Day 256 3/8/14: The Song Hospital (Pt.2)

“Bring your song to the Song Hospital.” I found the ad at the back of a 1940s magazine on amateur photography, one of many other ads offering the services of “song doctors.” I’d obviously heard the term “script doctor” but song doctor had such poetic possibilities—it made me wonder if songs had the potential to be broken, injured and healed.

This morning I woke up hearing “Save it For Later” in my head and I remembered another album I played and re-played to the point of physical destruction. Not even the most talented song doctors in the nation could have saved this record.

In 1982, my mother and brother and I moved to Ojai, California from a little town in Massachusetts. Everything felt exotic to me, the orange groves across the street, the huge mountains and that summer’s baking heat so different from New England humidity. The heat melted the tapered candles in their very colonial looking candlesticks, until they began to softly droop. School hadn’t started. I stayed inside the shady and cavernous living room, watching Twilight Zone episodes and at night listening to records.

I played Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” endlessly that summer. Moody and spare, the music did not match Ojai’ s pink mountain sunsets and horse ranches and oak groves. Each time I played the record again, my brother would groan and blast “Sex Bomb,” by Flipper to obliterate “Nebraska’s” harmonica, its mournful evocation of Midwest interstates, of killers, war veterans and state troopers:

Me and Frankie laughing and drinking

Nothing feels better than blood on blood

Taking turns dancing with Marie

While the band played Night of the Johnstown Flood

Even when I wasn’t playing “Nebraska,” it played in my head. I had an orange cat named Vincent. Late one afternoon I found his body by the side of the road. I wasn’t sure how he’d died, but I decided not to burden my mother with the news right away. So I buried Vincent in the overgrown backyard, thinking as I wielded the shovel that digging a grave by moonlight, did feel like something out of the black and white world of “Nebraska,” that I’d finally begun to live the songs that until then I’d merely memorized:

Everything dies baby that’s a fact

Maybe everything that dies someday comes back

By September, “Nebraska” became unplayable. The two sides somehow merged, melting into each other until the songs spoke to one another in an avant-garde dialogue.

I took a strange pride in this, as if I’d taken music to some new extreme, the frontier of teenage loyalty. I’d passed into the grooves themselves.

I’m not so reverent, so fanatical anymore, but as a writer music remains to me a vital companion. To evoke a particular mood right, I do what so many writers do. I play the same song over and over. And I am amazed at how durable these songs are, how long the spell can be stretched out without losing its power, how a good song can reach into so many different directions at once, each of which is true—a love song is an otherworldly invocation of the next world and a world-weary reflection about being a cocaine-fueled rock star all at the same time.

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold

With a head full of snow

With a head full of snow

If I listen to “Moonlight Mile,” by the Rolling Stones, I exist at once in two places: the actual road I am trying to evoke on the page, a blue road in the country, that I’ve walked many times and another road where the dead travel, one that seems familiar beyond memory. As long as the song is playing, I can see both roads, blurring and vanishing into each other, and I am rooted to the ground, echoing in the emptiness of the air.

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Day 255 3/7/14: The Song Hospital (Pt. 1)

I’ve been listening to the same song for three days. No news. No movies. Nothing. Just one song. In my car. In my apartment. I want to see what lies beyond the fog of the too familiar, beyond the edge of boredom. Can a song heard so many times become new again? Will the ending sound less wistful when I know it’s going to start again for the fortieth time?

The song is “Save it For Later” by the English Beat. In the 80s, I kept a radio vigil for it, along with “Talk of the Town,” by The Pretenders. I saw the English Beat perform it at “New Wave Day” at the US Festival in 1982, the same day I saw the Clash and A Flock of Seagulls. It had been a long hot day of rock in San Bernadino, but when the English Beat came out, all skinny and New Wave, I felt reborn.

***

The song is fast. The unfolding spell of memory is slow. It’s the summer of 1983 and I’m in the country, at my father’s house waiting for a letter. I can feel the cold grass under my feet. When I hear a car on the road I shade my eyes with a biography of Keith Moon and look out toward the mailbox. The song won’t give me any more than that. Just a loop. Sun and cold grass. Keith Moon. Waiting.

***

 I’ve heard it 100 times and there are still lines I cannot decipher: “My seven seas are rotten through? The seven seas I’m walking through?” But I’m afraid to look up the words. If I know the muddled parts, maybe I’ll lose the grass and sun and whatever feeling rushed through me years ago when I waited for the song, for the letter to set me free.

***

When my father drank too much, he played songs over and over. As a child, I once played “Yellow Submarine” about 35 times at his request.  But my father shattered this record one summer when he played “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger fifty times in a row. In the line “deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out,” Bob Seger had effortlessly channeled my father’s daily struggle at the typewriter banging out stories about ax murderers and Boston politicians, about defrocked priests and lady blacksmiths. Combined with the potent melancholy of “drifters days” and “seeking shelter” “Against the Wind” conjured a spell against which my father was powerless.

I could do nothing but sit with him at the bar he’d created off the kitchen, under the genuine wagon wheel lights, and dime store dream catchers drinking cold well water and listening to “Against the Wind,” until some of my cynicism melted. Upstairs, I slid into a creaky bed in a room cluttered with newspapers all of which contained my father’s stories.

I guess I lost my way, oh so many roads….

Each time I came home, I cut some of the stories out of those papers. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t dream. I couldn’t find the crooked scissors I usually used to excise his words from the dry bulk of the Boston Herald. I heard the shuffling of slippers downstairs. I could hear my father cough and open the cupboards rooting around for crackers.

 

I’m older now and still running

 

I listened and somewhere in that slim fragment of darkness, waiting for the song to begin again, I felt the interminable open out into something vast and tender.

***

I’m 17. “Save it For Later” comes on at the Halloween party where I am dressed as a slutty vampire, my hair electrified with Dippity-Do. The guy I’m with is 24. He’s embarrassed to be at a high school party. I sit on the edge of the chair where he’s sitting.  Cold saliva pools around my fake fangs. I rest my hand on his shoulder, in silent rapture. When the song is over, we’ll go into my friend’s room, but not a moment before.

 At the moment Ranking Roger sings Don’t bother trying to explain…Just hold my hand while I come to a decision on it

I want to hold his hand. To see if he notices.  To see if I can finally match song with world.