The auditorium in Carnegie Hall was filling quickly. I was to sit in the fourth row. Clutching my ticket, I maneuvered through the crowd to the seat a friend acquired for me because she had connections. Going to a concert alone was something out of my norm, but this time, it was necessary. An absolute must, I told myself. Maybe this excursion, being different and outlandish, would help resolve the issues I had with the soundtrack of my life during Jake’s deployment to Iraq and our now broken relationship. Or, at the very least, the show would be a welcomed distraction.
“Buy David Gray’s album White Ladder and give it a good listen,” Jake had said before the phone line erupted into static. It was 2003 and America had officially made the invasion into the Middle Eastern country.
David Gray? Who’s that? I ran to the computer to engage in the usual Google tomfoolery and, within seconds, the artist’s profile and musical catalog appeared on the screen. I downloaded the music from the Irish singer and began studying lyrical content as if prepping for an S.A.T.
Prior to our fizzled lapse in telephone communication, Jake told me that his unit secured a place in Saddam Hussein’s country not far from the Euphrates River, but he wasn’t allowed to reveal exactly where. David Gray, he said, would solve the geographical mystery.
By the third song, I had the answer. David’s sexy croak explored the topography of a relationship, which resembled a place he called Babylon. I ignored Gray’s emotional heartbreak, choosing only to focus on the imagery of a battle-worn village. Just to confirm the correlation, however, I performed another Internet query. A map popped up indicating that there was indeed a town in Iraq named Babylon; White Ladder officially the melodious landscape to the story of love entangled with war that would eventually lead to Post Traumatic Stress for the both of us.
The stench of marijuana occupied the space between the hippies sitting beside me in the concert hall. I turned my nose in their direction and inhaled deeply, thinking an innocent secondhand toke would ease my unraveling nerves, but coughing ensued followed by gasps for clean air.
“Hello, New York City.”
The peace loving stoners leapt to their feet upon hearing David’s brogue. I stumbled from the chair gripping my purse that contained many letters from once upon a war in Iraq.
The unequivocal guitar plucking of Babylon began; a chilling yet upbeat riff that caused my heart to quake with astounding magnitude.
“Friday night, I’m going nowhere. All the lights are changing green to red,” David sang.
And that’s exactly how it was dating a soldier and then, after his homecoming, suddenly not. Like David Gray, I was experiencing some sort of paralysis as the world continued its bustle, remaining stuck in a time warp between moving forward and figuring out what just happened. I closed my eyes and tried to listen but, as always, a memory was at the ready to distract me.
The night I learned of David Gray, I stayed up until the wee hours engulfed in his work. It was through him that I felt myself falling more deeply for a storybook romance. I remember digging out a pen and box of stationary from my desk and feverishly writing Jake in an effort to document our wartime affair. “I know where you are! But what’s better, is that I know where you’re going…where we are going once this is all over.” I scribbled thoughts of a long future that awaited us, quoting lyrics, until the callus on my middle finger throbbed. Before sealing the correspondence, I’d sprayed perfume onto the inside flap. It was the only way to give him a piece of me.
During international unrest, time is stagnant between letters. Sort of like the expanse of dead space when unwillingly going from one lover to the next. Weeks went by of checking and rechecking with the postman until a small dirty mailer arrived. It looked beaten and tattered. With a pincer grasp, I gingerly held it and rushed inside as if my combatant, limp of life, were tucked inside. I carefully opened the parcel with the sharp edge of a scissor, sand splayed in my lap. As the note was unfolded, a mosquito carcass revealed itself on the paper signaling the state of our courtship.
My thumb rubbed the fabric of the yellowing envelopes deep in my handbag, the concert well under way. I secretly stroked at documents still wondering why Babylon was first when David Gray hit me. Not literally, but with his selection of musical entrance. The song Babylon was meant to be first—at this very event—as a testament that the lyrics were never intended to be romantic at all. In fact, they were quite the opposite. I finally tuned into David’s emotional journey about this locale, this Babylon, and realized the why in his writing of the complete record, which fortified why I came: to confront my yesterdays in order to gain clarity for tomorrow.
I pulled out the stack of messages; happy to have once been the recipient of such correspondence, yet knowing it was time to rid myself of them. With each song sung, a page was torn, split in half to make my heart whole again. The art of letting go, of healing, was through the music, which was unconsciously spelling it out for me the entire time. All I needed was a shift of perspective.
“If you want it, then come and get it, for crying out loud,” David sang.
And it’s true. Life’s too short to remain stuck. The key to a successful relationship is not in the chasing of a fantasy or the magical possibility of what can be or could have been, but of what is right in front of you—the hidden gem being what’s tangible.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Dawn Turzio is an award-winning essayist whose work has been featured in many publications including The New York Times, Salon and MSN Lifestyle, which can be found at www.dawnturzio.com and @dawnturziowritingpage on Facebook. Novel forthcoming.