There’s no ‘madeleine’ for you, no easy bite to bring back your past, and besides, you believe Proust took artistic liberties with his writing, anyhow . But you’re a writer, too, and you know memory continues to be shaped by the owner of the pen. You’ll take your own liberties. So you shape it, your past; you find the closest thing to Proust’s lie, and for you that entry point into your memory is music. You’re going to try and figure out how you came to this juncture in your life--your very own remembrance of things gone but not lost-- and you’re going to write about it. Because the basic facts—you’re 30, you’re single, you live in Arkansas, you’re from California-- are the empty shot glass sitting at the empty bar, so you ask yourself: what happened when the glass was full, and who were all those people I sang bawdy songs with?
It’s not going to be scored, your memories, like a Scorsese movie (period appropriate songs--and the Rolling Stones--be damned). A song is not going to hearken you back to those glory days, and anyways you’ve forgotten, thankfully, most of the Madonna or Tears for Fears that sullied your youth. Rather, you place the songs you know, and love now, back into those memories. You connect each song specifically—and you’ll clarify those reasons—with an important event or time period in your life. You’ll meander in memory from your childhood up until this moment. The soundtrack of your life will tap a vein in your writing where you can, hopefully, trace the line straight back to heart of things.
Ah, your halcyon days of youth—little league baseball games, slip-and-slide evenings, the hours spent carousing the neighborhood in your beach cruiser—that wholly modern dream of suburbia. Those pre-teen years dissolve together, a slippery sweet memory, grape Kool-Aid on an August afternoon, grass ankle high, sprinklers alive under that cloudless sky. And what you’re playing—at least in your memory--there in the background, on a worn out cassette, boom box rattling to the bouncy, twangy beat that characterizes SoCal punk, for you, back in those days, is “Story of My Life” by Social Distortion. In his whiskey-soaked voice, Mike Ness begins the song with a nonsensical invitation to join in: “Na na na nana.” And you’re there, chipping in, lamenting that lost time, that time you’ll never have back, but boy, it was a good time—those years always measured by the changing seasons (School and Summer), the progression from Minors to Majors in youth baseball, the addition every year of an inch on your frame--and you’re happily chiming in your version of what passes for punk singing, calling back to Ness and his boys, “And good times come and good times go, I only wish the good times would last a little longer.” Because that’s what it was like when you were a kid, the constant pop punk drumming, bringing you back around, again and again to the simple joy of losing yourself in that “Na na na na na nana.”
Out of nowhere, Cupid, that trickster cherub, arrives in your early teen years. Candace Salmon-- long blonde hair, smile that could absolve any sinner. Candace Salmon-- basketball player extraordinaire, student body president. Candace Salmon--your best friend’s sister. And if you listen, you can hear “This Modern Love” by Bloc Party playing as you remember the years you mooned, wide-eyed and confused, over her, as the lead singer begins the song, “To be lost in the forest...” There’s a bouncy pop beat in the background, guitar just a simple back and forth pluck, and the lead singer continues his stream of consciousness lyrics—“baby you’ve got to be more discerning; I’ve never known what’s good for me”—until the song builds, the background singers harmonizing now beneath “This modern love, breaks me.” And break you, it did. All of those nights of bad poetry, confessing your burgeoning heart, and really, what it comes down to, is this: Candace Salmon--your best friend’s sister. Little did you realize that first crush was just a beginning. More crushes come along, and you just hope, as in the conclusion of the song, that the next one might “throw their arms around me.”
Your bad poetry begets more bad poetry. You find Poe and relish his macabre sensibilities, his impeccable rhyme. But school just bores you to tears; you goof off, miss classes, but still manage decent grades. You take those career tests they offer you, but argue against any semblance that there should be a “purpose” to your life. Until one day, probably in April of your junior year, that cruelest of months and times, you come across T.S. Eliot’s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Everything you thought you knew about writing, about one of your loves, changes forever. No longer is it the simple rhyme, the love of just sound; now it is the layered complexity, the literary allusion, the absolute power of poetry to challenge your existence: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” You can hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” playing, he alone with just an acoustic guitar and a plaintive strum, as you read those opening lines, “Let us go then you and I,” because Bruce changes your ideas about song lyrics, about the possibility for words in music to exist separately as their own art. There’s Bruce with a simple turn of phrase, “maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” leading into the greater narrative, “so put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” There’s a greater story at play in Bruce’s lyrics or Eliot’s words, and you, the reader, have to illuminate the dark spaces between them. You take writing, dare I say, seriously now? Yes, there’s a flintier cut to your words, a sharper edge to the sentences you chisel down on paper. No longer are you enamored with the sing-song rhyme or the vanity of letters haphazardly strung together like makeup on a low-rent clown. No, you figure, it’s time to put away childish things.
Of course, there’s the graduations, both high school and college. You wander out of high school, having no clue as to what you might do next, only knowing that you love language and want to pursue it down every back alley you can. And then you finish college after finally catching up to that elusive bastard, and think you have it all figured out, that now you can saunter off together down some cracked asphalt highway toward the horizon. Playing, of course, as you remember this, is “Your Hand in Mine” by Explosions in the Sky. The two guitars layer upon each other, spin out slowly, creating such a vast, open space of sound, as if the world were a desert vista and you could see the coming dawn approaching for thousands of miles. When you graduate, the future seems like Explosion’s driving crescendo, an orchestra of thudding drums and clean, crisp guitar tropes, a music for the possibilities of the future, while also, with the song’s quieter moments, a music in which you can hang your sentimental hopes and memories on, a music that sounds as if the sun had already arrived over the mountains and washed clean your dreams the night before.
