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Essays on the redemptive power of music

By Erik Hage


There 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 behind me.

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 song.


The Shame of Schubert

My 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 it happened:

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.

“I 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.

“This 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 teacher’s attention.

“What are you doing?” Any answer I could offer, of course, was wrong, but I attempted to protest: “I just wanted to draw to the music.”

“You’re 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.

—B.A. Nilsson


The Man in the Bed

In 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 vivid images.

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.

—David Greenberger


Trial by Fire

As 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 love?

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 my bandmates.

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.

—Mike Hotter

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