Almost twenty years ago I was pushing a shopping cart through the Safeway near my apartment in SF. I had just gotten my heart broken for the first time in my life (up to three now and counting…). And when I say ‘broken’ I mean I was broken: wheels coming off, systems failure, spewing oil, five minutes to autodestruct, the real Humpty-Dumpty all-the-king’s-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men kind of shit. It was a Shuttle Challenger break up, trail of smoke, screams and pieces spread across half a continent.
And I didn’t acknowledge it at all; couldn’t admit my own raving misery. I hated her. She was a traitor. When she called, which was fairly often, I slammed down the phone (but oh how sad I was when the calls stopped coming). ‘No I’m fine,’ I told myself. ‘It’s all good. Screw that bitch.’ My house was going up in a three-alarm blaze and I kept making breakfast in the kitchen. The smoke? Just the toast getting crispy. But who were all those dudes in metal helmets carrying hoses?
As I pushed my shopping cart down the aisle in dull zombie rage, a song started playing on the PA. It was a song I knew, a radio hit from the 70s, ‘She’s Gone’ by Hall & Oates. I hadn’t liked the song when I was kid – I was making the turn to rock then and didn’t have much appreciation for well-crafted white soul. But the song had been on all the time, enough to infect my musical DNA, and as it hit the crescendo of:
She’s gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I’d better learn how to face it
She’s gone, oh I, oh I, oh I
I’d pay the devil to replace her
She’s gone, oh I, what went wrong…
I understood for the first time that she was gone. That she wasn’t coming back. That my beautiful California girl had bolted to LA to enjoy rich-kid life and try to launch an acting career and was already with the semi-successful musician she would marry and divorce. That I was left under the fluorescent lights, doing a weekly task that had been a lot of fun with her and was now a zombie plod. I hadn’t cried since before college but tears started running down my face, tears hastily wiped away, because how could I be crying in Safeway to a song I couldn’t stand, a song that wasn’t even cool?
In the following weeks, all the songs started doing that to me, many of them great songs. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by the Supremes. Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. ‘When You Were Mine’ by Prince. ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart’ (Al Green version). ‘These Arms of Mine’ by Otis Redding (I’d just scammed the Stax-Volt boxed set from Columbia Record & Tape). Songs of heartache and despair. But the songs didn’t make me feel worse. They made me feel better.
When you are hurt in that way, a sometimes mortal wound, the experience is overwhelming. It’s animal pain, so intense that your language can’t touch it. It overwhelms you, drowns you, extinguishes you. It hits below thought, below any way of rationalizing it. Proust compares it to being shot – there’s no way you can get ready for a twelve-gauge blast to the torso. Rage was my young man reaction but it didn’t help, not really. Freud wrote that ‘we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.’ Freud was right.
So what good did the songs do? When things were at their worst, in the first months, in the withering pain, they didn’t do anything at all. Losing a lover is a twin death, her death – to you – and yours, the death of the man you were when you were with her. Since you’re mostly that man after the breakup, you turn into a zombie, an animated corpse (a corpse that unfortunately, still feels pain). Eventually though, the songs offered a way out. I was getting better. I wouldn’t think about her for entire minutes. I was making the first step toward survival, even when the songs hurt in the way that ‘She’s Gone’ hurt under the fluorescent Safeway lights. In a world where religion has faded, music gives us a way to suffer (‘As a religious problem, the problem of suffering is, paradoxically, not how to avoid suffering but how to suffer, how to make of physical pain, personal loss, worldly defeat, or the helpless contemplation of others’ agony something bearable, supportable – something, as we say, sufferable.’ – Clifford Geertz). That language addresses our suffering, gives us a way to voice our pain, pain that we don’t have a language for. But the language isn’t a language we invent, it’s a ready-made, provided for us. This is important. Because these common enough words help to, in a word psychologists like to use, ‘norm’ us. They tell us that others have felt our pain, that this agonizing private death is part of being human, and can be talked about. That there is a way out, even if it’s a lie.
But it’s not just the lyrics. As I moved down the private track of my pain one of the melodies would come into my head and I’d find myself humming the song. I’d switched off the track of my pain onto another path, one with a soundtrack, suffering felt better with a backbeat. Psychoanalysis has noted how music helps paranoiacs. Broken hearted-dlovers are not far from paranoia – they believe that they’re isolated and being destroyed. Music tells you that this isn’t true. In the three-thousand-odd pages of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust offers similar comfort. Our love, he says, is our creation and doesn’t come from the other person at all: the beloved is only the inspiration for a masterpiece. As soon as we can embrace that truth we can be whole. Of course, the truth that Proust offers in theory is one that the matter of his masterpiece denies on every page. It’s not true, but if we can make ourselves believe it, it is a consolation. The person that we loved is real, and the fact the she is gone is something we have to bear. Art is a way of bearing it. Nietzsche wrote that ‘We possess art lest we perish of the truth.’ For those of us who aren’t as solipsistic, or as brilliant, as Proust and can’t write our own seven-volume masterpieces, well, that’s why Berry Gordy invented Motown.
Part I of this entry is on my personal blog.