Neuropsychologists are slowly shoring up their map of the brain, and I, for one, am way excited because I know that, as their research progresses, some intrepid explorer is going to stumble on the nether regions where songs get stuck. Once they isolate the brain part responsible for copying bits of songs and pasting them, haphazardly, all over our consciousness, they can remove it. Or they can remove mine anyway.
Because my brain has very bad taste in music. Top 3 Best Songs of All Time, as selected by my brain: “The Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera, “Desperado” by the Eagles, and “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston.
These pop hits, though, are eclipsed at any given moment by an even bigger menace: Christmas songs. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is the big one, in constant rotation on my cerebral jukebox. But “White Christmas” is also hugely popular, and from singing both songs at least 1000 times, I can tell you something about Christmas music: It’s hardcore. Seriously. Those old Christmas songs are more emo than anything on the latest Rainer Maria album. And, for better or worse, they are my constant companions, the mental screen savers activated by walking, bike-riding, or waiting in line.
The Christmas songs all fell silent when Jenn and I broke up in July. And in their place was the new Bright Eyes EP, Drunk Kid Catholic. I don’t know how you feel about Bright Eyes and its main man Conor Oberst. Up until last month I thought he was melodrama on a stick. His musical histrionics and tremulous vocals put him right up there with “Wind Beneath My Wings” in my book.
But heartbreak changes things. Every music geek knows it. For a short time, sadness and loss allow emotional journeys into parts of your record collection that are otherwise off-limits. Like the Belle and Sebastian song “Beautiful,” which you play thirty times in a row while lying on the couch and looking out the window at the unfortunately sunny skies. With that CD playing on the stereo or in your head, you can pretend you’re in a European movie about stylish people dealt impossible hands who will drink themselves to sleep and smoke themselves awake, and walk through life exquisitely oblivious to everything but their own suffering.
Music never loves you like it does when you’re heartbroken. Like a fly drawn to the sticky sweetness of a fresh wound, music thrives on injury. It flows into the raw spaces, a stinging salve that heightens sensations, deepens emotions, and makes you the star of your own autobiography. Finally.
It also creates heartbreak junkies. Record collectors, mostly, who want to be able to hear the Cure’s Disintegration the same way they did when they were younger. These are the people your parents warned you about: the musical equivalent of Ecstasy-heads who burn through $80 weekends and bucketloads of seratonin just trying to find a way back to the feelings unleashed by that first pill.
Unfortunately, it’s never that easy. The music you’re sure will sweeten your grief tends to leave you indifferent. Instead, you get choked up in Safeway when “Let It Be” comes on. Music inevitably bestows beauty on heartbreak, but it does so in mysterious ways. Like through a Bright Eyes EP.
The important back-story about Bright Eyes: Jenn likes them. When we first started dating, it was the Bright Eyes CDs that went home with her first. Which makes the following story even worse. In the depths of the break-up sadness, with me listening to Conor Oberst’s depressing EP constantly, Jenn came by to collect her toothbrush and clothes. And while she was over, I had an idea that I knew was a bad one. But somehow I was powerless to stop it.
So while she waited, I ran down to my car, fetched the Bright Eyes CD, brought it up, and burned her a copy. I did it knowing that Drunk Kid Catholic was going to hit her exactly like it hit me — shrapneled memories and icy slivers of regret. I knew she would cry in her apartment listening to it, like I had cried in mine. It was an awful thing to do to someone I care so much about. But there it was: We were walking out of each other’s movie, but at least we would have the same soundtrack. An incomplete and hurtful solace, I realized, but the best I could come up with at the time.
These things we carry in our heads. I just don’t know sometimes.