Ray Charles, Don Henley, Roy Orbison, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Bobby Blue Band, Robbie Robertson

Set a needle on my heart and play those songs of love and pain

My record collection is a minefield of potential pain: stacks of Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Bobby Blue Bland.
  • My record collection is a minefield of potential pain: stacks of Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Bobby Blue Bland.
  • Image by Jeremy Eaton

“Strange how potent cheap music is.” — Noel Coward

The place should be a welfare hotel with a stuttering indigo neon sign outside the window. There should be a botde of cheap bourbon on the nightstand and a 38 lying on the once-gaudy, now-faded bedspread. This isn’t. There isn’t. It’s my apartment in Kensington, and while there is no gun, bourbon, neon, or even a bedspread, the place is filled with diabolical instruments of torture — chief among them, the stereo.

Staring past the ashtray filled with Winston butts, seeing how the apartment distorts into a sepia parody of itself through the water glass of Martell cognac — like a slow; artsy shot from some Italian movie, lending my anomie, at least for the moment, a certain historical quality — I think. Anybody can quit smoking, but it takes a real man to turn on die goddamned radio.

I'm not that tough. I pace from phone (front runner for the most painfully silent item in here) to the refrigerator full of beer and limes and mustard and, I think, some eggs. I reflect on the blank white expanse broken only by the little Mickey and Minnie Mouse magnets that up until an hour ago held pictures of us happy on the beach in Mexico. Now the pictures are at the bottom of a Hefty trash bag with the shattered glass of cognac I threw at the framed 5x7 of us, smiling at someone else’s wedding. I sift the broken glass off the photo and pin it up on the refrigerator; a little buckled and boozily odoriferous, but okay. The shadow of the warped picture makes that dent I put in the reefer door look like a shotgun wound in a polar bear A little blood from my knuckles, where I ground them into the punch hole (thinking of her with her ankles around the guy’s neck screaming, “Percy! Oh Percy!”) lends the hole an extra shade of mortal finality How can you fuck somebody named Percy? How can you scream a name like that with any real passion? That’s not his name, of course. It probably doesn’t even sound like his real name, but it does to me, you know? It’s one of those names to me Like Hargrave, Sidney, Purvis... Percy.

No offense, Mr. Sledge. You knew whereof you sang: “When a man loves a woman, deep down in his soul, she can bring him such misery.” (Maybe it was your name, man.) Anyway, it’s not her doing it is it? You do it to yourself.

Okay, avoid the refrigerator. Forget the phone I’ve already pulled it out of the wall and plugged it back in, pulled it out plugged it in... pull... plug On hands and knees, making noises I didn’t know were in my register to make. For a moment a long moment I wished I still did drugs.

Well, there’s the guitar leaning against the comer; under my poster of Robert “King of the Delta Blues” Johnson and T.E. Lawrence of Arabia Lawrence. How about picking out a few jaunty Beatles tunes? “It’s Only Love” comes to mind. Why do I feel the way I do? and as it does, here come those gagging sounds out of my throat again. Nah, nah. Stop. Right now. Where’s the cognac?

I toast Robert Johnson. ‘Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell,” I quote him, “When all your love’s in vain.” But I’m not going to play guitar.

Come on, man. Turn on the radio. Him it to the mellow yuppie jazz station, no lyrics, just wallpaper saxophone

Turning the dial. Some oldies station. Foreigner “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Just great. Yeah, I wanted to know, and those English guys had a whole choir backing up their curiosity. I found out what it was. I should send them a Polaroid: Hey, guys, here’s what it is: me, grinning rapturously, upending a bottle of Drano into a hot water bottle, a hose trailing from the thing. Now, now. “... Be not cynical about love it is as perennial as the grass” — something like that I find one of those Valium stations, but it’s no help either Patsy Cline is singing “Crazy for trying, crazy for crying, crazy for loving you....”

"... The stereo is a special model that plays only music fraught with poignant associations.” — Jay McInemey, Bright Lights, Big City

I must love being miserable. For years I’ve listened to almost nothing but the blues. Once my high school English teacher; senior year; back in Chicago read one of my papers — it was about some blues guitarist I made up — read it to the class and said, "You’re a romantic!” He might as well have said, ''Why, you’re a homo, son!” for the effect it had on my inner-city all-boy, Catholic-school classmates. I heard about it for the rest of the year A guy named Pinkowski with no neck and an undefeated wrestling season behind him stuffed dead flowers in my locker I vowed never to be romantic. It was a good vow, but for the wrong reason. Both Pinkowski and I were laboring under the delusion that romanticism was effeminate In fact, there is nothing feminine about it at all. It is men who are romantic. This has borne itself out repeatedly in my experience I have never been given flowers by anyone except Pinkowski.

