ERIK CHRISTENSEN, May 31, 2013
Art is so much more powerful when it’s elusive—and hard to come by. There are fleeting moments—seconds, really—that seem so resonant and powerful. I remember reading an interview with Elvis Costello where he told the story of growing up in the 50’s and there was one hour of pop music on the radio per week. One hour! He recalled sitting around anxious for Sunday night at 8 p.m., waiting breathlessly to hear Fats Domino or Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry. Then, nothing until next Sunday. He said kids in those days would spend all week talking about the new music they had heard, argue about it with like-minded friends, and by the next weekend, they would be just shaking in anticipation by the time 8 o’clock rolled around. The magic was elusive.
Nowadays, music is everywhere. And free. And perhaps not as interesting. The fact that pop music is so pervasive, and any punk kid with a smart-phone has access to all the music ever recorded, ever, nonstop, somehow cheapens it, makes it less fulfilling.
I grew up between the wartime scarcity of Elvis Costello and the split-second download era of today. I am always moved by the fleeting moment passing in time—something you can’t quite reach out and touch.
* * * *
Twenty-four years old, home for Thanksgiving to visit my parents from my first or second year working on Whidbey Island. I was falling asleep, sitting on the downstairs couch at my parent’s house. MTV still played music videos at the time, and it was a common practice for me to have it on like a radio in the background. So, book open in my lap, I was enjoying one of those lazy, grey winter afternoon naps on the couch, with the TV softly playing, dozing in and out of consciousness. I was half awake as a grainy, dark video with a repetitive guitar riff came on: “You’ve got a fast car/I want a ticket to anywhere….”
Hmm, kind of interesting, I sleepily thought. The music continued—an open narrative, flirting around using the second person. As I was coming more awake, the hammer dropped:
See, my old man’s got a problem
He live with the bottle, that’s the way it is
He says his body’s too old for working
But his body’s too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
Wanted more from life than he could give
I said someone’s got to take care of him
So I quit school and that’s what I did….
What? What? Holy cow, WIDE awake now and off the couch. “Who is this? This is the best song I’ve heard in years!” In those dark pre-internet days of the late 80’s, no such thing as a Google search. I was left to only stare at the TV screen and stutter. “Wait! Who was that? What song was that?” The (still unknown to me) profile of Tracy Chapman faded out, and I stumbled out to my car, sweatpants, T-shirt, on a mission to the record store in the Alderwood Mall.
I stumbled to the counter: “OK, it was a light-skinned African American girl, spiky hair, acoustic guitar, singing the saddest, most emotional song EVER.”
Awkward silence from the young, tattooed kid behind the desk.
“Was it this?” he said, holding up a Paula Abdul cassette from the “New Music This Week” display.
“Huh?! No … like, it was folk music, sorta … but way cooler.” I began to realize how bizarre I must have looked; wild-eyed and insistent with my attempt to explain what I had just heard.
* * * *
I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my older brother’s car as we pulled into the driveway. We had been to the gym and running errands. The plastic Delco FM radio was playing the last verse of “Alison” by that very same Elvis Costello. I was vaguely familiar with the song, but as my brother came to a stop, slid the gear lever to “park,” and reached for the keys to shut it off, I heard the fade-out ending of the song, which I had never paid attention to before:
Alison, I know this world is killing you
Oh, Alison, my aim is true
My aim is true
My aim is…true.
I pushed my brother’s hand away as he went for the ignition switch. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? The longing and sorrow—the perfect encapsulation of a young kid like me who spent entirely too much time inside his own head, but really wanted to connect with others and prove he could be somebody. My aim is true. Damn right.
And just like that, song over. Radio goes to a station break, my brother shuts the car off, and we go inside. I can still hear “my aim is true” fading away in the dashboard light of that old Chevy Cavalier. Truer words were never spoken.
* * * *
Walking in Bellingham, State Street, just south of the WWU campus, one of my all-time places to walk. Out of nowhere on this sunny afternoon, I hear the end of Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” from the “Running on Empty” album. It was playing loud from somebody’s backyard, and I could barely make it out:
Oh, won’t you stay
Just a little bit longer
Please, please, please, say you will.
Then comes the slide guitar and keyboard interplay, and the “thank you all again” exclamation as the band is winding down and the applause from the live audience comes up. “Thank you all again,” I repeat, as I resume walking, grateful for those few seconds of music, floating through the Victorian houses and trees of the neighborhood like a gift.
* * * *
Any new musical moments like these? They seem harder to come by as I got into my 40s—and, recently, my 50s—hard to be that affected, that bowled over by a fleeting moment of music. It still happens, though: the first time I heard Susan Tedeschi belting out “It Hurt So Bad” like Janis Joplin on steroids, the power of the E Street Band as Bruce sang “Meet me in the land of hope and dreams” in the early 2000s, and even Bruno Mars absolutely crushing the “Saturday Night Live” stage last year singing “Locked Out of Heaven.”
* * * *
They’re here and gone in an instant, but that’s the beauty; the elusive thing that makes them so special. Those moments are still available.
I’m waiting for the next one.
Upcoming music gigs:
Erik Christensen Band plays at the Front Street Grill in Coupeville from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 12 and Jacobs Road plays oldies classic rock at the Ebey Bowl from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday, June 22.
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and still thinks the designated hitter rule is a bad idea.