In a directory on my computer titled “smiles” is a collection of short recordings, musical ideas I wish to return to without going through the trouble of proper notation. The longest and least interesting of them I listen to every few months to ground myself. I’ve renamed it again and again, attempting to remove it from the series of events that surrounded its recording. Now, it is simply the inconspicuous “note 2.aup.”
It consists of twenty seconds of oohs, delivered with a drunken volatility, barely scraping by each note of each ascending triad that makes up the melody. The oohing is accompanied by a distant foot tapping (or perhaps lap slapping) that gives it a beat of sorts. Then, the only discernable lyrics, “And they’ll let it go as if they were champions. Let it go.” For a minute all that can be heard is heavy breathing and sniffling. I start again with the oohing, this time further away from the microphone, abandoning the taps and any attempt at rhythmic consistency. Two seconds after finishing the final “let it go” the sound of the track pad clicking ends the file.
I bring this file up not because it is a notable piece of music but because I recorded it fifteen minutes prior to discovering you for the first time. That morning, I woke up feeling so incredibly dry. I had felt something similar the last time when I had come home for break, but then it was a welcome episode. Then I couldn’t remove myself from bed. Instead I lingered, having lucid dreams (for the very first time) about getting into fistfights and meeting ghostly parallel versions of the subjects of my wretchedness. Back then there was magic to it all, finding new low points while exploring the woods shrouded in the blackout that loomed over my neighborhood.
This morning had no mysteries to solve and accordingly I woke in an instant without dreams to entertain. I showered for half an hour, sitting at the bottom of the stall and singing to an empty house, over the course of which the material of “note 2.aup” was composed. Emerging from the steam I encountered a multitude of knives, all so much bigger than me and so much more solid and precise. They stared me down, their eyes peaking out from the wooden block that sheathed them. I ran away and recorded the file, afraid of losing the melody and leaving a thought unfinished. After I was done recording, I writhed in between my sheets, reflecting on my stagnant condition. My breath became terse without an accommodating increase in frequency as I condensed on the mattress, my extremities curling toward my torso.
The day’s prospects were grim and I was terrified by the plans that I could not expel from my mind. They were conclusive and messy. I was drawn out of the house by a sense of duty, not because of a glorious ideal or an obligation to my peers, but because I had made a promise to walk the dog that morning. As I prepared, clothing myself and preparing a cup of coffee in the hopes of propelling myself through chemical means, I stuck you on my phone, on a whim. I don’t recall where you came from. I think I must have read about you online and had never bothered to introduce myself. Regardless, you were there, so I took you and left.
You began with “Easy,” a track that eased me into my sneakers as I stepped out the door. I was immediately struck by your voice. It had a childish aggression that I had long given up on in my own songs, and it sounded like hands wrapping themselves around tree branches and hoisting their attached bodies to the sky. I didn’t trust your assertion, “I’m your little life-giver. I will give you my life,” but you were not joking. As the dog and I turned onto Pardoe you appeared to me, although I couldn’t see your face having never looked it up. The eleven-minute title track introduced me to your elaborate harp work, which tickled. I kept the dog’s leash in my left hand, your hand in my right. My face had dried completely and was ready to walk with you around the pond, an honor normally reserved for canines alone.
It was at “’81” that I you brought me to my knees on the path in the park. It was so divinely simple, a tale of desperate self-cultivation. The plucked harp had a cascading quality and ran down face like cornstarch, stiffening as I inspected it with my fingertips. I contained myself, marching forward, until you delivered that catastrophic line:
The unending amends you’ve made are enough for one life, be done. I believe in innocence, little darling, start again. I believe in everyone.
Oh my stars. I recognized the feeling; it was an anxiety attack. I was overcome by chills, not the kind that run down the spine but the kind that emanate from the core in pulses, and I began to pant. My default reaction to this sensation is to run to my bed and weave into the covers, passing out and waking up an hour later feeling lukewarm again. Yet that day, half a mile from home, instead I bowed. It was not a pleasurable sensation. It was deliciously sad with clarity that the dull ache of the morning lacked. I stuck to that word, “innocence,” and ingested it, lining my insides.
