A few weeks ago, a friend told me music kept him alive. I knew what he meant.
Music has the power to reach me intimately. Sometimes I don’t know it’s happening, so I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. It has danced with me in every way I can imagine.
One spring afternoon in the early 1970’s, on a platform stage outside the Parmatown Mall, a rock band played. Lit by the blue-gray sky, wailing electric guitars, bass and thumping drums turned an ordinary day into magic for the crowd arrested by the spectacle. The boys on stage in their black t-shirts and shaggy hair held court over those of us trapped by their spell on the asphalt parking lot. Moms and dads forgot for the weight of their shopping bags and the hands of their children. I was one of those children.
I could see the band was made up of angels delivering a glimpse of the divine and at that moment, 5-year-old me felt anointed. Each thump of the kick drum penetrated my chest, becoming the beat of my heart, shaking me to a higher level of being alive. I knew then this was my life.
When I was deciding my career path as a young adult, I battled with a need for security. While playing future rock star, I couldn’t help but glance at that pot of gold labeled security, so I earned a BA in English, which I ended up hardly using. Through luck or fate and a few of my own choices, music won. It always knew it would.
Years later, I wrote a song chosen to open a weekly program on an extremely niche TV network. Because of that gracious fluke, my voice and the words I wrote became part of the lives of strangers all over the world. I still tear up if I think of it for more than a fleeting second.
You see, in everyday life, I’m a joker. Audible revelations of my most serious thoughts happen rarely, usually having to be mined out with a virtual pickax. But music can possess me, leading my heart to do things I didn’t know it could do. Just as it can reach in when I don’t know it, it’s also a medium for reaching out.
In my songwriting, I’d often find while I wrote lyrics to fulfill a specific need for a client, I’d later discover those words I was weaving in just to fill the space were things I did really did believe deeply. I never intended the words to be dishonest, but I was surprised to discover what I wrote transform from what I thought was “work for hire” to personal proclamation. In this way, music taught me about myself. It lovingly placed my own words in my palm, gently stretched out my arm to present them to everyone else, saying, “I didn’t even know it, but this is how I feel.”
That thing we’re supposed to do as good humans, sharing and helping to carry each others’ burdens? Without music, I wouldn’t have known how to do it. Without my knowledge or permission, music did it for me.
I did not become rich and famous from the TV show song. At least not in the traditional sense. But my treasure was surer than that, and it can’t be squandered on outrageous luxuries. Because of that song, I traveled and met listeners all over the world. Others I never met in person wrote me letters. They came from places like North Dakota and Oman. Those connections are worth more to me than gold statuettes on a mantle. The listeners thanked me for my songs, shared beautiful, difficult, real pieces of their lives with me. They have no idea what they’ve given me. It was such a primordial relief to have spoken to them from my soul, and have them receive and honor it with their responses. Music gives. Lavishly.
Sometimes, it takes. That song on the radio when I’m driving to work, the one that broadsides me with a memory, pressing on the bruise of a neglected hurt and making me cry. Music says, “You need to release that.” Then it reaches in and takes my tears.
It breathes and becomes me. Singing with a band, I’ve left this world at times. On stage in a dark club, while patrons watched and swayed beneath colored lights glowing through a club’s haze, I got truly lost with the 4 other people in the band. In the midst of a song, we’d check out to some other dimension, the 5 of us tethered together by our collective surrender to the the music’s hold on us. Together, we went to a place where time and the other people in the room didn’t exist. We breathed one breath while the song breathed through us.
I know it happens that way for the listener too. I’ve been that listener. I give myself over and when I do, the music never disappoints.