Music For Those Afraid to Feel, And Those Not

About five years ago I got a telephone call from a total stranger. They were in Alabama and wanted to let me know that an ex-boyfriend and dear friend of mine had died. We had a long distance relationship for about a year and a half, but we were good friends before and after for a lot longer. It was such short notice that there wasn’t time to get to the funeral. That hit me like a ton of bricks, one of the most unique people I ever knew, someone I could talk to for hours was suddenly just erased, gone.

He did some artwork for a band called the Drive-By Truckers, and I started listening to some of their albums, and did so for weeks. At times the music probably made me more depressed, yet I reached a kind of catharsis with it and learned to let go.

The Drive-By Truckers are a southern rock band, and most of their songs are dark tales of the downtrodden, tales of murder and the seedy underbelly of the south. If you grew up here, they can really “encapsulate things” in just a few lines.

There’s an obvious humor to many of their songs, even in the most heart-breaking moments, but they tug at the heartstrings because of their genuineness. Take the song “Box of Spiders” which explores the eccentricities of an arachnophobic great-grandmother who keeps a box of spiders and looks forward to heaven. Musically it’s an achingly beautiful affair, yet it’s implied that her husband “the general” goes to hell in the line “the general’s last words were, it’s hotter than hell in here,” and at the end he tells us she’s “too mean to die.”

“Margo and Harold” tells the seedy tale of a raunchy middle aged couple who seem to spend all of their time doing drugs and coming onto a younger couple who try to avoid them. Like “Box of Spiders,” this is a beautiful ballad, gentle even, but it’s got a sinister side. “I’m scared of the basement of Harold’s pawn shop – I’ve heard tales of what goes down there – Mid-life crises, high on Dilauded, Valium, and crystal meth – Harold and Margo, feeling no pain – Fifty and crazy, big hair and cocaine.”

In “Tornadoes,” one verse goes: “It came without no warning, said Bobbie Joe McClain – She and husband Nolan always loved to watch the rain – It sucked him out the window, he aint come home again – All she can remember’s that it sounded like a train.” It’s poking fun at how tornado witnesses on TV always talk about it “sounding like a train” yet it’s flush with a genuine melancholy.

In 2006 I drew back from listening to classical music after the death of my grandfather. I like 20th century classical, and when you’re talking about dark, emotive music, straight, no-chaser, you’ve got to talk about 20th century classical. But when you’re depressed, piling on the last movement of Mahler’s 9th isn’t exactly recommended, a piece which Bernstein said was, “the closest thing we have in any art form to the very act of dying.” Putting on a symphony of Shostakovich, inspired by personal grief and Soviet oppression isn’t something you want to do either. I had to avoid many works I had come to love deeply — Shostakovich’s anguished string quartets, Allan Pettersson’s dark, raucous symphonies, and many other works as well.

But I love music, and something had to fill the gap. By accident I found the best anti-depressant ever: jazz. No matter how sad I was, if I turned on some jazz I was instantly happier. Put on some Bill Evans, a little Coltrane or some Wes Montgomery and it’s like magic how my mood improves. It’s helped me through many a dark day and night. But I have to admit it’s not something I pay too much attention to, it’s the one genre of music I feel I can go to the bathroom and I won’t miss anything.

I think it’s OK if sometimes you just want music to make you numb, sometimes that’s what you need. Sometimes I just want something in the background, even though I don’t think that’s what music ought to be for. But then you get an urge to feel, to experience something. It’s like I know I’m going to feel bad, but taking an audiotherapy salve isn’t enough. I get an urge for something dark, I want to FEEL something, being happy just isn’t enough.

I think this is a uniquely human trait, most animals are purely pleasure-seeking beasts. They want to feel good, satiate hunger and sexual desires. But I think humans get tired of that, it’s about a need for contrast, for subtlety. Sometimes I want to feel a little sad, I want to remember my ex. Sometimes I just want a deeper experience.

“Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore. The shift from depressive realism to tragic realism, from being immobilized by darkness to being sustained by it, thus strangely seems to require believing in the possibility of a cure.” — Jonathan Franzen

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