Good music is a necessary component of happiness. And I don’t mean just for me, and my own happiness. I mean for everyone. Music that terrifies, that inspires, that speaks to us in special ways, is I think an indelible part of what it means to be a dreaming, acting, and reflecting human being: what it means to be a whole person. Without great music to sweep us to unknown landscapes, and into strangers’ hearts, our lives would have drastically less color and passion in them (and less dancing, too).
For me, good music has an inalienable emotional presence that forms the true core of its power, on a very deep biological and psychological level. After all, is there any better outlet than music for expressing exuberance? Oftentimes yelling and shouting and dancing in joy doesn’t quite cut it without the right song playing in the background. (Or even one you play in your head.) Call it aural compulsion, or a form of self-consciousness, but I think everything goes better with a little music.
Some people write off entire artists or musicians because they are too slow, too poppy or too angry, but by and large great music is like a versatile wardrobe or a good spice rack — there’s something to fit every occasion. There’s a wide variety of instruments, styles, elements, and yet they all come together in some way and are called “music.” Not to mention the emotional range of excellent music, and the way it surprises us. There’s a lot of cheer to be found even in pieces and songs that are thought to be sad in tone, and of course most effusive pop music has some element of ironic sadness to it, which the songwriter often adds intentionally.
Sometimes the gloom (you might call it the cloud for each silver lining) or the ironically sad element built in to a specific piece of music has a more ambivalent character to it, like the lyrics from Chilean singer-songwriter and national icon Violeta Parra’s song “Gracias a la Vida”, which portend little of the fact that she would one day go on to commit suicide.
Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto.
Me dió el corazón, que agita su marco.
Cuando miro el fruto del cerebro humano,
Cuando miro al bueno tan lejos del malo.
Cuando miro el fondo de tus ojos claros.
Thank you to life, which has given me so much.
It gave me a heart, that causes my frame to shudder,
When I see the fruit of the human brain,
When I see good so far from bad,
When I see within the clarity of your eyes…
So it seems those elements of ambivalence and irony which we are more accustomed to encountering in our daily lives can be present in music, too, and are a valid avenue of expression and tone along with the “happy song” / “sad song” dichotomy we are used to drawing.
Good music always challenges us in this and other ways, because it has a depth and a maturity to it. And someone who really enjoys and is passionate about good music (and who really listens to it) can find all kinds of varying emotional states, themes, and subjects, some completely contradicting one another, crowding together in the notes and verses of a single song. If the music is good enough, it can fit each specific mood as well as all of them in general. Multi-faceted.
I’ve been lucky, in the sense that good music has played a large role in my life without me having to try all that hard at letting it in, and I’ve gotten the chance to see many of my favorite bands and musicians in concert over the years.
The moments associated with these shows — waiting in line to see Eels; the raucous encore performance and audience participation in the “Mariner’s Song” from The Decemberists; the chilly air (and the smell) of the Tenderloin District in San Francisco before the Olivia Tremor Control’s reunion show at the Great American Music Hall — all of them clearly define the large and looming role good music, especially good live music, has played.
In fact, I often draw the thread of my life through the concerts I have attended over the years, and they become little signs and rest-stops whenever I begin reminiscing. When I go back in time, they’re there: the times I saw Ben Kweller in concert back in high school; while seeing Sufjan Stevens perform in LA, the look on his face right as he starts “Casimir Pulaski Day”; all the shows I went to at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco after I moved back to San Jose, and how surprised I am every time I’ve gone back for another show at how small the place is, and how many people they manage to squeeze in there.
More signposts along this musicked life: in 2004, I saw the Flaming Lips at Coachella, where Wayne Coyne, the frontman, first did his now-famous bubbled crowd walk; I remember, in 2008, walking out of a venue feeling absolutely punchdrunk after a frenzied and breakneck set by Handsome Furs, never having heard live music sound so urgent before; and descending the stairs into the logcabin-esque Doug Fir Lounge here in Portland, this month to see Miles Kurosky (formerly of Beulah), and last month to see The Clientele.
