BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
May 27, 2015
“One good thing about music
When it hits, you feel no pain….”
We’ve all heard Bob Marley sing these lines, yes? And if not, we can probably relate to music and art that can soothe the pain or help us get through hard times. I, and many others, have written about the emotional impact of music and how it makes you feel.
But today I’d like to talk about the middle of that phrase—“when it hits…”
I’ve always been fascinated with the first impressions of music and art. It seems there are two schools of thought, two ways to go: either “love at first sight,” or “Whoa, at first I hated that thing.”
So which is better? Would you prefer a casual friendship to blossom into the love of your life, or a five-alarm fire, a passionate, instant attraction? Love is love, and art is no different—sometimes it happens quickly, other times it may take a while.
Interesting how these things work out—as a mountain climber friend once told me, “You have to go through A LOT of ugly landscape before you get to Machu Picchu.”
* * * *
So how does this artistic attraction happen?
Fall, 1991: Driving south from Oak Harbor on Highway 20, I pop in the cassette I had bought on a whim the night before: Richard Thompson’s “Rumor and Sigh.” I had watched one song on MTV, read a couple of glowing reviews in Rolling Stone about this brilliant, unknown guitarist and… “click” went the cassette into the Pontiac’s tape deck.
First song—great. “Read About Love,” a young male wondering why love (as portrayed in smutty magazines) isn’t working out for him; next was “I Feel So Good,” a persona song with an evil narrator:
I feel so good I’m gonna break somebody’s heart tonight
I feel so good I’m gonna take someone apart tonight
On and on it went, each song better than the last—amazing lyrics and drop-dead guitar playing. By the time I got to the classic motorcycle song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” I almost drove my car into Penn Cove. How could music this good exist? How could I have not known about it? Almost 25 years later, I still play “52 Vincent” at most of my acoustic shows.
* * * *
On the flip side, there are songs I didn’t like right away. On Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” I always thought the track “Drive All Night” was a ponderous, repetitive ballad, a throwaway on a record filled with good songs.
That is, until I heard him play it live.
At the Key Arena (as it’s now known) this song that I had always skipped over became a deep, haunting cry of longing and desperation—you could hear a pin drop, in an arena filled with 15,000 people. The lights faded blue as the keyboards floated out the melody:
There’s machines and there’s fire
Waiting on the edge of town
Out there for hire
But baby, they can’t hurt us now….
For a real treat, check out Glen Hansard’s version, which he couples with my favorite Irish ballad “The Parting Glass.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgTRi7guFdU
* * * *
Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters“ is the film version of my “Drive All Night” experience.
First viewing, I think I fell asleep—Woody Allen plays a whiny New York hypochondriac (way to stretch, Woody) and I dismissed the film as a typical piece of relationship angst. Bleah. On a second, more wide-awake viewing, with other people in the room, I came to love it. Woody’s hypochondriac character gets a for-real cancer diagnosis, and he has no idea what to do—he’s been faking and over-exaggerating all his life.
The three sisters each have their own journey to make and, in a pivotal scene, Eliot (played by Michael Caine) gives a book of poetry to a woman he’s infatuated with. It’s the collected works of e e cummings, and the poem he shows her ends with the line, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” Brilliant! Since I didn’t know the name of the poem, I went to the library to search for it. (Yes, kids, this is what we did before the internet. We left the house and looked for stuff.)
This led to, once again, the “instant” love: I pulled the book, “Complete Poems, 1904-1962,” from the shelf and—cringing at its 1,136 pages (!)—began flipping through, looking at the last line of each poem. One of these had to have that “nobody, not even the rain” line that I had been repeating for days.
My experience with cummings was minimal at best—I had only read a couple of his poems that show up in classroom anthologies. I eventually found the poem, but it took forever, since each poem was a gift, an instant favorite. I would look at the last line of a poem and be blown away, then end up reading the whole page twice before moving on.
I would highly recommend this as a technique: flip through a book of poetry, and just read the last line of each poem. Billy Collins has said he likes poems that take him somewhere new by the end, and cummings poems all have wonderful last lines.
* * * *
So, instant attraction or the slow burn? We’ll let the man himself have the last word:
…(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands
—e e cummings
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and is finally coming around on the designated hitter rule.
Erik Christensen Band plays at Blooms winery in Bayview from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 5, and at the Bayview Farmer’s Market at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 25.
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