The dog incessantly tugged at the leash and I rose to my feet as you moved on to “Good Intentions Paving Co.,” which was not nearly as challenging to listen to on my feet. It was a beast of a record at four minutes past two hours, so I kept walking long after my dog exited. As I entered town, I tied back my face, determined to keep an appearance. Sobered, I succeeded in part. Yet underneath the immense daylight I faced you continued to console me through the semidarkness, stroking my hair. Uncharacteristically, I did not recoil. Yet, a few more irrepressible moments awaited me. “In California,” by title only, drew me back to my dearest buddy, the first to call me “baby” (if only in play). Here, instead of standing by my side, you played his role, thousands of miles away, and reminded me of an age of unworldly infatuation, unmarred by defeatism. Thankfully I can no longer hear his voice through yours, as the comparison was a misinterpretation that fails under close reading of your lyrics.
By the end of “Jackrabbits” I had found another bed in which to rest and allowed my self to proceed without keeping up my guard. Fittingly, you played “Go Long,” the most emotional of the album, which would also become my favorite. It was accusatory and degrading, “you don’t even own your own violence.” You are not the first to expose my devilishness, but you are the first to convey the muddiness of my methodology. It was humiliating when you expressed a desire to save me and insisted that I was a silly goose. Yet in your motherly scolding lied a motherly compassion. Your message unfolded much like the song’s harp part. It is rooted in a four-chord progression that never changes through the song’s eight minutes. This progression evokes disappointment, disgust. But as you added more orchestration and it came to life seething, it imparted something much more intricate and loving. The song wasn’t an intervention, however, as it expressed no intention to stay and address each criticism one by one. Instead it was a fleeting call made while running away as fast as your feet could take you. Unhindered by the fear of my retaliation, you spoke with brutal honesty, and I had no choice in the matter of listening.
What a woman does is open doors. And it is not a question of locking or unlocking.
The third act of Have One on Me was a cool down. I sat up drawing spirals and waves into a notebook to your “Esme,” which reminded me of a lullaby. Exhausted from the course I had taken that day, the one you set me on, I stopped listening and began to doze off. As I lost consciousness, your voice became distant and impersonal as if you proceeded down a hallway and turned a corner, leaving behind a frantic piano that devolved into mush. When I woke up you were gone, and I was at home again. Although you returned me to the place from which I came, I was altered. I couldn’t make sense of anything. I began to review every truth I knew and check their validity, recounting my fingers and toes and reading old essays of mine.
For weeks I revisited you, attempting to ascertain a single mantra from those two hours I could write in Braille and inscribe on a piece of aluminum so I could run my fingers up and down it as I spoke. I didn’t find one, and so I gave up on describing your significance. When I recommended you, I could only speak objectively, all the while keeping my true feelings to myself. It was only because of the new approach of addressing you directly that I took up this challenge once again.
As a side note, I recently stopped using my life-long nickname “Jamo” and started going by Jameson. Hearing “Go Long” again today I rediscovered my favorite line of yours and in retrospect I think the line may have instigated that decision:
Now, though I die, Magpie, this I bequeath: by any other name, a jay is still blue.
I am writing you this letter because I am unable to return the favor you did me. Again and again, I have attempted to pay you tribute in song. “Knife Song” and “For J” underwent the progression of most failed songs. At their conception, they seemed illuminative, that they captured a morning. Yet, as weeks passed the blinders through which they were written became apparent. They conveyed a vulnerability but not a sense of gratitude, so they joined a wide roster of songs never to be performed. I describe my experience of hearing you to a few friends, but it was embarrassing. It was too confessional, painting me as whiner or a lunatic.
Perhaps I am guilty of both. I wrote an ill-conceived Facebook status, which I promptly deleted after receiving messages from concerned friends about my health. I write this now because I am worried I may soon lose the ability. To be honest, I don’t really listen to you anymore. I’ve moved on. There are other artists I have recently come across who have provided comparable revelations, albeit not in such dire circumstances. It saddens me that each time I return to your album, it means less and less to me. Now I can listen to it in public without worry of shattering. I can speak about it without divulging an episode I do not want to share. For this reason I returned to note 2.aup today, to put myself in the mood prior to listening to you once again while I wrote you a proper tribute, this time in letter format.
I absolutely despise when people use the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” or anything along those lines. How arrogant and self-centered it is to drag someone you don’t know into your life and pretend that they have reached out to you, prescribing an audience to works that don’t require one. You will never know me, much less how you changed me, and I am fine with that. But I understand exactly what is insinuated by that phrase, “personal relationship,” even if the logic bothers me. That morning you invited me to have one with you, and I did. Thank you.
P.S. Congratulations on your engagement. Andy seems like a nice guy.