I cannot decipher the sounds of different instruments within a song or name notes that were hit or how to aptly compare a voice to honey or smoke. I do not know how to write about music so much as I know how to dwell in it. I know how to let the voices and hums and rhythms reverberate in dark moments and in the memories that follow them, the musicians serving as unwitting narrators to a life they have not witnessed. What follows are stories that narrate them back.
It is late spring in 1998 and there is a standing-room-only crowd inside of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in West Memphis, Arkansas. A priest conducts the funeral but the closed casket before the alter truly presides over the occasion. Inside are the remains of my cousin Bradley. Though the vessel is ominous, it is kind for drawing our focus toward it rather than toward Bradley’s mother. He had been 20 years old three days earlier. Today he has no age. Age is a measure of the times the beating heart has gone around the sun and his is an unbeating heart. It stopped when his truck swerved off the road in a rainstorm and wrapped around a tree. This is how people describe the wreck, as if the idea of the corpse of a boy inside a truck is insufficiently gruesome to make the story interesting.
Bradley’s best friend is named Skip who once went on Love Connection or The Dating Game. Skip is short for Skipper because this is Arkansas where the Southern Gothic is lived in the present rather than read in books as something passed. Skip recommended days earlier that “Wonderwall” be played at the funeral not for its lyrical content but because when Bradley heard it for the first time, he predicted the meteoric rise of the band Oasis.
Bradley was born on the same day and in the same Memphis hospital where they took Elvis Presley’s body on August 16, 1977. It makes sense to me that Bradley had musical soothsaying powers along with the gift of charisma, things perhaps bestowed by the departing spirit of the King. Skip’s eulogy has references to riding on comets and asking Bradley to save a seat in the afterlife and it is everything we could have hoped for from a young man suddenly missing a piece of his heart. “Wonderwall” plays after the eulogy and what were muffled sobs become heaving, desperate gasps.
And all the roads we have to walk are winding/
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding/
There are many things that I would like to say to you/
But I don’t know how/
You’re gonna be the one that saves me/
And after all/
You’re my wonderwall.
Six years later, I am in my freshman dorm at NYU and a guitar-wielding young man asks if he can come into my room. Though I do not like his acoustic outbursts, I grant him entry. He gets through the opening chords but by the time he hits the high point of “Wonderwall”’s famous introduction I am sobbing desperately. I am too hysterical to explain myself and he eventually apologizes and leaves.
On Bradley’s birthday I listen to Elvis instead of Oasis.
“Beyond the Sea,” Bobby Darin
My father is the captain of the U.S.S. Boxer in 1998, the largest aircraft carrier in the United States Navy. It is customary for such ships to deploy for six months at a time, in an exercise that seems meant to test the limits of fidelity in military wives but surely has some strategic purpose too. A childhood punctuated by his absence never registered as troubling until I opened Internet Explorer after my mother failed to close her email tab. I find an email from my father promising not to fight the divorce she wants when he gets home.
I return to my room in tears and play “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin on a CD that I found in an idle collection of them inside the armoire where we house a treasure of music I won’t recognize the value of until CDs are obsolete. I heard the song for the first time in the forgettable film A Life Less Ordinary starring Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor. They performed an embarrassing rendition of it in a bar scene but I forgive them, because I love McGregor and envy Diaz, and because I can tell the song is beautiful despite their deaf tones. I have heard my father sing in church, and he too is musically talentless, but I imagine him singing it to my mother anyway because he remains soft for her despite 27 years of military service that ought to have made him hard.
Somewhere beyond the sea/
Somewhere waiting for me/
My lover stands on golden sands/
And watches the ships that go sailin’
…We’ll meet beyond the shore/
We’ll kiss just as before/
Happy we’ll be beyond the sea/
And never again I’ll go sailin’.
My parents do not divorce and my father retires upon his return from deployment. He continues to this day in the ship-making business though not the ship-sailing one. I have at times thought that imagining him singing the song was me performing a kind of unwitting magic, a promise I put in his mouth but that he kept of his own accord.
“Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs N’ Harmony
A boy named Steve is the second NYU student to jump to his death from the top of the atrium of Bobst Library in the fall of 2003. The death was ruled an accident because Steve had been on hallucinogens that were believed to have altered his perception enough that he thought the six story plunge into marble would not kill him. The residents of our dorm went into the mourning of proximity that is different than the mourning of intimacy, but involves no fewer tears in the first twenty-four hours.
I spoke to Steve only a handful of times in what would be the first six weeks of my college career, and the only six weeks of his. But in the times we did speak, he managed to mention how much he loved Bone Thugs N’ Harmony twice. I was pleasantly startled by the earnestness of his fandom but did not heed his advice to listen to them any further than I already had heard.
On the night following his death, I escaped my dorm with a fresh playlist on my Rio mp3 player for what was intended to be a long walk. But I got only as far as the Church of the Ascension across the street before bursting into tears. I sat on the stoop of a side entrance to the church and type up a text intended for my mother that says, “I want to come home.” I skip through songs in the shuffle because my little iPod predecessor doesn’t have a search function and find “Tha Crossroads.”
Can somebody anybody tell me why?/
Hey, can somebody anybody tell me why we die, we die?/
I don’t wanna die
I listen to it for the first time since I was a child. It is a lovely song but I listen to it more as a gesture of tribute rather than grief. I never send the text.
