Monday, March 26, 2007
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground
Verve : 1969
[Buy It]

David Bowie
David Bowie [UK]
Mercury : 1969
[Buy It]

The Long Winters
Barsuk : 2005
[Buy It]

Cat Power
What Would The Community Think?
Matador : 1996
[Buy It]

Elton John
Honky Chateau
Island : 1972
[Buy It]

For almost a year, I only listened to music at Rite Aid. Rite Aid was a block from our apartment. It was exactly the distance I could make in the freezing cold, carrying the baby in my arms. Also the farthest distance I could sprint if she started screaming again and I had to go home. (These calculations were important because she screamed a lot in those days. Enough that our neighbors averted their eyes when they saw us, enough that it felt like a car alarm was perpetually going off in my head.) Something happened to me when that alarm went off. It filled up my thoughts until there was no room left anymore for books or music, things that had once been like air to me. My desire for them didn't vanish, but my will to obtain them did.

I'd always believed that if you were patient enough you could find the perfect song for any emotional weather. (Indeed, I'd spent most of my twenties on such pursuits.) But in those early months with my daughter, I didn't even look. The hours I spent with her were characterized by such a strange mixture of terror, exhilaration and loneliness that I couldn't imagine their musical corollary.

All I knew was that the days were incredibly long. Babies are supposed to sleep a great deal, but this baby did not. Nor did she consent to being put into a stroller and wheeled out into the world to be admired by strangers. Attempts to leave our apartment were met with such furious wailing that I'd soon give up and sit with her sullenly in our living room until my husband came home.

It's true that I could have played music to pass the time. Every now and then I tried. But for once in my life it only made me lonelier. I wasn't going to be riding a speeding motorcycle or living the pirate's life anytime soon, was I?

Except it was more than just a sense of abruptly curtailed adventure. It was that time itself felt different to me. The hours I spent with the baby were long, but there was nothing expansive about them. Caring for her required me to perform a series of small tasks over and over again, tasks with the peculiar quality of seeming at once urgent and tedious. They carved the days up into dispiriting little scraps. I couldn't think anymore. And since music had been a kind of thought to me, it vanished too.

This is the point where I'm supposed to stop and tell you all the things that are great about having a kid, but I don't think I'm going to. There are many, of course. Some go beyond the great to the sublime even, but I'll leave that to the poets. If you have a kid you already know about those moments and if you don't I'm not sure that they're interesting in the abstract. Because as it happens there's nothing abstract about the good parts. It's like trying to explain why you love the smell of your girlfriend's hair. Or why a certain slant of light in October makes you decide not to leave this impossible, ruined city. These are important things, essential things really, but they are not transferable. Something in the explanation cheapens them.

So let me just say that she was very small then. Her eyes were improbably dark, almost black. She looked like an alien crossed with a lemur. She didn't seem even a little bit human. That came later. But in the beginning she was all creature. My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought. But if there were, I didn't know them.

In those early days, I only ventured out of the house with her when we were desperate for food or diapers and then I went only as far as the corner. But on one of these brief outings I discovered something odd. The baby liked Rite Aid. It calmed her somehow, the harsh, brilliant light of it, the shelves of plenty. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, she would suspend her fierce judgment of the world and fall silent there. And when she did a tiny space would clear in my head and I could think again.

So I began to go there with her every day, wandering up and down the narrow aisles while the terrible drugstore music played. I'd stare at the light bulbs and the cold medicine and the mousetraps and everything looked strange and useless to me. The last time I'd felt that alienated I was sixteen and lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. I wore moth-eaten dresses and fancied myself an existentialist. The days were long then too.

But back then music had saved me. One afternoon I was walking through a park when I heard "Candy Says" playing on a boom box (this was nothing short of a miracle given where I lived). I stopped and talked to the pale, jittery boy who owned it and in an act of stunning generosity he took the tape out and gave it to me. "This album will change your life," he said, and he was right. I got in my car and drove around and around my stupid town, listening to it. By the time I got home, I knew that one day I would move to New York and everything would be ok. And that is more or less what happened.

But the songs at Rite Aid were crap. They were not going to change my life. The songs that could were playing on some obscure website or in some dimly lit club, places I wouldn't be visiting anytime soon. Except that one day while we were wandering the aisles, "Rocketman" came on and I listened to it. When the song ended, I started to cry.

This was, as you might imagine, deeply alarming. I'd never been much of an Elton John fan ("Benny and the Jets" is my idea of perfect torture), but still there was something about "Rocketman" that got to me. It seemed like maybe it was the song I'd been looking for.

Because "Rocketman" although written and performed by two of the gayest men ever to walk the earth, is actually about having a kid. It's about finding yourself suddenly at a distance from the world you once walked through and took for granted. It's about the applause of strangers and the alienation of friends. It's about how what is supposed to be a transcendent experience can also be a profoundly lonely one.

Or maybe it's just another song about being a junkie, I don't know. It doesn't much matter to me because "Rocketman" showed me the musical corollary for my new life which turned out to be songs about hurtling through space.

It's not hard to think of more brilliant examples of the genre. "Space Oddity" in all its spare beauty or The Long Winters' hauntingly cinematic "The Commander Thinks Aloud". (You could even cheat and add Cat Power's version of "Bathysphere" to this list since plummeting to the bottom of the ocean in a steel ball probably has its share of terror, exhilaration and loneliness too.) But "Rocketman" is the only one you're likely to hear while buying toothpaste, and there's something great about that. To think that music can still find you even in the most unpromising places.

I found out something about astronauts the other day that surprised me. It turns out all these melancholy songs are wrong. There wasn't time in space to contemplate the tropic of Capricorn or dictate love letters to your wife. NASA was careful to schedule every minute of an astronaut's time, filling it up with endless tasks and experiments. Some of this was important, but some of it was just busywork, designed to keep them from thinking about being hundreds of thousands of miles from home. The theory was that astronauts should never find themselves in space with time on their hands, that it was safer this way. Because otherwise they might truly see the Earth floating beneath them. Because otherwise they might realize where they were and what they'd done.

. . . . . . . . . .

Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things.

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posted by Alex