Image Credit: Patrick Moreau
Regina Spektor lyrics from the song “Bon idée” in SONGS.
In my basement bedroom in my semi-rural, semi-arid hometown, I lie in bed all day and listen to Regina Spektor. I feel her inside my head, pricking and plucking out my thoughts and turning them into musical notes:
Don’t tell your secrets to anyone
Because ideas are vulnerable
As soon as you say your idea out loud
Then it can go and live on its own
I have found for the first time in music a sense of connection that I’d previously only found in books. As a child I had read under the covers and in pantries, telling no one about my favorite books, about the private link between the author and me. Now that link trickles out of a boom box, audible but still secret.
Because I’m sixteen in the middle of a wasteland and nothing has ever happened to me before, I know that nothing ever will. Regina and I will never meet. It does not occur to me to want such a thing.
Later, Regina is my first concert. I make the six-hour pilgrimage from my college town to Portland and camp out for several unnecessary hours. I stake out a spot right in front of the stage, mere feet away from her, and know what I have always suspected: she is real. I swear she makes eye contact with me over and over. I cry five times. She does with music what I will one day do with words. I hope.
After I’ve graduated and left my college town and then come back for six months, it has finally occurred to me that I’m allowed to move to the place I most want to live, just because I want to. That place is Portland.
Shortly before I leave, my friend Jane and I head to our favorite bar, one last time. Upon our arrival, the bouncer stops us at the door.
“There’s a concert tonight. We’ve got a five-dollar cover.”
I begin to turn away—we don’t have real jobs or real money—but Jane replies to him with a warm, earnest voice that almost always gets her what she wants, saying some version of the truth that will get us in.
The bouncer listens, then opens the lime green door for us.
“Really?” I say, as Jane pulls me inside.
The room is so packed with drinkers and dancers that we can’t see the dingy walls covered with obscure artwork. We carve our way through sweaty, bumping bodies to go up to the mezzanine, overlooking the band with a number of other young people. We’ve forgotten to get drinks and it’s not worth navigating our way back downstairs to get them. Instead, we lean our elbows on the railing and listen. Below, the dancers move as if possessed by the music, the whole main floor one rhythmic entity. Even with the cramped heat of the crowd, I almost wish I were down there with them.
It sometimes happens to me at a concert that I’m unable to hear the music. I’m in the presence of art and I’m a part of it. Other times the music clears the way for unresolved thoughts and feelings that are so easily tempered by daily life, and they surge to the forefront of my mind, drowning out sensory input. Sometimes it’s both.
So I don’t process what kind of music it is, beyond some kind of rock, because I’m immediately drawn in by the musicians. The way they move around the bit of floor that serves as a stage, the power of their melodies, takes control of the whole room. An infectious life force exudes from the band and reaches all the way to the mezzanine—a raw energy is pulsing through the space, and through me.
The music fills me up until I too am bursting and a couple of tears trickle out, for the first time at a concert since Regina Spektor.
I’m about to quit a job that isn’t really a job with a book publisher that isn’t really a book publisher. I’ve spent six months hoping I was lucky enough for this to be my big break, even though no one’s getting those post-2008, and ignoring that it’s too good to be true. That if I’m working full time as an editor, I should be paid at least a little, and have some experience. But it feels as though I’m giving up my chance do with words what this band, what Regina, do with music.
I don’t want to ruin the night with my existential crisis, so I try to stop thinking about myself. Besides, I’m not the only person on the mezzanine who has given up a dream. Next to me, Jane is a filmmaker working in customer service at a garden center.
Instead, I focus on appreciating the band as an audience enjoys the performer, enjoying something beautiful, but unable to create it.
The music swells to a crescendo; the lead singer belts out his lyrics at full volume, the guitarist curls over his instrument. The energy overflows from me in such a way that I have to act on it, burning its way down my arms and through my hands. So it makes sense when everyone on the mezzanine, including me, is swept up into a giant circle. We wrap our arms around one another, my hand on strangers’ backs, theirs on mine, jostling, swaying and laughing and jubilant for no apparent reason, with no idea how we’ve gotten there. I become larger than my own body. I’ve never had this feeling before, never been so overwhelmed that I ceased to be myself.
When the music ends and we realize it was the last song, we all drop our arms, laugh at what we’ve done, and disperse. I think about befriending all of them, or maybe just the girl in the beanie directly across from me, but that wouldn’t make what happened on this mezzanine last forever. For one fleeting moment, despite everything we’d lost and given up on, together, we’d been art.
Music had always been the most solitary and private of experiences before this. Now I stand in a disintegrating circle of people, where the private had become communal.
As the moment fades, I turn my sights to Portland and more moments like this one, and Jane and I bounce into the night.
