“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.