The Awful Truth

Love songs from the dead

Published February 25, 1997 11:42AM (EST)

my deceased friend left behind a handful of CDs. I had been unable to listen to them since his death, fearing the feeling lurking in those iridescent silver circles, knowing that grief comes in segments and episodes and I was due for another. Among this collection, he left behind a complete set of songs for a rock opera, one that we had talked about during our year of living together.

Now I've been handed the responsibility -- and honor, really -- of writing the show around his music. The drama, the structure, the dialogue. So I had to finally strap myself in and listen to his music again over the last couple of days, which proved to be tantamount to crawling down to the beach to greet an oncoming tidal wave.

His voice was always far too evocative for me, too moving, and his music was always far too personal, even before he was dead. Now it's this ridiculous torture, like repeatedly tearing open an old scar with the same jagged bottle that put it there. And it's something else, too, some different vibration of serious grief too strange and low and deep to be understood by the brain.

I was listening to songs that he wrote and mastered and recorded back when he was in his late teens and early 20s, and my missing him and longing for him reached such a heart-ripping intensity that my brain split off into two different areas. One part of me underwent an oceanic keening in that whirlpool rhythm of sadness like the women in John Millington Synge's "Riders to the Sea," and the other was watching from a distant, clinical perspective, unable to understand. I heard a noise come out of my body, all the way from the bottom of my genetic primal memory, a desperate, world-ending roar like the sound I once heard a lioness use when searching for her dead cubs on a nature show, a wide gravelly moan for futures lost, a raw and undistilled lament without beginning or end, a current of pure animal pain shared by anyone or anything that has ever known attachment or love and subsequent loss.

Somehow, the glow of his life is still there on those CDs, some residual, breathing ghost preserved there in the music. It's as rude and real as his 19-year-old body. And this roaring grief of mine, and the labor of listening to his young voice, and this living glow suspended in time by this music somehow mingled in this other dimension, a Tesla dimension of thought-structures, and there was a communication -- a construct built out of air, an insubstantial bond, but one as true as math.

I'm convinced, in the pathologically selfish way that only the grieving can have, in the referential dementia that escorts that kind of unreasonable agony, that some of the songs he wrote years before we met were meant for me, as one of the primary custodians of his musical legacy, to hear now after his death. I was intended to hear those songs, in these last couple of days, and endure the shock of witnessing those enormous ghosts of his passion, and his great music and my terrible grief were supposed to swirl together and create some kind of overwhelming chemical bond of feelings -- an ephemeral soup that moves in waves and crystallizes later into more concrete realities.

There has to be a dimension where profound emotion doesn't just evaporate instantly, where time isn't linear and he is alive while I am grieving for him, and he can witness my heart turning inside out to the music that he made, and know how impossibly huge that love is, and we can both KNOW that in some chaotic sense, some golden mountain is brilliantly erupting because of it, we can witness some planet of trees exploding into flowers, some ocean boiling into steam and then rain and then falling into ocean again. It seems only deserving that we should know that something instrumental in the unfolding of life is happening because of such love. I believe it, but I'd love to be able to see it and hit it and throw bottles at it just once.

It's strange to be somehow involved and in love with a dead person, and to feel the weight of that bond, that dissolved person at the other end of the rope, that yawning absence that gets more absent every day. I knew that heart, the heart that made that music, and I want it back here with me. I want him to see what I'm doing. I want him to know we're still collaborating.
I want him to know me now, and be impressed with how well I'm handling it all, and be proud of me, and look at me with those eyes he had, which owned all of the judgment I wanted in this world, all of the approval I ever needed, and tell me something. Anything. Tell me it sucks, tell me I'm a sap and a loser. Anything. I hate to think of what I'd trade for that, because it would probably edge into the sinful and murderous. The music really is the ladder of Orpheus, and when I play it, I can be where he is, and hear his voice behind me, but I can't see him, and when I look back there's just nothing but the lying super-sheen of romantic nostalgia, and I can't bring him back.
But somehow, we're still working together.

After listening to all of his old records the other night with another old friend of his, I went home very late and tear-soaked, and dreamed about him, sort of ...

This other girl and I were trying to call him on the phone, but the time difference between where he was and where we were meant that it was 6 in the morning for him, so we sort of chickened out, not wanting to wake him up. This other girl did end up calling and chatting with him briefly, but he was unable to talk to me. "He was awake," she said. "That's what worries me." "Well, he always did keep odd hours," I said. And a song that he wrote started playing in the dream, over and over: his big instrumentations and arrangements that I'd know anywhere, his totally original voice. The song was "So Far Away."

When I woke up it was going around and around in my head on endless replay, his voice in that rock scream, singing, "I'm so far away." This isn't one of my favorite songs of his, I was thinking when I woke up, and I shook it out of my head. What was funny about it, though, is once I'd awakened a little more, I realized it was a brand new song. It wasn't one he'd ever written.

Maybe my brain is just making and sending valentines to itself, imagining new songs. But maybe he just wrote it, over there in that other time zone. Maybe it's some remaining trace of him, trying to say Hi.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

MORE FROM Cintra Wilson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------