My record collection is a minefield of potential pain: stacks of Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Freddy King, Bobby Blue Bland. And, in recent years, a creeping insinuation of country and western music. I was telling myself I was getting at the core of rock and roll, the music of rebellion. Blues is the soundtrack to otherwise ineffable pain, and C&W, the music of resignation. It’s all about as romantic as you can get, when you think about it. It now seems that for two decades I had been stocking my musical library with songs to blow one’s brains out by. Why has this music pleased me so much for so long?

Entering the shadows, shuffling past the blues: Ray Charles singing “Drown in My Own Tears” and “Fool to Cry.” Best to stay away from those. I pick up Aretha Franklin’s wrenching, gospely lament, “Ain’t No Way.” Bad medicine again. A slow chord progression with a gathering horn line underscores the sinking, horrific apprehension of impossibility.

“Well, I love you... in my own way,” she had said. What way is that? I have an urge to go out and buy a bright red wig, a rubber nose, and a seltzer bottle.

Okay, this looks harmless. Don the-guy-from-the-Eagles Henley’s new album, The End of the Innocence. It won a Grammy; how good could it be? A musician/critic I admire called Don Henley’s stuff boring. I could use some boring. I put it on. Mistake.

A song called “The Last Worthless Evening” takes me apart.

I know you’re still afraid to rush into anything.

But there’s only so many summers, girl.

Just so many springs.

This is the last worthless evening that you have to spend....

Get this out of my face This is not boring. This is lyrical root canal. Poor bastard. Says more about his worthless evenings than hers, probably, but the song is a paragon of emotional accuracy in a natural, mounting chord pattern that seems to have always been there, just waiting for someone to write it and sing it. It is nearly perfect, beautiful, I think... and I cannot listen to it. It articulates an unwelcome sentiment, a kind of “damnable hope,” as Graham Greene put it, that I can’t afford to entertain.

Henley has been lumped into that category of single male artists like Sting, Phil Collins, Springsteen, and Robbie Robertson by younger rockers who find these long-in-the-tooth singers fatuous, self-important, and pretentious. Yet Springsteen and Robertson have moved me in ways I don’t always understand. Maybe I’m to understand that I’m old. Okay. If I had a Mojo Nixon record, I’d put it on, and I’m certain it would be a lot safer than this.

While the guitar tones on the Henley record are sometimes folksy, West Coast jangly — not unlike the Eagles — I fear a diabetes-inducing overdose of sincerity, but the lyrics speak to me... the way a cobra speaks to a mongoose.

What are all these voices outside love’s open door,

Makes us throw off our contentment,

And beg for something more?

I’m learning to live without you now,

But I miss you sometimes.

The more I know, the less I understand,

All the things I thought I knew,

I have to learn again....

It reminds me of my marriage. A girl with a heart-shaped face who had read everything. She was a romantic back then. Time and I put an end to that. We were kids. Our song was “Wild Horses” by the Stones: “Wild wild horses... couldn’t drag me away....” But it took something less than wild horses; it took 14 years and a caramel-voiced woman I will call Faye.

Faye was/is a woman with belladonna eyes and a helmet of antique gold hair. A romantic notion, yes? It was in a poem I wrote to her once — possibly while channeling Rod McKuen. She had/has laugh lines that bracketed a pair of amber wells she looked out from, and I lost myself between them for three years. She was good and kind and sad and we made each other crazy. She had more passion than anyone I had known, and I am convinced/resigned/hopeful I won’t see anything like it again.

It has been two years since Faye and I broke up (depending on which breakup/fight I might refer to). Two years since my emotions disengaged, something wiser than my dick saying goodbye. She liked Jimmy Buffet, John Denver, and a Neil Diamond song, “Play Me.” I had always found songwriters such as the above to have an appeal beyond my comprehension, but because she liked them, I listened and got gooey over a few things, too. Learned them on guitar. Be not cynical about love, for Lo, it has power to make you play and enjoy bad music.

