1. Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 – Poco Allegretto
Scene: 180 Sumac Dr., West Lafayette, Indiana
I am 8, dusting the living room on a winter Saturday morning. Through the windows, the trees are stark skeletons; the sky is a fungal grey. I am a gloomy kid in a sin-fixated, and sometimes-violent, household. Secular music is verboten, the radio is tuned to classical.
A cello plays three low, haunting notes that slowly rise, then fall back down. I stop dusting and listen as this simple, yet devastating, melody repeats throughout the movement. The music seems to epitomize thwarted desire. It captures the feeling of watching the sun trying to burn a hole in the cloud cover on a Midwestern winter day. You lift your face toward it in anticipation of its warmth – only to have the wind kick up and knot the clouds tighter together.
Kneeling next to a side table, rag in hand, I watch dust motes drift, astonished at the ability of music to articulate my sadness so perfectly.
- “Rock With You,” Michael Jackson
Scene: Skate-Away,360 Brown St, West Lafayette, Indiana
I am 12, wearing a side ponytail and bell bottoms, gliding in circles with my brother David. We are unpopular at small Christian school – I am shy, he is black – but our class sometimes goes roller-skating as a group and everyone is invited.
In the semi-dark, with disco music pulsing at thought-suppressing decibels and a giant mirrored ball baptizing everyone with light in equal measure, we merge with the churning party, finding longed-for acceptance and, moreover, fun.
So many firsts here. The first time I openly listen to pop music. Hold a boy’s sweaty hand. Hear Michael Jackson. From the first synthesized chords of “Rock With You,” an ebullient joy lifts me. This is David and my favorite song, one we listened to furtively at home, playing here in a loud celebration that eclipses all else.
- “Walking on the Moon,” The Police
Scene: The countryside along County Road 650, West Lafayette, Indiana
I am 17, hiking a mile through the dark woods to my boyfriend’s house at 2 a.m. My jeans are soaked from melted snow and I can’t feel my fingertips, but I am powered by love.
When David and I transfer to a public high school, I meet a football player who writes me poetry – and whom my parents did not approve; his family is “unchurched.” I mope and play the theme song from “Romeo and Juliet” on the living room piano. Unable to socialize outside of school, we sneak into each other’s bedrooms at night.
He gives me a mixtape of songs by The Police, including this reggae-inflected track. “Walking back from your house, walking on the moon,” Sting sings. The song plays in my head as I navigate the lunar landscape that is the Indiana countryside in snow. To quote Sting, “being in love is to be relieved of gravity.”
- Running with the Devil, Van Halen
Scene: Highway 52, West Lafayette, Indiana
I am 17, biking down the shoulder of the highway to Howard Johnson’s Hotel, where I work as a busgirl. My boyfriend is seen leaving my window while my parents are gone on a mission trip. Fearing my father’s wrath, I move into the apartment that my big brother Dan shares with three roommates at Purdue University.
The place is filthy. The fridge is empty. I scavenge food from room service trays. But I am free. Free to not go to church. Free to spend hours watching MTV. Free to see my boyfriend whenever I like.
As I ride my bike, I listen to Van Halen on my boxy yellow Walkman. The ominous blare of car horns at the beginning of the song mimics the traffic noise around me. I am livingthe music. The phrase “running with the devil” — repeated ten times – makes my spine tingle with fear and excitement in equal measure. The chugging guitars, David Lee Roth’s primal screams, it is all a big fat middle finger of defiance. That’s me, “running with the devil” and liking it.
- “Hello Again,” The Cars
Scene: Escuela Caribe, the Dominican Republic
I am 18, listening furtively to the Cars at the “Christian therapeutic school” where my parents send me for my senior year of high school.
There is no therapy at Escuela Caribe. There is only dogma, and misery, and punishment. We are cut off from the world behind a gated compound. One classmate tries to kill herself by drinking bleach. Another tries to run away and her long blonde tresses are hacked off. We are forced to watch boxing matches in which grown men beat up adolescent boys.
A vacationing American teen slips me Heartbeat City. I play it behind a locked door, at the risk of physical pain. The refrain keeps me from breaking: I know you’re a dreamer/ Who’s under the gun/ I know you’re a dreamer/ who’s only just begun. If I can survive Escuela Caribe, I can survive anything.
- “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Joy Division
Scene: Carrer de Pizarro, 32, Valencia, Spain
I am 22, drunk of Jack Daniels, alone on Christmas day.
My brother David loses control of his car and slams into a tree, dying at 20. Instead of escaping to a more diverse and progressive region together – our longtime shared fantasy– David is buried six miles from our childhood home. I move to Spain to start anew but despair follows.
The song’s incandescent gloom and Ian Curtis’ resigned baritone underline a basic truth: love always wounds because, sooner or later, love ends. Either in death of the sentiment or death of the person. I listened to the song on a loop, trapped in a crushing grief that I presume will define my entire future.
- “At Last,” Etta James
Scene: 462 Fair Oaks St., San Francisco, CA
I am 37, tipsy on champagne, at my wedding party.
This song a cliché, but I don’t care. A clichéd happiness is all I want at this point.
After breaking off a troubled and stifling seven-year relationship, I meet a handsome feminist who brings me steady happiness and reliable ecstasy.
The violins swooping toward heaven, Etta’s full-throated certainty, the joyful gratitude of “at last” finding true love, the end of loneliness; I’ll take every one of these clichés.
- “Blackbird,” the Beatles
Scene: 1404 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
I am 42, nursing my newborn daughter in the pre-dawn.
We curl toward each other, me nourishing her body, she nourishing my soul. Born the day after my brother David’s birthday, she becomes his namesake: Davia Joy.
“All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise,” sings Paul McCartney. It’s true: never have I felt such exquisite peace and completeness. I am enough for this tiny new human. I am enough. I could RIP right now, knowing this.
- “A Waltz for Fran,” Lee Morgan
Scene: An airplane somewhere over the Midwest
I am 51, flying out to see my brother Dan, who is dying of colon cancer in North Carolina. I have run out of words and hope music will offer what I cannot: encouragement and a respite from pain and terror. A reminder that beauty exists.
I text him the song and we both listen to it. It begins with Morgan’s wistful trumpet solo, which is then echoed by the piano, sax and bass before circling back to the trumpet. The instruments are a family, having a continuous, melancholy conversation, holding each other. Just as ours is.
Dan texts back. “I found the lyrics a bit lacking,” he quips in his typical dry humor. In a few months, he will dead. But for now we share a moment in time, and a little laughter. And whenever I hear this song, going forward, I will remember my brother with a wistful smile.
- Planesticus migratorius migratoriusaka the Western Robin
Scene: The Sierra Nevada
I have just climbed a mountain, wading through hillsides of lupine and yarrow to reach an alpine lake. Thunderheads roil over crags in the distance, but above me the sky is blue. My breath is ragged. I sit on a boulder to survey the serene beauty around me.
A robin trills, piercing the silence with a series of rising and falling notes: cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily. She pauses, and in the silence, I hear my heartbeat thud. She sings and pauses again, and again my thudding heart provides a backbeat to her melody. Her ancient song seems to convey everyemotion: love, grief, despair, hope, exhilaration.
I feel an intense bond with her, with the natural world. I’m just another creature who bumbled into life on this planet, just another creature whose moments vacillate between pleasure and pain. The pines, the lake, the scratchy granite under my shorts; all of it will be here long after I’m dead. It is a gift to be alive, and to be acutely aware of living.