For the first eight months or so that I’m living in Portland, the city is raincoats and perpetually damp boots and the feeling that it will always be this way. I go from subletting to housesitting to renting a room from a landlord whom other tenants post warnings about on Craigslist. I have no job and many jobs, temping and freelancing. My existence is a hunt, for housing and for employment. Only the search for friends is easy in this city of transplants. I make a friend and I meet their friends and we’re all friends.
Then the rain ends and I learn of the mania of summer in Portland. Our soggy lives dry up and turn green and gold in the sun. We surge up out of the corners and crevices of the city. Who knew there were so many people in this town, and there was so much to do: bike rides, camping trips, underground hipster clubs, staying up, up, up, until it’s 1 a.m. on a Tuesday and I’m watching the worst stand-up comedy I’ve ever seen and drinking a Rainier. Concerts are a necessary ingredient of this mania. When a friend or my new boyfriend invites me to a show, I go. I find out what the music is when I get there.
The first time I see The Climate Robots, they’re opening for a band much worse than them. The genre could be called indie folk rock. The rustic living room of a venue works in their favor, cozy and intimate. Happy people sway in the center of the room, I sit on a bench along the wall with my boyfriend and am transfixed. Each song is better than the one before, each one uniquely catchy. The music is sometimes lighthearted, sometimes spiritual, always deeply cool. Every lyric is millennially charged with jaded romanticism, or perhaps romantic jadedness, making me want to stand up and shout “I know, right??” It doesn’t hurt that the lead singer has great stage presence. His passion, his complete surrender to the music, magnifies his schoolboy good looks. My enjoyment of his music is heightened by the experience of him playing it. I almost feel guilty for sitting on the bench next to my boyfriend, who likes music but it is not a part of him, rather than joining the singer on stage.
I don’t want to be intimidated by this singer and his talent, but I am. He makes the creation of art accessible and human, close and real. He is my age, he is just a person, a fellow Portlander who goes to the same ice creameries and breweries as me. Watching him brings to the forefront of my mind the never-ending repressible reprimand that I need to write more, not just when I feel like it or am inspired or lonely. I’ve been distracted by new friends and then a boyfriend and the urge to say yes to everything the city has to offer. I haven’t written a single word in months. And when I do finally write again, I need to write *better*.
But even if I did, literature hardly ever manifests the way a song does.
You write your novel, you publish it. Maybe someone tweets at you that they enjoyed it, but you can’t witness or partake in their enjoyment. In literature, if you use the right combination of words, you might just voice a universal truth in such a way that kindred spirits are able to find you. Someday, dozens or hundreds of years from now, you may even give your readers the same little rush you get when you read a line and know that there is someone else. You may never know that those readers exist, but what does exist is the hope: that you are not alone. Hence the unsquashable desire to create, and then to share.
Such is the power of live music: to bring this desire to life as a human-art-amoeba in one larger-than-life evening. Watching the crowd undulating before me, I see how talented musicians can raise us to their heights, and, together as performers and audience, we are overwhelmed by a sense of oneness, of deep understanding.
It is the feeling of being in love.
In the months following the concert, I listen to The Climate Robots’ music on repeat. During this time, I’m working in customer service, in conflict resolution, which unearths every unresolved issue of my own that I thought I’d dealt with long ago. Middle-aged female customers are the best at figuring out where it hurts most and driving the dagger in so they get what they want: a refund, revenge, or both. They let me know I’m a bad person and also a robot reading from a script. I want to tell them that I don’t have a script and I’ve gotten my foot in the door of a growing company and I’ll show them someday by getting promoted and writing product copy that will reach millions. I solve tickets to the dulcet tones of The Climate Robots for months on end, watching summer from the third-floor window and growing more and more numb to the grossness of my work, and then my life. I have to listen to them. Even when enjoyment is not possible, the music somehow grounds me in the artistic and the beautiful, the young and the local, in a way that no one, not even, especially not, the boyfriend who is emotionally inching away from me, could understand. A part of me wants him to get it, but I don’t need him to. I just listen.
I go to see The Climate Robots in concert for the second time and they’re still the openers, but for a much more famous band this time. Recently single, I’ve developed a habit of picking a member of a band to have a crush on at concerts. Just for fun, with no intention to do anything about it. This time, however, it seems I am going to have to do something about it: my friend and fellow concert-goer turns out to have been college buddies with the lead singer, Warren. My friend, thrilled, offers to introduce me to Warren after the show. He gives me tips for conversation starters while I drink an excessive number of overpriced beers. I won’t need talking points if I woo him with my liquid courage.
The bright lights, the trampoline floor, the dull roar of people talking over the music. I absorb nothing from either the opener or the main event, not because I am blacked out, but because the concert hall itself provides all the sensory input a person like me can handle.
