How music can save a life


I was falling apart. Just weeks after having reached the anticlimactic denouement of 10 Cities/10 Years, I’d sunk into a depression as toxic as the poisoned well from my year in New Orleans.

I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A decade of my life had been dedicated to this one purpose, and now I had nothing. Nothing to show for my efforts, nothing to look forward to, no sense of myself. I was just another broken branch thrown into the bonfire of Brooklyn, turning to ash.

There were acerbating factors, as well. Suddenly broke, I started two new office jobs on top of my bartending gig, working six to seven soul-crushing days a week. Wanting nothing but to curl up in my darkened bedroom, I’d come home to an apartment bustling with an unrelenting rotation of new roommates and temporary guests that stripped me of any sense of solitude. Making matters worse, one of those guests was a girl I had briefly dated; relations had soured between us and her presence was a constant source of anxiety.

Even once I did pass through the gauntlet of the living room, I’d step into my bedroom and onto a drenched throw rug: my room repeatedly flooded from rain water that poured in through the shoddily spackled walls. Peace of mind was always on tomorrow’s to do list.

One Saturday night, having bartended until two in the morning, I returned home but couldn’t bear being inside my apartment where the paper thin walls ensured I was never truly alone. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and ascended to the roof.

Usually, I would have the black space to myself, but that night, three of my neighbors were upstairs sitting around candlelight and listening to music off of one of their phones. Providing the bare minimum of social interaction to be part of the group, I sat and listened.

While the guys chatted about topics I couldn’t pretend to care about, a song began that immediately grabbed my attention, the first mournful strum of a minor chord ricocheting through me like a scream in a cavern.

“Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia is heavy, a love song haunted by death, or maybe more accurately, a funeral dirge pierced through with aching love. “Every kiss is a goodbye,” the singer confesses, then repeats more insistently. It’s a mournful ballad, a heartbroken and brittle cry, and in that moment, it pierced through me like a religious revelation.

I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The chorus repeated inside me – “Your hair is coxcomb red, your eyes are viper black” – like it was some sort of incantation, a summoning to a lost spirit.

In a trance, I bid goodnight to the neighbors and immediately went online to track down the song and its album, The Lioness. I spent a few days hoping to find a CD in local record shops – for some reason, I felt compelled to own a physical copy of the album – but when the search didn’t pay off, I downloaded the album and spent the next month listening to it almost exclusively.

Laid low by depression, the music of the late Jason Molina wrapped around me and kept me warm, kept me sane; kept me alive.

Songs Molina

I’m recounting this now because over the weekend I had the good fortune to see Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. at the Littlefield here in Brooklyn. If that name is a bit cumbersome, it’s because it pays tribute to a complex and troubled artist. The concert, in honor of Jason Molina, was performed by a group of his former bandmates, tourmates, and friends.

Molina was the driving force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., among other musical acts. He was a prolific songwriter and an omnivorous consumer of genres, shaping them around his singular voice and lyricism. By the time I discovered “Coxcomb Red” on that September night in 2015, Molina had been dead for over two years, the result of alcohol abuse and addiction. He had been 39.

I wasn’t entirely unaware of Molina’s work before his death. I had a passing familiarity with Magnolia Electric Co., mostly as a name I read in headlines on Pitchfork or saw listed on compilations. There are so many artists, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when it seems like it’s just another white guy indie band. Perhaps for many, that’s all the collective output of Molina will ever be, but once I discovered it, it became a salve.

Molina put out a prodigious amount of music under his various names, whether as a solo artist or with a band. I’ve spent the nearly two years since I first encountered Songs: Ohia listening to as much of Molina’s music as possible, and yet, at the memorial concert, there were still a handful of songs I had never heard, and talk of recordings I’ve never tracked down.

Standing in that audience with people who had loved Molina’s music and hearing stories about the man from people who had known him in life, I was moved near to tears. I, like I imagine many people, had found his music in an incredibly bleak time in my life, so I came prepared for a somber affair, and while at times there were moments of solemnity, the show was more often a celebration, a recognition of both the man and the friendships that he had helped bring together.

