The Value of Music

The highest inhabitable branch...I lie in a thinker’s grave. I have reached the limits of my imagination. I am buried by the stubborn belief that the void I seek to fill actually needs filling, that music really is this important. On my judgment day I may ascend to the glorious sound of every song on every mix tape I’ve ever made played at once. Then all the words I’ve ever written will raise me up to my proper place. But that is just a vision, and I cannot move.

I remember when I first heard music. I was 11, and it was the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Kneeling in innocence on a wine-red carpet, I was piecing together a puzzle of a big picture of Santa Claus when my dad came into the room and put on a song for me. Something clicked. My life changed.

I remember – vividly – listening to that record the following summer. I’d pack a book and a snack and my Walkman and climb to the highest inhabitable branch – some 20 feet up – in the tallest, most comfortable tree in our backyard. I’d put my headphones on and feel the music surge through me, feel so empowered. This was my spot, my music. I’d gaze over the fence – on one side, our suburban street; on the other, an untamed corner of our neighbor’s yard. When Billy Corgan sang “Try to understand / That when I can / I will,” I knew I could do whatever I wanted. I can still recall the feeling, sitting in that tree on a sunny day, hearing those lines and knowing they had changed my life.

The same feeling swept me when I met my girlfriend. Fast Forward >> High school, the start of my junior year. Staring at her wild, curly, blonde-streaked brown hair from my seat directly behind her in Spanish class, I perceived something special – something consequential. In this sense, love is a lot like rock and roll.

At the time, I was still fascinated with the Smashing Pumpkins, and dug my grave thought by thought. That semester I assumed editorship of a new section at the school newspaper, dubbed Media and Entertainment. I had already been writing CD reviews for a year: deriding pop and rap with a 16 year-old’s sense of humor and a dull critical edge; opening my mind to punk rock; discreetly comparing alternative rock bands to the Pumpkins. Then I started a monthly column called Nate’s Music News and Reviews, and it got me thinking – this writing about music thing, it ain’t a bad gig. The rhythm began to take form: music in, writing out. It is an addictive, self-perpetuating pulse.

Today I am stuck in a place where one phase cannot exist without the other. I cannot exist without both. Rationalizing drives me deeper to the root of my being, but nowhere near the place I need to be, nowhere near the place that in my dreams my work will someday qualify me to exist.

I lie in a thinker’s grave, blessed and cursed by the same thing, too stubborn and self-important but to embrace it and beg it to share this little space with me. I think and plan and analyze and list and chart and think again. All that’s ever left is the pattern of music in, writing out. It’s almost enough to convince me that I’ll never need or want to leave. But in the case that this hole needs filling, I will be prepared to meet that challenge and realize the truth I could never prove: music does matter.

19 thoughts on “The Value of Music”

  1. Then all the words I’ve ever written will raise me up to my proper place

    umm, please do take a creative prose class and/or at least Fiction II, Fiction I was definitely not enough…unless of course your proper place is hell, then never mind, as you were…oh, nice first effort

    and yes, music is priceless, as precious as your first synaptic connection outta the womb

  2. Well I’m a couple years removed from college now. Looks like it’s adult school for me, or I’m doomed to write like a Freshman for the rest of my many tiresome years. Thanks for the tip, but there may be no hope.

    Seriously, it was an exercise in melodrama written on one particularly moody, what-the-hell-am-I-doing night. It’s intentionally over-the-top and ultra-serious. Read the first line. You need to lighten up as much as I do.

  3. Alias, I do appreciate your second comment, assuming it’s not tongue-in-cheek:

    and yes, music is priceless, as precious as your first synaptic connection outta the womb

    That’s the sort of discussion I’d hoped to stir up. Release your impulse to insult and try to think about what it is that makes an otherwise normal person want to turn their life over to music.

  4. Interesting piece. I found it interesting mostly b/c it’s written from a very different perspective than my own. For me it is the complete opposite – music appeals to my instinctual side and elicits an emotional rather than an intellectual response. It’s the one thing in my life that doesn’t lead me towards rational, logical thought, which is normally how my brain is wired (I’m an engineer, ya I know, what a shock). Which probably explains why I’ve never cared about lyrics or why I’m never really able to clearly explain why I like or don’t like a particular song or album – because either it works for me or it doesn’t.

