on the redemptive power of music
are plenty of tales about people whose lives have been redeemed,
saved, redirected, etc. by playing music. But it’s
more of a stretch to suggest that the mere act of listening
and experiencing could be somehow redemptive. Or maybe it’s
not so much of a stretch at all.
Just this past Sunday, on 60 Minutes, French president
Nicolas Sarkozy, an ardent admirer of American culture, was
held aloft as the key to improved Franco-American relations.
“J’aime la musique Américaine,” he told Lesley Stahl by way
of partial explanation. If music listening can be a factor
in redeeming international relations and taking the “freedom”
out of freedom fries, who the hell am I to question what it
could do at a personal level?
I can’t speak universally, but in my own life—as a music listener—it
has done a lot. But it’s hard to separate those experiences
where music has simply been a soundtrack to events from those
where the music has played a genuine role in somehow redirecting
or redeeming me.
The first song I ever remember hearing was Grand Funk Railroad’s
“I’m Your Captain,” an experience that had absolutely no effect
upon me. I also vividly remember, as a mere toddler, seeing
Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show, singing “Girl From
the North Country” with Johnny himself. That impacted me,
but primarily as a listener and, later, as a music journalist.
I also spent a lot of time in hippie communes as a kid, so
perhaps my immersion in (and admittedly negative association
with) hippie music is why I can’t stomach anything resembling
a jam band to this day.
But these experiences were hardly redemptive, not like the
time I saw Blur play at Irving Plaza in New York City as a
college student in 1993. On that night, I made a decision
about the direction of my life. I was studying theater at
NYU with some kind of plan to be an accomplished playwright—maybe
even a double-threat actor-playwright like Sam Shepard. (In
retrospect, the problem here was a lack of talent. Not to
put too fine a point on it.)
My favorite playwright at the time was the postmodern/absurdist
Len Jenkin, who (in a strange act of serendipity) had his
“people” call me to audition for the lead in his new play,
Careless Love, at Soho Rep. (He had seen me in a student
version of his own Dark Ride at NYU; I didn’t even
know he was in the audience.) Short story: I auditioned terribly
and embarrassed myself in front of my favorite writer.
I never felt comfortable in the theater anyway—so enter Blur.
I had tickets to see the opening of Careless Love,
but at the last minute someone offered me a ticket to see
the Blur concert. I opted for the concert on a whim and watched
as a group of four Englishmen roughly my age tore the roof
off the place.
Damon Albarn—in a Fred Perry shirt and choker necklace, with
short, mussed hair and bad teeth—would pogo, fling himself
around the stage, purposely and repeatedly smash himself in
the head with his own microphone, and occasionally writhe
on the floor in the paroxysms of song. Graham Coxon consistently
threatened to give the business end of his hard-body Gibson
to any would-be stage divers that entered his personal space.
The group attacked the songs as if their lives depended on
it and whipped the audience into an utter lather.
It was while up on my toes, peering over heads at Albarn’s
fit of writhing flat upon the stage, that I made up my mind
then and there that theater could never have an impact equal
to what I was observing. I also decided that I wasn’t very
good at it anyway, and that I needed to stop dicking around.
Within a year, I had scrapped three years of study, transferred
elsewhere and changed my major to literature.
Other experiences felt redemptive, but it’s harder to articulate
their impact: Swaying with my newborn daughter to Wilco’s
“Far, Far Away” in a loft on the Lower East Side; experiencing
the tension and energy in Madison Square Garden minutes before
Roger Daltrey’s scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; seeing
Paul Weller revive the ghosts of the mod ’60s on the opening
night of his American tour at the Town Hall in NYC in 1994;
blasting Jane’s Addiction as I left the gates of Ft. Campbell
and the 101st Airborne forever at 21, putting my enlistment
Even the experience of peering closely at the four photographs
of the Beatles on the inside of the White Album as an 8-year-old—headphones
clasped around my head, trying to shut out the world—is ingrained
in memory as somehow significant.