The end of the show finds me dozing in a cozy velvet chair in the lobby. My friend makes me get up and tells me it’s time. The alcohol has begun to wear off and I feel clumsy and slow. I’ve been overloaded with sensory input for too many hours. My confidence has ebbed. I’m more interested in pizza and pajamas, but it’s too late to back out now. My friend will be disappointed if I reject his wingman offering.
Up close, Warren is shorter than I’d thought and his eyes are disinterested. When I’m introduced to him, I say nothing. Practically nothing. I’ve never hit on anyone before, so I wait for him to hit on me, even as I stand there, wishing I were asleep. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t flirt, not even a little, and I go home in the knowledge, or the hope, that Warren will forget about the weird girl. I try to forget about him, too.
A few weeks later I start using Tinder and I find him. It’s fate, of course, so I swipe right. We match! For the first time since I began using the app, I initiate messaging. There’s a photo of him reading a book, and I ask him about his thoughts on it.
I’m fine with that. I figure if I got to know him, I would be forced to recognize that he’s human, not merely a vessel of music sent from the gods. I would find out that he’s too talented to also be a good person. He would be all ego. I would fall for him but he would only love the music, which would then be ruined for me, and all for a fling. I don’t want that. I move on.
I find Warren on Bumble a year later. And again on Tinder several months after that. I swipe right because I can’t help it. Warren has a song about not being able to help it, so maybe he’ll understand. We always match, to no avail. I decide he’s one of those guys who has a hack set up to automatically swipe right on everyone. Perhaps he’s waiting for that 2:30 a.m. message, “Hey cutie, you awake? ;)”. Scumbag.
I’d started writing a novel when I needed to save myself, from new singledom and however many more months of call center work. It’s a bad novel, bad on purpose—a satire, which I allow myself because otherwise I wouldn’t write at all, and then I might just fade away. Besides, the ridiculous tale of a trophy wife in a magical mansion entertains me. I make rules for myself: on Sundays I go for a run and then I can’t do anything else until write 3,000 words. If I’m having trouble getting words out I can nurse a beer as long as it’s less than five percent ABV, just enough to lower my inhibitions. Eventually, in a secluded cabin in the woods, I finish my first draft. I feel giddy as I type the last words, and go around recommending to people that they should write a book just for the feeling of completing the first draft.
People in my writers’ group don’t like the novel. I do another draft, and another, and people like it even less. I learn I’m trying to do an impossible thing and the hundreds of hours I’ve spent working on it were just practice for something I’ll write in the future that might be slightly more acceptable.
I take a break from writing and go back on Tinder (for the last time, I tell myself) as a distraction from my recent failure—or delay of success, whatever. Summer is here again and there’s no time for misery during the season of mania. I’ll just chat a bit, I think, maybe go on a couple dates, to force myself to be occupied with something potentially rewarding even though it’s most likely fruitless, to give myself hope while I wait until I’m ready to write again. Even though I suspect that the connection I’ve always sought through art and romance and now also seek through apps is an illusion that can’t be substantiated in real life, I’m ready for the possibility that these mimicries of connection are better, less painful, than connection itself.
I set up careful guidelines in my profile to weed out the “Hi” and “What’s up?” and “Nice photo” messages in search of conversations that might actually be interesting. My schedule has opened up now that the muse has dumped me, but still, no one should have time for internet small talk. I set up dates with two different people to keep from getting too attached to one person right away. Monogamy is out anyway, I’ve heard. No more of that “one true love” crap.
But then, on the second date, I meet a someone. I see him again and again. I like him because he’s insightful and brutally honest. He doesn’t take anything too seriously, including me.
I bring New Boyfriend to my next viewing of The Climate Robots, the debut of their new album. We have a good time. My enjoyment is multiplied by sharing the experience with someone who shares it back. I realize that sharing could be one-way, now that I’ve found out what it was like to have the whole thing reciprocated. It is like the night on the mezzanine but so much better, because I’m with him, and instead of one night we have a whole relationship.
Warren doesn’t notice me, and I don’t want him to. Who cares. I just want him for his music.
Maybe this evening with New Boyfriend is as good as the connection I dreamed of. Maybe it’s better, because it’s real.
But that’s not how it really happens.
I bring New Boyfriend along with a couple of friends to the concert, telling him only that this is one of my favorite bands. It’s at the womblike venue again, full of young people thrilled with their twelve-to-fifteen-dollar evening. With the circular shape of the room inviting us closer to the stage, there is little divide between performer and crowd. We use the few steps at the back of the room to get a better view.
When at last the band appears on stage after two openers, a friend leans over to tell me, “The lead singer is super cute.” I give her the “I know, right?” eyebrows. Neither of our boyfriends has any idea as they bob their curly heads.