I miss her still. I remain appalled at my own insanity with her. Neither of us deserved this ruin and hatred. Who deserves anything? We were amoral children, fingerpainting with our bodies and our emotions.

Henley is singing, “I think it’s about forgiveness... even if you don’t love me anymore.”

I have to take the record off. I have an urge to put it in the kitchen drawer along with the sharp knives.

Another few fingers of cognac and my mood elevates a notch. Hey, in for a penny.... I put on Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Oddly, it doesn’t do anything for me except give me occasion to admire the musicians. A good bluesy rock song. Bass and guitar, the piano all sound great, Elvis is singing the best he ever sang, but emotionally it’s a cartoon. Doesn’t touch me anywhere except the ears. I play it again. Nothing. Thank God I’m not completely out of my mind. Some inner sentinel of musical sensibility remains.

All right. I don’t think I’m feeling much pain now. I reach back for the stuff that made me happy, exhilarated. Hendrix, Springsteen, the Stones, anybody. Hendrix dicks with me on “Little Wing” (the hallucinating maniac guitar sorcerer turned sublime, vulnerable poet), the Stones “Out of Time” resonates with dead-on irony.

The woman, I’ll call her Kass, who has recently told me she can no longer see me, had a refrain: “The timing is just wrong.” The Stones singing, “You’re obsolete, my baby, my poor old-fashioned baby” is not something I can take philosophically just now. The Beatles are of no fucking assistance whatsoever: I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me?... Gather round, all you clowns, let me hear you say... Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.

Kass touched me with a certain girlishness in an imposing frame. Then there were the details of her humanity: I once saw her close the distance between herself and her girlfriend’s infant son, who was being presented for the first time. Her eyes enlarged, her heels clacked on the parquet floor, and she extended one arm to touch the baby. Her other hand went unconsciously to her right lapel where a gold and jade brooch was fixed. She removed it, put it in a pocket, and asked if she could hold the boy. I’m certain, if you had asked her, that she was not aware of removing jewelry as she walked into that dinner party.

Listening to Peter Gabriel sing, “In your eyes... the light, the heat... I am complete... ” I think of Kass’s face. The muscles she used to smile or become thoughtful would alternately fall into a chiseled beauty or expand into a chipmunk pouching of her cheeks. Vulnerability in a woman her height and with such presence made me willing to risk much. She needed protection from something, somehow — if nothing else, a world where people were unconscious about children. It took many moons to know — I was wrong. Whatever her needs, I was not among them. Ain’t no way.

Maybe I should stick with Elvis, but there is something about the idea of sitting here as the sun goes down, drunk, listening to Elvis records that reminds me too much of a friend’s definition of clinical depression: “Sitting in a dark room drinking flat beer and listening to Joni Mitchell.” I’m close. Too close to that same sargasso sea of self-indulgent catatonia.

Hank Williams’s steely, honky-tonk “Cold Cold Heart” and cowboy-blue “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” turn cardiac trauma to good ol’ boy fun. I like the tunes, but I might as well shout “Yahoo” at the walls. I try it. A neighbor bangs on the wall. “Fuck you!”

“No....” I correct him. “FUCK YOU, MAN!”

Kass left me with that anybody get the number of that truck? feeling tonight. She worked across the mall from the bookstore where I was working. She asked once to have coffee; I said, “Sure, sure,” and forgot about her suggestion until one day she was standing on a ladder, hanging some items in her shop window. She smiled. I scrawled in black marker on the back of a cardboard sign that read SELF HELP, “When?” We talked; she was not happy. This seemed an outrage to me. She was not happy? A woman like that should most definitely be: happy, gratified, at home in the world.

Of course, I gave her permission to use me. Told her I wasn’t asking anything, I just wanted to see her, get to know her, be close to her, friends and lovers. I was lying to both of us. In fact, I wanted everything with her. It scared her. Scared me, too, but all my life I made a point of doing what scared me precisely because I saw fear as a beacon of what was necessary to confront That no one seemed to share this bonzai compulsion with me has left me puzzled, drunk, and with a marvelous sense of masochistic superiority I don’t quite get, clock, dig, know, measure, realize Oh, and it has left me alone, too. Now what record goes with lonely, bonzai, masochistic puzzlement?