In August of 2012, NYU reveals the massive gold metallic enclosures they’ve installed in Bobst as a “suicide veil.” In the preceding nine years, I accumulate enough encounters with death and suicide to make me ambivalent about the real value of the construction. I look at the gilded cage they built and know it is no match for the kind of boy who thinks he can fly. But I still don’t know why we die.
“Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails
I am 23 and resisting falling in love because I know he won’t love me back. He starts calling me “Lonnie” despite my insistence that only my mother is allowed to call me that. He makes fun of me for reading women’s magazines because they’re bourgeois and calls me a fucking Puritan because I don’t have orgasms. Prior to me, he claims to have a 100 percent track record on making his partners come. I start drinking before we sleep together both in an attempt to relax in pursuit of orgasm and to soften what has become his regular mid-coitus badgering. I ask him one day why he won’t be my boyfriend and he says, “Alcohol is your boyfriend.”
I tell him that he’s going to regret it when someone else comes along who will treat me like more than an afterthought. He frowns in exaggerated mockery and says, “Yeah? All those boys that are lining up for you, Lonnie?” I tell him to get the fuck out of my apartment. He refuses and says that’s no way to treat people you love. I respond that I don’t love him because it is true. He pushes me hard into the corner of my bedroom and demands that I say “I love you.” He pins me to the wall by twisting one arm to hold me in place and uses his other hand to hold my face against the wall. “Say it,” he repeats over and over again and I repeat silence back each time. We hear my roommate come home and he lets go. I gather his things and throw them into the stairwell, demanding that he never speak to me again.
I listen to “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails by chance on a shuffle rather than by any intention.
What have I become, My sweetest friend?/
Everyone I know, Goes away in the end/
You could have it all, My empire of dirt/
I will let you down. I will make you hurt.
I play it several times and sing along the first time but my voice cracks at “empire of dirt” so I stop as tears swell but don’t fall. I think that I’m the narrator in the situation even though I’m the one with the bruise.
Five years later, I go see Nine Inch Nails play at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn with my former roommate. Trent Reznor, the once scrawny and spoilt prince of industrial rock who recorded “Hurt” all those years before, is a tastefully muscled man with a smart haircut and an occasional smile. He looks grateful and says something that comes close to admitting as much. The twenty-sixth and last song they play is “Hurt” on this night of the tour for a record called Hesitation Marks. In that moment, I don’t have any of either.
“Someone Great,” LCD Soundsystem
I’m in love for the first time at the end of 2010 with a man I bonded with over our shared attempt to cease abusing substances. Perhaps for ourselves and perhaps for each other, we have stopped abusing substances. A few days before Christmas vacation, during my first semester at Yale Divinity School, I get a call from his roommate that he has relapsed. Some inconsequential night in a bar turned into his lost keys and belligerence and a fall.
I wake up and the phone is ringing, Surprised, as it’s early/
And that should be the perfect warning, That something’s, a problem/
To tell the truth I saw it coming, The way, you were breathing/
But nothing can prepare you for it, The voice, on the other, end.
She apologizes profusely for being the bearer of this news, as so many of us women do when we have done a service rather than a wrong. I spend two days by his defeated side and don’t recall much of what we talked about, only that he asks if I’m leaving him and I reply, “I can’t, I already love you.” I return to my apartment to the realization that my final papers are due within two days. I steal several Adderall from my roommate and spent the next forty-hours at the kitchen table with “Someone Great” by LCD Sound System on loop grinding my teeth and churning out thousands of words on pre-Byzantine artwork and the depth of symbolic meaning in facing east when we pray.
There’s all the work that needs to be done, It’s late, for revision/
There’s all the time and all the planning, And songs, to be finished/
And it keeps coming, And it keeps coming, And it keeps coming, Till the day it stops
It becomes my favorite song for the next two years we spend together, including a brutal summer of him relapsed again, this time on opiates. We call it quits over real estate and though he tries to get back together six months later, I am resolute and listening to a lot of Taylor Swift by that point.
Nowadays, I listen more often to LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” because it’s true that I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life. But also, that I often wonder: “Where are your friends tonight?” because I think of my friends more often than men, even though I still think that one was someone great.
“Hallelujah,” Rufus Waingwright
The first message after the fallout is “Where the fuck are you?” When I do not answer, he says he will find me himself. He describes what he will do when he finds me, it involves bullets and train tracks and surprisingly no references to rape. He fakes a suicide. I call the police. They don’t find him. He leaves the state and renders a restraining order unnecessary. I take August off from my daily run to Coney Island and stay mostly in my apartment. My mother flies out for a few days to help me put back together what he broke, the puzzle made more difficult for her by my silence.
I recommence running in early September of 2014 when the weather is slightly cooler and my knees are more predictable after a month spent shaking. When I get to the end of Ocean Parkway, the Rufus Wainwright cover of “Hallelujah” comes on and I turn it all the way up even though I know that I’m supposed to like the Jeff Buckley version better.
Maybe there’s a God above/
But all I’ve ever learned from love/
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya/
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night/
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light/
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.
“Hallelujah” is an expression of rejoicing, religious in nature but used in secular settings because God, for better or worse, is present almost everywhere. I run faster as it plays, the kind of speed that makes me look either chased after or in pursuit of something. The only thing I pursue, of course, is the boardwalk I see all the time. But the boardwalk lines the ocean that is the border of my country, and in that moment, it is the furthest away I can possibly be from him without drowning. I take off my shoes and stand in the ocean, grateful to be held by something so much bigger than men. And I’m not mourning at all.