Thanks, people, for all the comments, essays, ruminations and thoughtful insights. For me, it was enlightening to learn why you loved your favorite musicians. I loved hearing your stories and enjoyed the enthusiasm and detail you shared with me. It was awfully difficult to narrow it down to five, let alone one. So I picked two.
Congratulations to Kelsey McCune of Portland, Oregon, and Mark Brush of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kelsey wrote a beautiful piece about Nina Simone and Mark explained how David Byrne has enriched his life. Both are reprinted below. Each one included a link to a song, for sort of a multi-media effect.
Kelsey and Mark, I’ll start work on your paintings next week, and will post the finished products on this blog when they’re done. Your original paintings will arrive via US Mail.
I love David Byrne because his voice isn’t one you’d pick out of a crowd and say, “that boy needs to record some records!” But… it doesn’t matter. It’s in his heart. And he lays it out there for us. I pick it up and I love it. I’ve always loved his music. It transports me.
“I Zimbra” plays and I’m suddenly driving my VW Bus down McMillan Avenue in Cincinnati again. My friends piled in the back in a happy post-party haze. We listen to the music, think about the girls we met, and the laughs we’ve shared, and where we’re going next in our lives. The moment in time is marked.
“This Must Be the Place” plays and I’m sharing my first dance with Andrea. Friends and family encircle us.
“Life is Long” plays and it’s seven years later and I’m again in my wife’s arms dancing in our little kitchen. The dishes encircle us.
I’ve locked eyes with David Byrne before. It was during his “Feelings” concert and I’m dancing my ass off despite my best efforts to just bob my head. And it’s not just the music that moves. He wraps some performance art into the whole thing. A big pink fuzzy suit, dance pips with his back-up singers, and later, a plaid skirt to match his back-up singers. I’m about twenty feet away and David Byrne looks down from the stage at me. He sees how much fuckin’ fun I’m having. He sees what his music is doing, and we exchange a laugh together.
It’s five years later, and there he is again. Up on stage in Detroit singing “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston. This comes after several sets with the string players from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra backing him up. You’d think it would be a cheesy song to sing, but he puts his heart into it – out it comes – and it’s beautiful. Yep, I want to dance with somebody too.
And here’s Kelsey’s:
Music. Sometimes in the background lilting and subtle, coaxing conversation, helping me melt into the bath tub, or turn soil in my garden. Other times the all encompassing only thing that matters, driving rhythms dancing through my veins—moving my body, my mind. Solace, inspiration, motivation, even distraction…but always a constant.
Music as a time and a place, people and conversations.
I found an old Police cassette tape in my truck the other day. The heat and passing years had stretched Sting’s voice out into a mad warbling, but still I was whisked immediately back to the road trip through Arizona when I bought that tape, my first time driving in the snow, a lover of nearly a decade ago by my side, his hand on my thigh reassuring, and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” in time with the wipers.
Cat Stevens “Wild World” when that same lover and I parted ways.
Ravi Shankar and I’m a child breathing in the scent of my father’s pungent pipe tobacco, hearing the pages of his book turn, a clearing of the throat and sitar as I drift off to sleep.
Right now I’m listening to Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet as I often do when I write.
So much music in the world. More than any one of us will ever be able to discover. So many moments defined, made prismatic and eternal. How to choose just one?
I have to go with my first thought when I read your blog.
Dr. Nina Simone. “The High Priestess of Soul!”
Her voice commands and leads me through a breadth of emotion that is unparalleled. From joyous to outraged, melancholy, contemplative, giddy laughter, tears. There are times when her lyrics can simply fall away; she could be singing about asparagus, but her voice and piano will lift you or crush you at will. That said, her lyrics are often of the utmost importance. Sometimes, as with “Mississippi Goddam” she juxtaposes her lyrics and music against one another to end up highlighting the poignancy of her position.
She was immensely talented, spectacularly versatile and hugely politically important, but to bring this back to my idea of crystallized moments in life I have to look specifically at “Lilac Wine.”
This is not an original song, but as far as I’m concerned, she owns it. Her voice is to my ears, dank and syrupy the way I imagine Lilac wine would be to my tongue.
And when I hear this song I am with Nancy and Mary Anne—my cheeks are cool from drying tears and as the song says, “I drink much more than I ought to drink, because it brings me back you…” We are not drinking Lilac wine, far from it. Nancy drinks icy light beer, barely tinted yellow if she were to pour it into a glass, Mary Anne drinks bottles of cheap red wine that purple her lips, and I have my bourbon and soda (more or less soda depending, as the night progresses.) And the you we bring back is my mom, Nancy’s sister, Mary Anne’s friend.
This song and Nina Simone’s grounding voice provide an opening to touch on things that are hard to access on our own. No matter what the conversation is before “Lilac Wine” comes on—afterward we always turn to remembrances and are always better for it.
And when I’m away from Nancy and Mary Anne, Nina Simone brings them back to me too.
So powerful this thing, this constant. Music.
Thank you Dr. Nina Simone, and thank you John for the inspiration.
Thanks again to everyone who contributed. I got an awful lot out of your responses, and learned about some good new music (new to ME, anyway) to boot.