They are all dropping from my hands, records and tapes. Numbness in my wrists and fingers. I can smell Kass. Her fragrance, not her perfume, but her. Memories coming through the open window. It’s the neighbor’s jacaranda in overripe blossom mimicking the smell of intimacy. When I try to stand, I spill the cognac in my lap. Shit I get up, shut the window, take off my pants, plug the phone in, maybe pull it out, whatever — and jam Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album into the tape deck.

Sitting on the floor in my underwear, a T-shirt that says JUST DO IT, I listen to Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise.” The carpet is sticky with patches of TV dinners past. My pubic hairs are damp with cognac. I can’t smell her/the jacaranda anymore.

Poor, poor Bruce. When I first heard this record I thought, damn, I give him and the little woman six months. What is her name? The actress. She seemed a little on the white-bread side for the Jersey homeboy, “The Boss.” It didn’t take six months apparently. Not for them.

If you were to cook down the vinyl on all of Roy Orbison’s lonely tunes and mainline them into an artery in your neck, it would not kill you as surely as listening to the second side of Tunnel of Love in the throes of heartbreak.

Phil Spector-like wall-of-sound-Ronettes-castanettes, guitars, piano, killer drums, wailing background singers:

So tell me who I see

When I look in your eyes

Is that you, baby

Or just a brilliant disguise’

... I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust

’Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself...

(Upbeat. You wanna dance. Click guitar chords, clean snare, thrumming bass, relentless wall o’ sound. It’s all okay, part of life’s rich soundtrack.)

Tonight our bed is cold

I’m lost in the darkness of our love

God have mercy on the man

Who doubts what he’s sure of.

This sends me off. I drown out the next few songs with my imitation of a harpooned male sea lion. After a while I hear Springsteen singing “Valentine’s Day” — making a terrible kind of sense:

They say if you die in your dreams, you really die in your bed

But honey, last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head

And God’s light came shinin’ on through

I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin’ born anew

It wasn’t the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me

It wasn’t the bitterness of the dream that didn’t come true

It wasn’t the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms

No baby, it was you ...

Spooky in a way that dances just at the edges of reason. Something about the real problem, the real fear involved in love and that is ego death, mortality itself; the dark side of love and sex. — El Grande Nada. The abyss you hover over the moment you try to transcend your skin by embracing someone else’s.

I knew a man, he came from my home town.

He wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown.

He said, Dolores, I live in fear.

My love for you is so overwhelming I’m afraid I’ll disappear.

— Paul Simon, “Slip Sliding Away”

The album plays. I’ll drink to that.

I do. Then I drink to my old high school girlfriend and the Turtles, who got her to come across with some heavy petting one night to the tune of “Happy Together” I made our garage band learn it, certain that this would be a sure-fire way to score a homer with her. It wasn’t. It was just as well, though; I would probably be in the heating and air conditioning business with five kids in Elk Grove, Illinois, now. This suddenly strikes me as a fate preferable to sitting on my shabby floor, weeping, with a naked lap full of liquor. So I drink to life affirmation, to children and fresh-baked bread and the Marx Brothers and clean sheets and doing this over and over again to myself. Over and over, like a movie with the same plot only I play a different role each time, but it’s the same movie and it starts up again and again and ends the same way... and. The room is spinning. Springsteen is singing:

Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms

The music was never-ending

We danced as the evening sky faded to black

One step up and two steps back.

Christ. I’m now singing/weeping into a sweaty gym bag. My ex-wife, then Faye, then Kass, blur into one projection of anima that has nothing to do with each of them as individual women but everything to do with me. What it must be. I’m suddenly certain, is something I read in one of the books about how we’re trying to re-stage that first moment of abandonment by our mothers as infants. What we’re doing, it is clear now is trying to re-enact, replay that sensed rejection and orchestrate it differently as adults. Dominate the scenario with will, reason, armed with experience, logic We want to embrace Mom again on one level; and on another, reptilian level, we want to rip her liver out and feed it to her for leaving us in that goddamned basket for 45 minutes while she had her nails done I’m laughing my ass off now tossing the gym bag around the floor. Life is rich, but the cognac is gone. Sad. I cry for an appropriate amount of time over this. I read or heard that crying massages abdominal muscles where tension is stored. Maybe some chiropractor told me this, or a psychic named Galacta, I can’t remember. But the idea was that it was the only way those stomach muscles can soothe themselves. Tough guys who don’t cry die of stomach cancer Sensitive men die of something else, like wrapping their lips around pistols or colon cancer because they cannot Let go of what they imagine to be vital. Rectal polyps and high-caliber obliteration are the last whole thoughts....

12:30 a.m. I wake up on the living room floor. Springsteen crooning, “When you’re alone, you’re alone.... When you’re alone, you're alone.... When you’re alone, you’re alone.” The record isn’t stuck; that's exactly what he’s singing. “When you’re alone you ain’t nothin' but alone...”

I’m hung over and realize the folly of drinking because you are unhappy. It makes everything much worse later In the mirror; I look like Eddy Munster. I step in the shower but not before putting on Miles Davis’s “Bitch’s Brew”: a thunder of congas, reverberating guitars, deranged Chinese xylophone, and stuttering, muted wailing on trumpet — a bull elephant being skinned alive. Miles sounds unhappy too, but unhappy on Mars. It ain’t me, babe.

I have to get out of here. Clothes and books everywhere, pictures of dead men. The answering machine gazes at me with one red, unfaltering eye that says, “No, she did not call, my friend, she will not call. Forget it. You will not call either; right? Right. Come on, pal. No secrets between you and me. You’ll call. Not tonight and maybe not tomorrow morning, but you will, won’t you? You are God’s own fool. Big Buddy.” Every electronic device in this room is far more animate than the books and dust balls and piles of laundry, far more animate in their silence and paralysis than the plants screaming for water, far more animate than I am.

• • •

The streets should be windblown, cold, lacquered with neon-stained puddles but are, in fact, pleasantly dull under a clear evening sky. Rows of five-year-old Z-cars testify to the income level and taste of my neighbors. A few apartment windows shimmer with purple-blue-phosphor-dot illumination from late-night TV shows. I hit, say, the Elbow Room on Adams Avenue. Old timers. Get a Coors and light a Winston, turning to some guy next to me who looks like he’s been in three wars, his nose in a CC and 7 with the stir straw bent so he doesn’t poke his eye out. His wife next to him. I can tell they’re married because no two strangers could so skillfully abuse each other with nothing but body language. Her name is Jo. Thick glasses, silver gray wig askew. “Have a seat, young man.”

Her husband mumbles, “Garfumphug gafar....”

She grunts, “Mister Money Bags. Mister You-Know-Everything-I” She jerks her head, and her wig tilts another inch towards its center of gravity near her right ear. “That’s him. What’s your name, young man?”

“Carl Perkins,” I tell her.

“Charles, will you take a dollar and play some songs? Play Tommy Dorsey, ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ then play ‘Begin the Beguine’ and then play....” She trails off and drinks from her highball. “Then play whatever the hell you want, what do I care?” She dismisses me with a downturned, liver-spotted hand, her face in her drink, like I just hustled her for the money.

I walk to the juke box at the end of the bar. I get a size-up from a blowzy matron with huge eyelashes and a mouth like a wound. Put the dollar in. I play the two songs and pick out Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Nietschze-like, I figure if this doesn’t kill me, it’ll make me stronger.

Dorsey comes on, and Jo and her husband start swaying. The husband atonally humming and then mumbling the wrong words; "... Ah de apple tree ...don’ zit under de apple tree... in abblblozum time....”

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places....” Jo warbles along with the record. Somebody down the bar is laughing hysterically, the way people laugh in emergency rooms before they’re sedated.

Jo’s eyes are teary behind her glasses as she sways and croons thinly, “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing yooooo....”

Her husband’s shoulders are rising and falling, but he’s cackling drunkenly, still singing his own confabulated number.

His smile shows he’s not wearing his false teeth, maybe that’s why he’s mumbling. “Ah de abble tree... blozzums inna goddamn breeze....”

Aretha, Otis, and Bill Medley have got nothing on these people. I don’t wait for my songs, don’t finish my beer. I zip up my jacket at the door, though it’s about 75 degrees outside.

Crump. Bash. “Unngh.” Thump. Bump. Thud. “Oh God!”