For me, music has consistently promised that there is something
bigger, grander, and deeper out there, something beyond the
quotidian. “There is some wonderful seriousness to the business
of living, and one is not exempted by being a poet,” wrote
John Cheever in his journals. “There is another world—I see
this—there is chaos, and we are suspended above it by a thread.
But the thread holds.” This is a passage I have carried with
me for years, and the thread has held. I’m not sure why (and
I won’t get into the myriad personal reasons why it shouldn’t
have). But I’m pretty sure that one of the forces holding
me aloft through the years has been the promise of a good
Shame of Schubert
musical redemption would be my social undoing. What seemed
wonderful at the age of 8 turned me into a bitter 9-year-old,
sent to purdah for preferring the wrong records. Here’s how
My third-grade class was interrupted, once a week, by the
arrival of a large, angry woman pushing a clattery utility
cart upon which lived a large, institutional record player.
This she fed magnificently ruined old LPs bound for yet another
spin under the two-pound tone-arm.
Music class typically consisted of forced group singing of
dorky old folksongs or forced group quiet while a record played.
The day that changed my life began as the latter.
want you to listen to a beautiful symphony,” the music teacher
said. The class groaned as one. This was 1964. We were in
thrall to the Beatles, whose music WABC disc jockey Cousin
Brucie couldn’t play often enough. You tuned your transistor
radio to 770 and he did the rest, and we merrily sang along
with “She Loves You,” “If I Fell” and “I Want to Hold Your
Hand,” each of which I still know by heart.
The record player crackled to life and low strains of cello
and bass rose above the background noise. After a minor-key
introduction, a very familiar theme burst through in the strings.
It was Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, and it grabbed me
like no music ever had done before.
is movement marked ‘Andante,’ which means ‘at a walking tempo,’”
the teacher said, violating her own rule of silence. “I want
you to write that down: ‘Andante.’ A, N . . .”
But I’d already tuned her out. I put pencil to paper and,
inspired by the beautiful music, began to draw. I imagined
a country village, as it might have appeared in Schubert’s
day, and sketched in a series of houses as the tune grew dark
again and the winds and brass added to the tumult. Perhaps
a thunderstorm was approaching . . .
And indeed it was. Absorbed in my artwork, I’d missed “Allegro”
and “Adagio.” I even ignored “Accelerando”—and attracted the
are you doing?” Any answer I could offer, of course, was wrong,
but I attempted to protest: “I just wanted to draw to the
here to learn about the music,” the harpy insisted. “Can you
tell the class what ‘Andante’ means?”
Was it only the music itself that grabbed my ears? Did this
embarrassing confrontation turn me toward classical music
as a course of stubborn rebellion? To confess in front of
all my coevals that I truly enjoyed this piece was a gauntlet-throwing
act that could lead only to ostracization, condemning me to
socialize only with the other music geeks who hung out in
the band room. And even then it was mostly the string players,
like me, who bonded with one another over symphonies like
this. A different kind of social life. Unfinished, perhaps,
but fascinating, and remaining always in progress.
Man in the Bed
the summer of 2004 I was working on a project in San Francisco.
While I was there, Dave Alvin and his band the Guilty Men
came to town as part of the tour coinciding with Dave’s album
Ashgrove. The show was at Slim’s, a large, loud room
and a venue that’s been a music mainstay in the city for a
long time. While it was not an ideal place for hearing music,
I was glad for the opportunity to see Dave again. The volume
was considerable and the undeniable wallop was inviting. I
worked my way into the thick of the crowd, enjoying the anonymous
connectedness of being surrounded by strangers. All focus
was on the riveting engine that was churning away onstage.
