Music and Defenses
Sometimes, things get around your defenses when it doesn’t occur to you to bring them up. A few weeks ago, I had to call a doctor’s office for my job and got put on hold. While I was on hold, the strains of the Carpenters’ "Close To You" appeared.
One factor here is that the music was loud, not a common thing with those Muzak services. Another is that it went on for a while before the woman on the other end came back. In any case, though, it got to me, enough that I managed to re-erect my defenses after a few seconds and started giggling, waiting for it to end because it was a bit much for that moment.
I’ve always been fairly indifferent to the Carpenters. Their greatest hits album was in my parents’ collection, so I listened to it a bit, but I moved on to other things once I started buying my own stuff and never gave it much thought. That day, though, it all came across the deep melancholy submerged under a placid surface, the sweetly resigned female voice that conveys more about the unjust suppression of women than five hundred pages of angry feminist rants could. It didn’t make me buy an album now, either, but it was something to take home and add to the list of musical notes.
Different things make an impact on different days. The next day, I had a Grateful Dead first set on the car stereo. All of it was nicely played, but the song that hit me hardest was "Mama Tried." I’ve heard a few dozen versions of this, but that morning it was the most vital song in the set a song that packs the whole country paradox of macho defiance versus reverence for tradition into two and a half minutes, and a perfect package of music of lyrics.
One band I’ve been trying to get recently is the Velvet Underground. I checked out a few CDs from the library, and observed how weird the And Nico album must have sounded in 1966 and how the 1969 self-titled album sounds like everything that would have been on a college station’s playlist 25 years later. However, these aren’t the sort of discoveries that push the CDs into my stereo. So one day I looked guiltily at the row of Live Phishes on my closet shelf, thought about my Velvets pursuits and pulled out the Halloween ’98 Loaded show. And what got me there was…Mike Gordon, who seems to keep finding new ways to weave spidery bass lines around the simple chord changes of Lou Reed’s songs. This was the first time I listened to this particular CD since the week I bought it two years ago perhaps two years from now something entirely different will emerge.
Another entry in the self-enrichment list was Television’s Marquee Moon, an album I’d once owned during high school, but which I didn’t get to the extent that I sold it back to the used vinyl store from whence it came. This time, it worked better. The reason was that, if memory serves, it was the first thing I listened to after I learned that Kerry had conceded, a fact that, mercifully, was withheld from me as I worked on November 3. The aggression of Television’s vocal and guitar stylings was right for that moment. Marquee Moon found its purpose.
What is there to find in music? Sometimes there are stretches of a few days where the things I pick out might as well be radio static or street noise for all the impact they’re making. It feels frustrating to be in this situation with so many choices on the shelf or the radio, like a doctor unable to make the right diagnosis. Perhaps it’s better to view music not as a medication but as a partner, one worth sticking with through the rough times to reach something new.
Yesterday, on Thanksgiving, NPR broadcast parts of a K.D. Lang show at Carnegie Hall. One of the songs was Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," which had been the subject of a Time piece this week about the soundtrack popularity of Jeff Buckley’s version. I’ve sort of listened to this song a few times before, so I gave it a dutiful harder listen this time, and the line that cemented it in my mind was "you don’t care that much for music, do ya?" Rather casual, and not an entirely Sondheim-worthy rhyme for "hallelujah," but it’s the sort of witty detail that ties the poetic sentiments in with real life, an element that the average writer wouldn’t think to include.
Since this is Thanksgiving weekend, it seems fitting to be thankful for having a good partner for all these years in music, and to Leonard Cohen and the Carpenters for sneaking around my defenses, and to NPR, K.D. Lang and the doctor’s office for helping it happen, and to Television for easing the pains of political defeat. Thanks to Mike Gordon, as well, for strong bass playing, and to Lou Reed for facilitating it. And thanks to the Velvet Underground, who might get through if the right doctor’s office puts me on hold twenty years from now.