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Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Music is magical. It can soothe, yes, but it can also call you out on your bullshit. It can touch you so deeply and so specifically that it brands your innards, scarring tissue, permanently attaching itself to the events, major and minor, of your life. Sometimes a song reveals an eerie ability to understand you better than you do yourself. It can let you in on all sorts of secrets. And such permanence. It stakes little flags throughout the timeline of your life so that when you hear a song that affected you long ago, like the smell of a neighbor's house or the taste of tequila, it transports you back, right back to exactly the same spot in time. You hear the sound and you know precisely what you were feeling, where you were, what was happening when it first burned itself into your soul.

When my dad died on St. Patrick's Day of 1990, I didn't have much going for me. I was in mid-sabotage of my relationship with my girlfriend. I didn't have a job and relied on my parents to pay the rent. I was four years out of college but behaving like it was still sophomore year. Part of me knew that I needed to make massive, violent changes in my life, but a much more powerful part was bullying the other part into submission. I had whittled my friends down to the unfortunate few who could still tolerate me. Worst of all, I felt there was no hope for me. I felt like I was waiting at a bus stop without a schedule to tell me when or even if a bus was coming. I was sure that I was the weakest, most defenseless person I'd ever known. Could I be any more pathetic?

It would seem that I saw my dad's death as an opportunity to find out. I tested the limits of my depression for about a year. And the soundtrack to that depraved adventure into the depths of self-abuse was Neil Young's Freedom. Alternately punk-abrasive and hippie-mellow, that album poured out of my CD player and washed across my clammy, hungover skin hour after hour, day after day, keeping me company while I waited around to see what would happen next. The days grew longer and the dogwood buds burst around me. After a while, it got hot and sticky and the air conditioner propped up on the sill of my bedroom window tried mightily to battle the rising temperatures. By September, my girlfriend had had enough and vanished one weekend while I was away. I came home to find the apartment mostly empty with only dust and crumbs and pennies on her side of dresser drawers. But the sounds of the album were still there, accompanying me on endless, destination-less drives through Wayland, Acton, Sudbury, and on two manic days of sleepless wall painting. Winter came, then spring, and somehow from the depths I began to emerge. There was Neil Young's straining falsetto, still there to see me through, to keep me company. There was his twangy Les Paul to bounce me along my way. Like a whiff of ammonia, the rawness of his screeching voice helped bring me to.

Now safely in the rear view mirror, that time has taken on a golden, slightly sheened patina. The last fifteen have put that one year in a context that I almost cherish. Horrific though it was, it was ultimately necessary. I see that now. And although I hope never again to be so low, now when I hear a snippet from that album, it makes feel nauseously warm.

Neil Young came out with a new CD last month. I bought it the day it was released.


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