  5. I’m majoring in music, so the die is cast… I will never be hired for anything non-music related. Is this a curse, or did I do this on purpose? ahahahah.

  6. Watcha doing in a “grave?” I mean besides teetering on the razor’s edge between Life and Art? And is it an “edge” at all–or perhaps a semi-permeable membrane? Is music the “cure” or is it the “disease” (melody vs. malady)? It’d better be one or the other; for if it is merely a “symptom,” then you really in troub-oh!

    And what is a “thinker’s grave,” anyway? Is that when you die and get the statue of the dude with his chin upon his fist upon his elbow upon his knee in a state of exxxtreeeeeme cogitation?

  7. Release your impulse to insult and try to think about what it is that makes an otherwise normal person want to turn their life over to music.

    fine. I’m up for a challenge, but good-natured ridicule is ever so much fun.

    I think its simply because music is the first thing we’re comforted by or become aquainted with from the moment of conception. IMO, the core of music are beats, rhythms, tempo, and/or pulses. For weeks on end, without distractions, we’re surrounded, able to focus on our mother’s heartbeat, the pulsating rumble of her movements/voice, the trickling of sustenance etc al.

    Even though we may not be able to “hear” all these things distinctly, we definitely feel them and feeling them is almost like hearing. Essentially, music is our first trusted best friend forever, so why wouldn’t you turn your life over to it.

  8. :) no hard feelings alias

    “so why wouldn’t you turn your life over to it.”

    Well, I dunno – most people don’t do that though. Most people enjoy music throughout their life and allow it to compliment their endeavors and activities and lifestyle, but don’t actually turn their life – livlihood/career – over to it. That’s where it becomes a trap, because most careers in music are generally quite difficult, with limited tangible rewards (beyond some free music and schwag). That’s except for a very, very small percentage of those in the business. For me, it’s music journalism/criticism, which is a threatened trade these days, where the above generalization about the music industry is definitely true.

    So what it is that drives people to put themselves up against those odds, and for a smart, educated person, why can’t this urge/decision/drive be overcome intellectually? That’s the beautiful heart of it, the most mystifying and confusing issue I’m dealing with. I’ve trained my brain to follow my heart, but there is still that small part of my brain that rebels against this by saying, “What the hell are you thinking?”

  9. This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition, does it? Get yourself a day job or freelance work that doesn’t eat your soul and keep plugging away. There are ways to make rent and follow the muse if you plan well.

  10. So what it is that drives people to put themselves up against those odds, and for a smart, educated person, why can’t this urge/decision/drive be overcome intellectually?

    Now you’re getting all Jungian on me…u needing to “lighten up” is totally an understatement, but then again pensive guys are usually hot, so rock on philosphic boy…

    okay, I’m going to try to tackle this without being cankerously long-winded: the answer to your question is the condition of the ego and/or self-esteem level. Most people need external adulation praise to feel worthy as a human being, they live for the applause, the flattery…the vision of being worshipped by millions (filling the void of worthlessness) is what propels them to go against the odds at all cost. And I am not only talking about musicians, but really anyone in the entertainment business, including writers of all kinds, they want to sit their little distorted hinny snuggly on the pedestal.

    And then there’s people like you, who’s primary motive is not to satiate a dwindling or non-existent ego, but purely for the love, joy, art of it and thus why it curdles your blood when you witness the tainting factor of these ego-driven bastards and you ask yourself is it really worth acidfying my defined self-esteem to dance with these asinine cretins, who unfortunately has a death grip on the very thing you admire…inflicting daily flogging of “What the hell are you thinking?”

    Though your better judgement tells you to run before you become one of these low self-esteem walking applause signs, you can’t because you do love music…and you tell yourself perhaps you will be able to pry at least one skanky finger from the death grip, so others will at least get a glimpse of the beauty being suffocated within all the muck and glitz…

  11. what’s wrong with robert johnson’s?

    it’s crazy to watch the slow death of a metaphor.

    that raises an interesting question: if you are responsible for the death of a metaphor, is its grave a grave of your own, or just of your own making?

    i wonder if csi is on.

  12. the only tree worth climbing is a family tree especially if all the men are simply delicious

    this is the one thing in life I know to be true

  13. Hey Colleen – if you’re majoring in music you are likely GUARANTEED to work in a non-music capacity.

    Tee hee. Sorry that’s one former musician / current jaded cynic talking there.

    But seriously folks….

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