Alvin’s songs are empowered by concise but sharply delineated
portraits of lives in fractious circumstances, yet they are
never without hope. They are also built of strong, sturdy
parts, sounding like classics that could have made their way
across the country during the western expansion. Though lyrics
may dart in and out of the rhythmic tumult, the combined effect
feels tied to the earth, as if the songs, and even the band,
have been blasted out of a hill, carved from a tree stump,
or carted by the bucketful from a stream.
In the midst of the set my mind suddenly filled with the completely
clear and resonant memory of standing by my father’s bedside
in the last moments of his life. I was momentarily nonplussed
by the appearance of these thoughts, but confusion, sadness,
and surprise passed through me in a flash, leaving me transfixed
and emotionally transported. Amid the throng, as the rhythmic
propulsion of the band rolled over me like waves, that vision
changed. In an instant, it wasn’t my father, but me in a bed
and my daughter standing beside. In a loud and crowded club,
I was overtaken by sense of one generation giving way to another,
connecting me across time. This was not a sad moment; it was
a state of complete calm, made all the more unexpected for
the surroundings in which it had occurred.
It was only afterwards that it occurred to me why this vision
had occurred to me then and there. Dave Alvin wrote a song
called “The Man in the Bed” after the death of his father.
Dignified and emotionally charged, it gives voice to a dying
man in a way I’d never heard before but I knew to be full
of resonant truth. Dave’s set did not include “The Man in
the Bed,” nor would it have, given its quiet bearing. I’d
forgotten that I was to convey a message to Dave on behalf
of a friend whose own father was reaching the end of his life.
Unconsciously, the part of my mind in charge of that message
was trying to draw attention to itself, constructing those
I failed to interpret the thoughts of my deathbed as a string
around my finger, but the combination of music and the privacy
of my own thoughts made for a singular event in my life.
a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science in 1988-89,
I joined my first basement band, probably the 2,500th band
of youngsters to name themselves Section 8. Our drummer, the
least naturally talented of us (he routinely dropped the beat,
and both drumsticks, during any given song), nevertheless
hooked us up with our first show, something he termed a battle
of the bands at some community center in his more-privileged
section of the Bronx, Riverdale. (I resided in Parkchester,
a place where my Zeppelin shirts got me labeled a metalhead
by classmates who schooled me on the finer points of KRS-One
and Big Daddy Kane.)
We rehearsed for our show, trekking all the way to Queens
to go through our Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix covers.
We were a ragtag cross-section of New York City, our rhythm
guitarist a Paraguayan, our drummer Jewish, and our lead-singer
and bassist a Mulatto with a really cool Hendrix-style afro.
Four different ethnicities, the melting pot banded together
by a nascent love for rock & roll. What wasn’t there to
On the night of the show, we entered another basement with
our gear, though this one was darkly lit, and there was something
called a circle pit going on. At the end of the room where
the bands played came the most fear-inspiring racket I had
heard up to this point. Our drummer wasn’t aware (or neglected
to mention, I never found out) that he had entered us (a bunch
of just-learning classic rockers) into a hardcore punk show
of some sort. I was afraid for my life, as well as those of
In the midst of my trepidation germinated an interest in the
music played by the other (and older) bands on the bill. I
had never seen an audience care so much about what was being
played. It was then that my life, and my conception of music,
became literally and irretrievably “postpunk.” My love for
blues-based music never died, it just became better informed
about what else was going on in the name of rock.
Needless to say, Section 8 went over like a fart in church,
though luckily the worst that happened was a few choice words
and a few birds flipped our way. We started with “Jumping
Jack Flash,” and I wish I still had the tape, because the
dread and fear we were feeling infused that old Jagger-Richards
warhorse perfectly for the venue. I also learned a lot about
the camaraderie and respect fellow musicians often show one
another, no matter what their musical stripes. The burly,
tattooed punk rockers clapped after each song and nodded their
heads as if to say, “Keep at it, boys, don’t give up, keep
on playing.” I wouldn’t have wanted to be introduced to punk
rock any other way, even if I did feel like running very far
away at the time.