I got the chance to speak to Alasdair Maclean of The Clientele afterwards; it was the second time I had seen The Clientele in concert — the first time was back in 2005 — and, given the tremendous part (which I think is still an understatement) that The Clientele’s music played and still plays, beginning with the first time I heard “Bicycles” back in 2001, is a memory that will not soon pass from my mind.
Bicyles have drifted
through these streets still wet with rain…
Playgrounds where we spent our days
Return within our dreams
What it is, it isn’t up to me
I even told him of a line of the French poet Paul Verlaine’s (of whom Maclean is also a fan) which had, since I first read it, always struck me as being a perfect description of The Clientele’s music, and which I delivered to him in garbled French. The memory of our conversation will remain with me as long as the music of that night’s concert will, so intertwined are they now.
Rien de plus cher que le chanson grise,
Où l’Indécis au Précis se joint.
The best song is a hazy song
where Vagueness and Precision meet.
That’s the true beauty of good music — its ability, in spite of its ambivalences and its lyrical or musical abstruseness, to strike at something deep within the core of our being, and lodge itself there, permanently, in a way that the sensations and memories of our other senses cannot. And occasionally the song fragment, the riff, the chorus will carry something else with it, a memory of a person or a time of day or a period of one’s life, and ensure that feeling or that recollection is delivered into the sacred company of our most cherished reminders, and the formative moments that define who we are as people.
Now, sometimes, when it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a song or a specific musician’s music, at first there’s that initial look of vague familiarity: the search in the filing cabinets and databases of the mind, and then(!) the sound and the memory, the lyrics and the emotions all return as if they were second nature, as if they were a machine whose ‘on button’ I’d temporarily lost. But it’s always there, and always ready to make me tap my feet and sing a hearty throatful of verses. No matter how long it’s been.
How could I not remember the summer days before the end of the century (and the certainty of Y2K-caused apocalypse) that I spent listening to, and unconsciously memorizing, the entirety of Weezer’s ‘blue album’? Or the sounds of Sleepy Jackson’s “Good Dancers” wafting over the early morning heat (and over our hungover heads) at our Coachella campsite?
The afternoons and late nights I’ve spent with headphones wrapped around my oversized cranium gazing out of windows and letting the soft folk music — or the dissonant electronic music, or the droning noise rock, or Radiohead, AIR, Explosions in the Sky, Bob Dylan, Neko Case, or Jean Sibelius — rock my troubled thoughts to sleep aren’t not worth mentioning; they’re simply too many to number, and too numerous to list here.
Good music has been and always will be the friend that I turn to in my time of need — be it a joyous desire, a hopeful longing, or the hurt need that the end of a shitty day inherits. Or anything infinitely more complicated than that. It doesn’t matter. If the music is good enough, it can do practically anything. That is its strength, and its power to move us, both physically and emotionally.
I am so incredibly thankful that music has been a serious presence in my life. I’m indebted to everyone who has ever listened to music with me, shared it with me, and discussed it with me, as is a tremendous gift to give. And I also owe thanks to all of the artists who don’t play music for me especially, but who have brought me tremendous joy and catharsis as though they did, simply by picking up an instrument or turning on a microphone and doing what comes natural.
And, of course, it is worth mentioning here of the inspiration and admiration which all of the music of all of my musician friends has directly caused to bubble up inside me over the years. Their music and their shows I will always remember most.
Music is simply incredible, isn’t it? No wonder it’s been around so long, and is so fundamental a means of expression for human beings.
Though it may seem odd for a writer/poet to extol the virtues of a ‘rival’ art, while I might argue that making music and writing are not unlike one another (and in fact I think poetry and music, owing to a common lineage, are especially similar), I also know I am not alone in my overwhelming sympathies for the sung, struck, and strummed. I have no reservations. After all, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote,
If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD