“But what can be the shared space of meaning and sound?”
Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening
“All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience,” Leonard Cohen once said, speaking about the process of songwriting. But as a listener, you could invert the sentiment, too: all I’ve got to get out of a song is my own experience.
I remember my mother driving me to school when I was about eleven years old; she had a tape with four different versions of Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” on it, which we listened to often. At first I wasn’t sure about the song: it was slow, and evocative of melancholy things I had no experience with, like the complications of adult love. But after a few weeks of regular listening I formed an image in my head of a shadow, an obscured figure in a blue Burberry (a lucky guess), a frosted window. It cooled the hot California afternoons, or gave me hope, in the mornings, that the world was more mysterious than I knew, bigger than this empty stretch of highway and the bullies and bores at school.
So it grew on me. I came to respect its solemnity, then to love its ability to transport me elsewhere, or elsewhen. As I got older, the emotional connection was strengthened. In college I would often set my iPod to shuffle, and sometimes a Leonard Cohen song, maybe “Famous Blue Raincoat,” would come on during a run and bam! There I was, back in California, eleven years old, sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s dusty blue Honda Civic, feeling a little carsick. It was impossible to override the sense that “Famous Blue Raincoat” was tied to my childhood, and specifically to my childhood relationship with my mother, and, more than that, to my mother herself, independent of me: it was a line that ran all the way from my mother-before-me to me-after-childhood. The layers of memory and story accumulated. The song was a blue mood, a dusty blue car, a torn blue Burberry, a clear blue sky.
Letting the iPod decide was a good game, like spinning a globe and seeing where your finger landed and then actually going there. “There was something seductive about surrendering control,” the music critic Alex Ross writes about the shuffle setting. “The little machine went crashing through barriers of style in ways that changed how I listened.”
I never knew if I was going to get Mozart (riding in my parents’ VW bus as a small child, bouncing in my seat as we drove across Utah or Colorado) or Modest Mouse (16 years old, at a summer arts camp, wondering if I was developing a crush on one of my roommates or if I’d just been watching too much Queer As Folk). I never knew what spaces these new juxtapositions of sound and memory might open up, what territory might be created, or revealed.
Taken out of context, a single song might suddenly seem to bear a disproportionate amount of meaning: it might begin to weigh too much, to become unlistenable-to, or un-turn-offable. So there’s me, running along the Charles River, my final year in Boston, footsore and weary of the same old view, jarred out of complacency by the unexpected voice in my head: it’s four in the morning, the end of December…that’s part of the story too, the ongoing story, the space that keeps on growing. A song, like a place, is a process, “always-becoming,” always being built upon, augmented, remembered, forgotten.
The summer I graduated from high school, I went to Greece for a month. My companion for the journey there was a book of essays by the travel writer Pico Iyer. In one essay, Iyer visits Leonard Cohen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains, where the songwriter was serving “as ‘cook, chauffeur, and sometimes drinking-buddy’ to a ninety-one-year-old Japanese man.” It was in this essay that I learned Cohen had lived, for a time, on the Greek island of Hydra. And what a coincidence: I was headed to Hydra myself – Hydra, with an area of 52 kilometers squared, an island in the Aegean Sea that I’d never heard of until a few months ago and knew virtually nothing about other than that it was meant to be very pretty, and that there were meant to be monasteries tucked away in the hills overlooking the main harbor.
I was on the island for a day and a night. It is not really a substantial part of my personal geography, or at least it shouldn’t be, but my memory of it (as opposed to my memory of the rest of that cocktail-and-cigarette heavy trip) is very clear. In the afternoon, while my friends were all asleep, I went for a walk through the town and along the waterfront, ending up at a cove, where I went for a swim. I swam out quite a way from the shore, and tread water looking back towards the concrete beach, where a few oiled, sun-stained bodies lay still and warm. The air and the water were cool on hot skin. There were few clouds in the sky – just puffs on the horizon.
“Leonard Cohen is for most of us a figure of the dark, sitting alone sometime after midnight and exploring the harsh truths of suffering and loneliness […] His songs and poems have always been about letting go and giving things up, the voluntary poverty of a refugee from comfort,” Pico Iyer writes. Certainly Cohen’s music has always evoked a certain kind of gloom to me: a chill, a late night or an early morning in a cold climate. Perhaps it’s because I had been introduced to it via my mother, to whom it recalled her Syracuse days, which, from the stories, were mainly full of wind and ice and heartbreak and dark grubby rooms.
