic lyrics coupled with rock-jazz stylings of Steely Dan and the reggae/rock/hip-hop/blues hybrid of Sublime? Who needs the everyman, depressing musings of Steinbeck and the wacky world of Trafalmadorians of Vonnegut when you have the blue-collar mentality of Bruce and the ghetto storytelling of Nas? In fact, as I sit here writing this, the music of Chris Thomas King plays in the background. His soft, understated yet powerful voice rips through the speakers as he tickles his acoustic guitar, fusing jazz and hip-hop to augment his mostly blues-dominated sound. He sings, while his guitar gently weeps – thank you, George – “Born under bad sign/I’ve been down since I began to crawl/If it wasn’t for bad luck/I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” The bluntness of the chorus is universal. At different times in our lives when the breaks don’t go our way, those words become paramount. When I feel down or stressed, I’m reminded of that chorus, and I immediately snatch up my iPod to hear which artist will attempt to staunch my temporary era of bad feelings.
The reference to the iPod may suggest this is a recent behavior. But I’ve looked to music for many years, whether it required using a Walkman, a Discman or even a record player when I had an urge to listen to my father’s “Snoopy and the Red Baron” 45. (Although, that song never really held much cultural or emotional significance for me. I left that to the Abbey Road LP.) Music speaks to me. Honest, open, thoughtful lyrics reach me and usually prove more expressive than I do. The instruments talk to me, oftentimes demonstrating more emotion than I ever illustrate. It’s that rich, textured combination of words and sounds that allows me to examine myself and research my affections. I need an impetus, something to catalyze me so that I can discover what I’m feeling and why it’s causing me such joy or anger or sadness or disappointment or wherever else I’ve stopped on the gamut of emotions. With the end viagra no perscription of the semester bearing down, I often feel overwhelmed by the papers, the reading, the studying, the graduate assistantship, the freelancing and the prospect of a relationship. In order to slow myself down and push all that to the back of my mind, I turn to Common, a smooth, smoky-voiced, socially-conscious rapper. I flip to his song “Be” from his album of the same name. It’s the short introduction to his powerful 11-track album and contains a funky bass riff that builds to a climax before eventually being overtaken by a chorus of violins that pushes the bass to the background. Common quickly rips through his song, ending with the words: “Never looking back or too far in front of me/The present is a gift/And I just wanna BE.” Those three simple lines dominate my thoughts and cause a platonic shift in my mentality. It lends perspective to a mind that was previously too cluttered to find it.
I recall one time in particular where music really helped lift me from the doldrums. After I finished my sophomore year at Elon, I decided to stay in North Carolina for the summer so I could work at the local newspaper in Burlington. Indeed, I had already lived away from home for four semesters of college, but it dawned on me fairly quickly into the summer that I probably wouldn’t be going home for an extended period of time ever again. This thought jolted me. I had grown accustomed to being away at college, but I had never allowed the thought to enter my mind that my permanent residence was no longer so permanent. I sat at my desk in my apartment and stared at the computer screen in quiet contemplation. I could feel a lump welling in my throat; the one that warns of possible tears. I was alone, but I wouldn’t let myself cry. I forced my lip to stop quivering, shook my distant and detached stare and opened the iTunes application on my PC. I skipped toward the end of my play list for some Steely Dan. They’re low-toned, jazzy rhythms would soothe me, I thought. I played “Deacon Blues,” a not-so-veiled reference to a school a few miles down the interstate from me. The song cuts in with a light tapping of the cymbals, Walter Becker’s restrained electric guitar and the inauthentic – yet wholly effective – synthesized sounds of a flute. Donald Fagen’s untraditional voice, tinged with his trademark lisp, enters and the antiheroes’ dance begins. The song, while seemingly about a resignation to the L.A. musician’s lifestyle, has a practical application for me. The lyrics seem to have a more ubiquitous quality. To me, I sense not only the loneliness, but also the surrender to it. Fagen sings, “I crawl like a viper/Through these suburban streets/Make love to these women/Languid and bittersweet/I’ll rise when the sun goes down/Cover every game in town/A world of my own/I’ll make it my home sweet home.” As is true with most Steely Dan tracks, the horns sneak onto the track later, culminating with a prominent, well-placed and poignant saxophone solo. (An appropriate choice, considering the chorus mentions a saxophone.) The chorus: “I’ll learn to work the saxophone/I’ll play just what I feel/Drink Scotch whisky all night long/And die behind the wheel/They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues.” I feed off the disconsolate, abandoned feeling emanating from the song, and in some weird way, it makes me feel better. Maybe I needed to know others out there experience a sense of homelessness. Whatever the reason, it forced me to crack a bit of a smile, and it helped me through that evening. I admit, maybe one or two tears reached the ducts. But Steely Dan at least put a smile on my face while they rolled down my cheek.