That is the power of music, the magic of a song. On this blog which is ostensibly about traveling, there are nearly as many posts tagged “music” as there are “travel.” In my lowest times, I’ve always turned to musicians. They lift me up, console me, give me perspective, and often articulate my own emotions better than I can.

On at least one occasion, music has literally saved my life.

Sigur Ros Untitled

I’ve previously recounted my ill-fated college road trip to Seattle on this blog, so I won’t rehash the full story here. The relevant portion took place on the second night of the trip when, after having crossed into Wyoming, I was waylaid by a late season blizzard that sent my poor two-door Ford Escort flying off the road and into a snowy ditch. I spent two hours in a gulch before a tow truck pulled me out and I was able to cautiously drive my hatchback through the night until I found a rest stop.

Hoping the storm would keep the authorities otherwise occupied, I broke the rules of the rest stop and settled into my back seat to sleep through the night. I hadn’t packed for a blizzard (it was early spring and back home was already experiencing summer temperatures), so as I shivered in my back seat, I slid on any layer of clothing I could find and wrapped myself in a blanket that I always kept in the back. It wasn’t enough.

For two days, all I had consumed was half a box of granola bars and a few cans of warm Sprite. My body was sore and exhausted, I didn’t own a cellphone, and  my emergency funds were already depleted after paying for the tow service. I was also acutely aware that no one knew where I was.

While my stomach growled, I was too tired to think straight, but too frazzled by my predicament to sleep. I closed my eyes and hoped unconsciousness would arrive, but my mind was racing, my heart beating unsteadily as I couldn’t shake the fear that I might have hopelessly driven myself into a whited-out no man’s land.

To calm my nerves, I slid on my headphones and used the last of my weathered, portable CD player’s battery life to listen to Sigur Rós’s untitled album (the cover stylized as an empty parenthetical). The eight-song suite of tranquil, atmospheric instrumentals paradoxically evoked images of a snow-covered tundra and the enveloping warmth of a sun-bleached day.

The album soothed me, like aural Prozac, my panicked mind now focused solely on the lilting and crescendoing themes. If I was to be buried in a mound of snow, at least I wouldn’t be alone. By Track 5, I had drifted into sleep.

To say that Sigur Rós saved my life is not to suggest I would have died without music. But, if I had not been able to sleep, if I had continued to try to forge through the intensifying blizzard while sleep-deprived and dangerously low on blood sugar, the next day’s bad decisions would have likely been even worse. I was lucky to get through that ordeal; I very easily could have been unlucky.

~

I turn to music for strength, whether I’m trying to get through a long work day or in the midst of an existential crisis. All art forms – literature, film, television, photography – offer some form of comfort against the ceaseless horrors of human existence, which is why art exists. Music just happens to be the most immediate form, a mainlined narcotic.

I do not abide people who call certain types of music “depressing.” That’s not how depression works. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or thinking about something unpleasant; it’s the deeply penetrating iteration of destructive, self-hating thoughts that cannot be reasoned or wished away. Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.

For those who have come to love the frequently subdued music of Jason Molina – though his oeuvre can span the spectrum from exultant to funereal – what resonates so deeply is the stark honesty and humanity he projected. He was an artist who could convey raw emotions more nakedly than almost anyone, which, admittedly, doesn’t always make for the easiest listening experience. It’s not supposed to.

I was lucky to find Songs: Ohia when I did. If one wonders how someone in the midst of a depressive episode could find appeasement in the bleakness of an album like The Lioness, it’s quite simple: when Molina was singing in my room, I didn’t feel alone. Isn’t that why we listen?

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5 thoughts on “How music can save a life

  1. Lovely post. Best line: “Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.” SO TRUE. I’d definitely say Music has saved my life too- it’s like a friend that sits quietly by your side, or dances wildly round the kitchen (as I did last night), depending on what you need. Great writing, thanks, G

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