You crawl back to poetry, again. You treat her right; hold the door open for her; buy her trinkets, sacrifice in her honor. Fresno State accepts you, as one of only six, into their MFA poetry program. You are going to lay bare, with your poems, the hearts of those around you: the woman selling flowers on La Cienega; Muskee, at the bar with his two, misshapen teeth; the boy who witnessed, in the thicket of trees, a woman hanging herself, and her dangling, Ked covered feet. “Fake Empire,” by the National, begins, its piano opening a lamentation, an invitation to recall the existence that year of a half-reality, a drifting in and out of your daily life. You lose yourself in your writing, and begin to hate the words you put on the page. You cross them out, you cradle them, you wrestle each other with broken bottles and end up drawing ridiculously copious amounts of blood. Fresno, the armpit of California, reminds you of your home back in Southern California. You stagger the strip malls and cruise the asphalt in a Central Valley haze, while the lead singer voices your disconnection, “We’re half awake, in this fake empire.” You leave, unconvinced of any talent you might have once had, half-sober and punch drunk from the constant battle with yourself, and those words.
You’ve forgotten to mention The Depression, so now you do. A time period hard to pin down, but lasting for years--still lasting, really, at times—The Depression devours large chunks of your life. Bright Eyes, alone, accompanied by only a guitar, sounding as if he’s locked in a basement, voice wavering throughout the song as if he might not be able to finish due to the extreme emotion, starts “Waste of Paint” with the line, “I have a friend who’s mostly made of pain”—and you know he’s talking about you, during that time. And you try writing, you try to believe, in something, as if “art could save a wretch” like yourself, but there’s only that extreme absence, that separation, as if you sat in a dark movie theater watching your life play before you on the screen and you couldn’t intercede, even as events unspooled frame by frame for the worse. And yet you still hope, you still, as Denis Johnson will write, want a “place of worship right about now.” And Bright Eyes strums his guitar harder, heads toward his cry to the heavens for you, “With my broken heart, and my absent god, and I have no faith/and it’s all I want, to be loved, and believe…”
A month into a school semester, you somehow end up in North Carolina, and find a job teaching. The subject of English is like a religion to you; though mysterious, you think you know its ins and outs well enough to preach, and you just know you’re going to set that classroom congregation aflame. You’re cocky. You’re filled with hubris. And, as Idlewild’s song “Little Discourage” thrashes its guitars, and the lead singer screams “All I need is a little discourage” over and over, you realize you have finally, utterly failed. Unfortunately, without any proper training, you are not ready to teach, and the administration offers you no assistance or help, handing you a checklist for orientation and never properly guiding you toward success in those months on campus. But you only end up blaming yourself--for this huge discouragement, this huge failure. Idlewild’s guitars echo your frustration; you adopt their anger by proxy. Sure, there were one or two kids you reach—Luke and his love of rap; Sara and her shift in attitude toward the subject—but you’ll keep the taste of not succeeding in your mouth, a metallic taste, poisonous, as if toxic. One student yells at you, “Lick my balls!” You have the same sentiment upon leaving that state forever, thinking you’re never, ever going back to that profession again.
Somehow, after a time, you find yourself in Arkansas. A girl brings you there—but you’ll get back to that story later. LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” plays as you realize you’ve reached a crossroads in your life. Poetry, unfortunately, won’t pay the bills, so you decline an offer to attend West Virginia’s MFA program, and instead find a job in social work. The song has a dance beat to it, but it’s not the usual repetitive dance fare, rather it keeps incorporating and shifting beats and sounds—a rock guitar riff here, a newly tapped high hat on drums—and it’s like your time here: a new job, working with people who are severely mentally ill, where every day is never the same; a shift in friends, and groups of friends; an exciting, liquid rush as you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, in this new place. All the while, though, there are the lyrics about some sort of mid-life crisis (thank god, unlike the narrator, you’re still young; are you still young?), and you relate as the singer wonders, “Where are your friends, tonight?” Home used to be California, where your buddies, driving their new Lexus’, have begun families. You’re poor, and a little alone--but at least you can still dance.
“Jesus, don’t cry/you can rely on me honey,” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco starts singing, in “Jesus, Etc.,” and there’s a smooth, almost Appalachian groove in the background, and it sounds as if you are watching the sun go down on the porch in the Blue Ridge, sky muted in that beautiful, pensive time before dark there, that time of the gloaming. And you’re going to talk about the girl, the one you mentioned earlier. Four years, maybe even five, you’ve been together, crossing the country on a few occasions, living in random places—Fresno, North Carolina, Arkansas—with one another. Though you bicker, and snipe at each other, there’s still love there, there’s always love, there. Just not the kind you can live the rest of your life with. You both know this. So there you are, on that porch, Blue Ridge sky, Tweedy telling you that “our love is all of God’s money/everyone is a burning sun,” and you start trying to believe him. The wind kicks up, an easy, casual breeze, a slow twirl, and it almost feels as if you might be slow dancing along to the whirling drift. So you stop talking about the girl.
And here you are, starting the MAT program for English, heading back to the profession you never thought you’d dare approach again (not after Carolina). There’s the tentative keyboard you hear, in Wolf Parade’s, “I’ll Believe in Anything”; you are tentative, it’s a scary career move you’re making. But you’re happy about it, and the song becomes more confident, the drum galumphs in, the guitars become chaotic, crazy, exuberant. It sounds like the boys are playing with the ghost of Tom Waits hovering over them (that is if Waits transformed his carnival into an indie rock band). But it’s this beauty in the chaos, the chaos of all the upcoming unknowns—the classroom, the kids, every single day ahead—that you savor. Most of all, the song, like you now, is filled with hope. “Give me, your eyes/ I need, the sunshine” Wolf Parade sings, and you want the sunshine, you want the clatter and crash, the messy reality of your life at this point in time. Your life is chaos, yes. But it’s a beautiful chaos.