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 155 11/27/13: Winter Meditation

Meditation is a strange thing. It can take you to some surprising places. There are the meditations when I “go deep” like David Lynch talks about in his book on creativity and meditation “Catching the Big Fish.” Then there are the meditations in which I keep thinking, but more in pictures than in words. Still thoughts. Still coming and going. But pictures–fading like slide shows or lingering like living dreams–actual places I can travel to.

I was listening to some music that is supposed to open the heart. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between healing and shutting down. Both involve a certain kind of closing. So tonight I thought I had better think about opening whatever it was in me that might have closed.

As I sat with my eyes shut, listening to this wordless music, head lolling like the helpless subject of an B-movie hypnotist, I began to smell evergreen trees. A very old and specific scent of Christmas branches wrapped in white paper. My sister Janet was sentimental, a record keeper. When we found a particularly beautiful tree, a full, robust tree, she always clipped a branch from it. Sometime in early January, she would put it away with the ornaments wrapped in white paper. The next year we’d find it rust-colored, the emissary from a previous December, a once glorious now sad and ancient thing. I used to think that the branch was an example of Janet’s excess–that her desire to catalogue and organize and preserve every experience from a movie matinée to a play list from a Bruce Springsteen concert was noble, understandable, but often too much. A gilded lilly. But because Janet died before she was 40 years old, I cannot help but think that  she saved things because some part of her might have wordlessly understood that, as Rilke said, she was meant to “disappear early.”

And then from our childhood house I found myself on a little rise above the pasture. I am standing by the water pump. The night is so quiet and cold and the moon has made everything almost a metallic silver. Even the wood of the gate looks somehow like metal. The moon has a wreath of frost around it. And the stars–I can see them all. The sky is cold. It is so quiet in the New Hampshire night that I can hear the horses chewing the hay in the field. I can hear their lips thudding in the dark. I never want to come back to Los Angeles where I never see stars, where it is never so quiet as to allow a person to hear all the many variations on the word “rustle” where it is never so cold that the water freezes in the pump.

I am so confused about time. Was this so long ago? I was there. I remember the cold light. The little hill and the horses. Maybe eight years ago. I stood in the dark on the little rise and I listened to the horses and saw my own breathing. I looked at the stars. And now I am stunned–not so much that it is over–the horses, the house, the fields, the winter nights that I would volunteer to go out to the barn and fetch the buckets and plunge my hand into the deep scented darkness of the grain bin–all of these pleasures, pure pleasures–but that they ever happened at all.

Part of what meditation does is to help us, through silence, merge with something greater. To step out of language and into that infinite, often blissful place. In those meditations that enter the big silence, I  feel transcendent. Free from language, free from identity, free from linear reality.  Sometimes the darkness seems to move, to part, as if I am traveling through it.

Other times meditation  plunges me into some very specific places. Like the little hill above the pasture. Maybe I was meant to see moments like this as more than “a memory,” but a state of being fully alive. Did I not feel a oneness with all things as I stood listening to the hay move and the tails swish and the hooves stamp? Did I not feel complete as I looked at the moon and the frost? Did I not know a wholeness as rich and true as any mystic when I stood upon that worn hill and listenedwinterscenecharl2–my eyes open in the dark.