The new album is even better than the ones before. Somehow that’s possible. New Boyfriend turns to me after the second song. This is the part where he tells me how perfect they are, how much more he likes me for liking them.
“I can’t believe you brought me here to see your crush,” he says. There’s no humor in his eyes.
There’s no point denying it—I was going to wait until after the show to share a comedic rendition of my failed interactions with Warren so it wouldn’t taint his first impression, but it seems my plans are thwarted. I hope my sheepish expression wins him over, but he turns his gaze back to the stage, ignoring me.
My dreams of us collectively entering a transcendent state dissolve. Screw anyone who doesn’t understand. But they do understand, of course they do. Excellence is excellence; it’s undeniable. Look at everyone in the crowd, looking the way I feel. If my friends and New Boyfriend have any taste at all, they’ll be enjoying it with me. I decide not to worry about them. I throw myself into the music.
I want to undo my habit of becoming sensory overloaded by my favorite shows, so I pay as much attention as possible, absorbing this moment so I can remain in it forever. To remember it when I listen to the inferior, recorded version, on repeat. I can’t take it all in. I want to be bigger in order to soak up what is happening. I stand up straighter.
All five band members take a break from the set list to jam so seamlessly and joyfully that I would hop on stage and join them, if only I were worthy. Sometimes I almost forget I’m not, I’m so drawn in. I want to be them, to be with them. These musicians are people who could so easily have been my classmates, my coworkers, my friends. Yet I feel there is an infinite divide. In my own twenty-five years, I have accomplished only an unpublishable novel and before that, years of barely writing at all, and after that, also not writing. I am a writer only in the sense that I call myself one. I’ll never be good if I don’t write at all.
For the encore, New Boyfriend charges to the front of the stage. I suppose this means he enjoys the music in spite of my crush. I follow him. The crowd parts for us, envelops us. I peer up at Warren as if he is Apollo and I am here to worship. I see Warren as I imagine New Boyfriend sees me seeing Warren. I allow myself to indulge in adoration of his genius as well as his bulging biceps (that he must get from working out to balance the sedentary lifestyle of art, just like me) and new facial hair (which finally makes him a Portland musician ten). I marvel at his command of the room. He is one with music; every hand gesture, every step, is unerring and exactly what it should be.
Afterwards, New Boyfriend and I get the best late-night nachos in town and he admits the band is good, but only because it’s undeniable. His voice is flat, begrudging. Our appreciation of the nachos may be the only thing we have in common, and Portland summer has compromised my judgment once again.
I spend the days following the show in an altered state. My brain feels tingly, my mind luscious. When I go for runs down streets that are alive with trees and dogs and other runners, poetry without words hums in everything I pass.
I desire to grab at, be engulfed by something, but what, and how? When art has failed me, when I’ve failed my art, I’ve directed these emotions at the human: a tangible, societally recognized repository for emotion. Someone to have and to hold—or maybe just to hold. I settle into the feeling of an unrequited crush, not for a tangible someone, but for an intangible something.
Life is an exercise in getting used to wanting what I can’t have: a romantic relationship that lives up to a love song, a truly rewarding manifestation of my art, a satisfaction of the longing I feel when I experience someone else’s art. So many things that feel right, like they should belong to me, don’t and never will. Those things don’t even exist most of the time. I could have sworn something was there when I reached for it but I look at my hand and it’s empty. I made it all up in the wild playground of my mind.
But in my brief relationship with New Boyfriend, I learn something about music. We’re getting coffee at a chain café he likes and he mentions that when each band member is exactly in sync, especially the drummer and the bassist, and the song is played at its most perfect pace and everything feels right, it’s called being “in the pocket.” You are one with the music. It is what musicians strive for.
He mentions it so casually, that this idea I’ve secretly been marinating in for years exists. Others have felt it, too, and it is so real that they named it.
It is what I found that night on the mezzanine of a Spokane bar. It is what I’ve felt in The Climate Robots’ performances. I swim laps in the shallow pool of comfort that comes from knowing there is such a thing and I haven’t dreamt it up. In my mind, pockets exist everywhere, not just in music. The world is filled with them.
Maybe I’m not ready to write again, but there’s something there. Something it’s okay not to touch or to have or even to create, but to feel.
I pass a cracked mirror in an open briefcase on a sidewalk. It is significant. I don’t know why, won’t try to figure it out yet, but it reverberates in me, mild and pleasant.
Names have been changed.
Shannon St. Hilaire is a content writer at Airbnb. She serves on the board of directors for an arts organization, The People’s Colloquium, and is an editor of their anthology. Her work has been published in X-R-A-Y, VoiceCatcher, The Fig Tree, and Reflection. She lives in Portland, Oregon.