The neighbors are fucking next door. Across the alley, a couple is fighting; her screaming, “Go ahead. Go ahead! I don’t care!” No sleep. I smoke and meditate. Staring at the ceiling, I think, Okay, smoking is the meditation. Being unable to meditate is the meditation. Sleeplessness, pornographic images of her and him. (She take him in her mouth? God. Can he find her sex under that hood of flesh the way I found it?) Homicidal airing of brains on a bedroom wall. BLAM! click. Ka-Blam! These things form the meditation. Whatever, man. It’s totally valid, okay? That is the meditation, see? I try not to judge myself for these thoughts, these cigarettes, these questions (How many other lies were there?), but instead I try to love myself for all of it because I read that just this morning or yesterday. Recently, anyway. I caress my own biceps, my jaw’s clenched. Om.... At some point I start dreaming I’m getting a vasectomy from a rabbi yielding an electric hedge clipper.

“Might as well get used to you hangin’ around. Good morning heartache, sit down.” — Billie Holliday

The afternoon is spent trying to work. Get a life. I keep picking up the phone. I just want to ask, “Why? Okay? Just — WHY?” but there is no good answer to that question. “I don’t know what I want,” she would say. Or, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

But it is me... and it isn’t. Whatever it is she does want, it certainly is not me, and that’s a hard one to get down: “It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe....” Why was I so sure that it was? Arrogance?

Incomprehensible, that someone would have such a surfeit of affection in their lives that they wouldn’t need yours... well, mine, I mean. I have been the object of unwanted attentions, unsolicited pledges of love and fidelity — that is, I have been the dumper rather than the dumpee, and it is nearly as uncomfortable as wet socks: an annoyance, with a measure of guilt, sometimes, if it’s your own fault that you stepped in something you shouldn’t have. But it is nearly impossible to view this with any equanimity when you’re on the other end of it. When the penny drops, though, it drops hard. Short of ugly scenes, there is no remedy but to leave it to life’s karmic tapestry.

Well, you reap just what you sow,

That old saying is so true,

You mistreat somebody, somebody gonna mistreat you.

— Bobby Blue Band, “Further on Up the Road”

After the battle with the phone (I won, but only for the moment), I start falling asleep staring at it; willing it to ring, hoping to God that it doesn’t because I may blow it entirely. That edge might start rising into my voice, shouting into the receiver all the reasons why this is killing me, as if by enumerating enough incidents of tenderness, by dragging enough evidence, moments, whispered words, and poignant gestures into the equation I might be conceded some credibility in my fuddlement. Or on the other hand, as if by reciting a long enough list of wrongs (hers, mine) real or imagined — yes, I was jealous, for godsakes, I’m sorry! — I could, by their sheer mass, by virtue of a shared madness, make something right.

A week goes by, a strobing of welcome distractions punctuated by confrontations with the silent House of Horrors that my apartment has become. A drive out to the desert, an exhausting swim off Sunset Cliffs at night, a marathon of four movies, four separate theaters in one afternoon/evening (crying at a sappy moment in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), some Chinese food with a friend who is usually as fucked up as I am over his lady love (his current happiness seems a betrayal somehow), and sleeping 11 hours a night for three nights in a row.

That I am through a crucial period occurs to me: a window of possibility to heal a little or make everything worse. Those several days in which you either call or you don’t, she does or doesn’t. The tender area around that point of no return that announces itself in a single moment where you glimpse the truth: that maybe in spite of yourself, you will be all right.

After an eon of somnambulistic grief, that moment comes when I put on an album I hadn’t heard in three years. Robbie Robertson’s 1987 solo record where he is joined by U2 for a song called “Sweet Fire of Love.” The drums echo off the walls of the L-shaped Huffman apartments, creating a sound vortex for the defiant guitars resonating an anthem to remembered ecstasy. It sends a kind of shock wave, a primal convulsion through my calves, thighs, and chest. I throw my arms out to the side — a turkey buzzard, Zorba — and start spinning, stomping my feet, swaying. I’m a warrior beating a tattoo on my carpet, reenacting a battle where braves fell — or calling down rain from a yawning blue sky. I’m dancing. Robertson sings:

Didn’t we cross the waters?

Didn’t we mix the blood?

Didn’t we build brand new bridges?

Didn’t we hold back the flood?

Didn’t we bear the cross?

Didn’t we bring down the hammer?

Didn’t we beat on the drum?

Didn’t we fear the storm?

Didn’t we move the earth?

Didn’t we shoot for the sky?

Didn’t we catch the fire?

Didn’t we call upon the spirits?

Didn’t we fall together?

Didn’t we die for love?

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