This darkness – this “voluntary poverty of a refugee from comfort” – appealed to my desire to grow up quickly, to finally understand the desperation of lust, but I couldn’t quite reconcile it with the brightness and bald-faced, almost parodic beauty of Hydra. I felt high, not low, light, not dark, sensual, not contemplative. But here I was anyway, sharing a space with Cohen’s ghosts or memories, knowing, even if briefly, some of the same streets or swimming holes he had maybe once known.
That night we sat at a bar next to the sea. A wind had kicked up and I pulled my scarf over my shoulders. My companion ordered an ouzo, quoting John Fowles as he poured the water in and it went “milkily opaque.” He was older and, I assumed, wiser, but at some point I let him kiss me; there was no shared history and no hope of a shared future, so why couldn’t I fall in and out of love over the course of an evening? It wasn’t quite adult love, but it was complicated enough, it was getting there, I was getting there. When I started college that autumn, I often looked out at the October-blue of the Charles River and allowed myself the luxury of feeling undeservedly nostalgic for Hydra, for my first real taste of something almost, but not quite, grown-up; it tasted suspiciously like four bottles of Heineken and a dollop of unfamiliar, ouzo-infused saliva.
I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: plenty of people have much stronger connections to songs, have taken much bigger journeys. But it’s a thing we often share, when we listen – we’re transported, even if it’s to different destinations. If you put two people in a car and turn the radio on and it’s a song they both recognize, odds are good that as their heads bob up and down and their toes tap they’re both there and not-there, traveling together down the road and separately away, into the land of remembering.
For me it always comes back to a place: to memories of Syracuse that don’t belong to me, to a particular stretch of Highway 101, to a Saronic island, to the routes I used to run in Boston. In my mind I map the emotional impact of music: songs are associated first with places they were heard, or places where they meant something, and then with the meaning itself, the moment of hearing, the repercussions and reverberations.
I think of this particularly when I write. The thought of writing in silence is almost inconceivable; creating an appropriate auditory environment is an essential part of the process. When I was trying to finish my first book, I listened mainly to Robert Johnson, who put me in a mellow, bluesy frame of mind that allowed me to (almost) ignore any lingering deadline-related panic. When I was writing the paragraphs above, about Greece, I listened to Bright Eyes and Death Cab For Cutie, subjecting myself to the humiliation of feeling seventeen again, but with the sobering benefit of hindsight.
This makes sense to me. To write is to take a journey: so is to listen. Perhaps what gets written is the intersection of these dual journeys, or perhaps it’s the divergent space between them. And maybe, too, this is why songs so often seem to correlate with forms of mobility: with driving, traveling, running, moving across a country or an ocean. In the act of listening, as with the act of writing, a sense of progress is inescapable: something is built; a voice or a set of notes mark the passage of time. It’s easy to lose yourself in these activities, and temporality can become twisted: “Famous Blue Raincoat” is five minutes and seven seconds long, but during those minutes you might travel back fifteen years, or thirty; writing, meanwhile, often demands you inhabit the past, or imagine a different present, or invent a possible future, whilst your body remains stationary, rigid in a chair, just the fingers moving. Still, at the end – when you’ve written the essay or listened to the song – time has passed, something’s happened, something both external and internal.
This summer, visiting my parents for a few weeks, I spend a lot of time driving – a truly Californian activity, made necessary by distance but palatable by panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, or valleys dotted with vineyards. In a box downstairs are stacks and stacks of old CDs – mixes mainly, made by me to keep the long drive to and from my high school interesting. They’re ambiguously labeled: “Driving Mix 1,” “Driving Mix 2,” “Summer Mix,” “Rainy Day Mix.” I borrow my mom’s car – an updated version of the old dusty blue Honda. I get on the 101 heading north, a familiar route, one I used to do every day. I’ve put in “Summer Mix” – it is summer, after all. I’m greeted by Belle & Sebastian’s “A Summer Wasting”: “I spent the summer wasting/The time was passed so easily./But if the summer’s wasted/How come that I could feel so free?”
My mom says that Belle & Sebastian always reminds her of me in high school, I guess because I used to listen so obsessively, so intently, hoping for a glimpse of another world – grimy Glasgow seemed like paradise. The songs were not so much associated with the site of first hearing but with the idea of some other place: they presaged a move, a love affair with the British Isles. I wasted plenty of summers looking forward, plotting escape, daydreaming about summer-green hills and old cities.
Now that I live in the UK, though, “A Summer Wasting” seems irrevocably tied to this place: the ranch where I grew up, with its California-gold hills, the south-facing coastline, the characters in cowboy hats or faded wetsuits waving at me from their trucks as I pass in my borrowed vehicle. Maybe the ultimate form of mobility is to leave, but even then there’s a song or a voice to anchor you; in the shared space of meaning and sound is memory, rootedness, even as you keep moving forward.