***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Peter Coviello
It must have been in the eighth or ninth song. I’d lost count by then, the way you do, even if it’s a band like this one, a band you treasure. There in the press at the front of the crowd I was just then beginning to give myself over to that weird abandon that comes over you in unfamiliar places, where you have no friends, no connections, no social responsibilities of any kind. (This was
Madrid.) What happened next took up about four minutes and thirty- four seconds. That, anyway, is how long “Dalliance” takes on the record. But somewhere inside the dilated time of that performance—and “Dalliance” is a slow-blossoming bruise of a song, one that broods over a woozy guitar riff and ascends finally toward a huge uncoiling blast of sound—somewhere
along that way, a flail in a way only someone generous-hearted would call “dancing,” it came to me. I knew it, right there, without words and well beyond the possibility of contradiction: It is better to be doing this, exactly here, exactly now, than any other human thing.
There isn’t much unusual about these strobe-lit body wide rushes of conviction. You will have enjoyed some of your own, I imagine, and so will know they are not unique to the concert hall, the dance floor, the bar. Not at all. The whole bright delirium of sex, for instance, might be described in just these terms. Who hasn’t known the feeling, in the midst of those few hours stolen away from the weary day, that you’ve stumbled for that sheltered moment into the right world? The world whose content is surprise, delight, self- forgetfulness, and self- reclamation? The world whose chief currency is joy? Who doesn’t know that sensation: the in flooding belief in the possibility of being alive and being delighted, of being different and being you? A writer called Laura Kipnis has a great phrase. Sex, she says, is “an always available idiom for dreaming,” and she’s right.
But it’s not the only one. We find our way to other idioms. Dreaming, you could say, speaks in other tongues.
I swear to you I encountered exactly that feeling, that sense of elated certainty wedded to a welcome susceptibility to transformation, there at a show by a band called the Wedding Present, at around eleven p.m. Madrid time, the thirteenth of November, near the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
It had begun that morning in the café. I’d arrived groggy and spiritless the night before, coming into Madrid from, of all unlikely points of departure, Norwich, in the east of England, where
I had passed the previous week. Consult your nearest maps and you will see that Norwich is the metropolitan center of a region of England called East Anglia. I can tell you that it is a town that saw its heyday in about the mid- 1400s and, to the under informed visitor, appears to have been in a steady, unhurried decline ever since. Of course, this is hardly fair. In Norwich you will find a
major university, Norman churches of evidently high distinction, and, once you make your way past the dismal car parks and retrofitted malls, miles of slow-rolling fields reaching up to a mild
Norwich could claim, too, just then, one couple very dear to me indeed— friends
of my twenties, the both of them Irish born, whose lives had deposited them once more among the exasperating English. I was there because they were there. I was there because of the volume of post adolescent hilarity that had passed so fluently between us and that had, over the years, broadened and solidified into what all three of us would have just called love.
I was there because I was in flight. Unluckily for them, my brokenness and I—that wearisome pair—had washed right up at their door. They did what they could. They welcomed me. With an unstraining deftness of touch, they cared for me. At night we drank, and talked, and launched ourselves into three- body dance parties in their under heated front room. Every morning, before Anne went to work, Donal would make us all eggs and sausage in an enormous silver fry-pan,
the sight of which always reminded me of the Joni Mitchell song: “The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wiiiiiide.” I’d croon it to him in the warming and close little kitchen, and feel a brief restorative rightness in the world.
Then one afternoon a few days into my visit, because it seemed like just the thing to do, because nothing could be safer than this little nest in the east of England, I played them “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, a song I thought we three might dance to and delight in. And before I could prevent it happening there it was: that familiar, enveloping awfulness.
A queasy weightlessness. A little rising plume of fear.
A small voice sidled up to me. Get ready, it said. Get ready.
It occurred to me I was not well.
That night I wrote a friend back home, who knew the shape of these episodes. She sympathized, and reassured, and encouraged. She told the kinds of jokes that aren’t really only jokes. (“The thing about you,” Dana said, as she had said before, “is that you go a few months without having sex with anybody and you start to catastrophize your life.” And I remember thinking, Yes, LIKE EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD.) Maybe what I needed right then, she suggested, was care in a different, more immediately bodily mode. “Get out of England,” she advised. “Now. They are the unsexiest people on planet Earth.”
And so, a few days and much train travel later: Spain.
But there in the bright café morning, at my table for one, Madrid seemed better in the abstract than in fact. Have you ever been to Madrid? Here are some of the basic and curative things it was rumored to possess: warmth, in many senses; a nightlife of almost polemical excess; small fried foods in unlimited supply. What was there to dispirit? And yet from the start nothing was quite kicking my way. Implausible rain, a botched hotel reservation, and a misapprehended order had dented my already fragile sense of traveler’s competence. (“I asked for water,” Elvis Costello sang into my headphones, “and they gave me rosé wine.”) Postcards littered the table in front of me, but what could I write? “In Madrid, awash in the tourist’s sense of isolation, ineptitude, and foolhardy conspicuousness. Send help.”
I picked from out of my bag a battered copy of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a novel of youthful promise and blighted happiness that in just those unsteady days it would perhaps have been wise not to peruse. I was reading it cover to cover, again.
But then, there it was.
Inside the doorframe was the familiar collage of posters: announcements, advertisements, solicitations multilingual and in bright array. I thought: “That’s a poster for the Wedding Present.”
And: “They’re playing in Madrid.”
And: “They’re playing tonight in Madrid. . . a block away from my room on Gran Via.”
It isn’t the case that I’d reached, either that day in Spain or back in England, a pinnacle of despondency. That had come earlier. Some thousands of miles away the terms of it all, of that terrible and unforeseen dissolution, were being haggled over by bored, prosperous attorneys. But the implosion had come almost exactly a year before, the detonating announcement. I marked it in the journals I so fastidiously kept in those days, the way you do when you are convinced that what you’re doing, and where you are, and how you spend your days, matters to a vanishingly small set of people. There in Madrid I was yet suffering from what you could call a failure of imagination. In a thousand lifetimes I would not have believed the previous year of life to be even remotely possible. That, really, continued to be the problem. It was so shattering and ugly but also, inescapably, so commonplace. A bit of unexceptional private cataclysm. Some part of me must have known this. And yet it felt like a daily immersion in incomprehensibility. I was in the midst of an experience, unyielding and actual, that I could not quite imagine. Reality outran apprehension. And there was I.
So a pervasive lowness of spirit had settled over me, and
persisted, even in the warmth of Spain, in the freedom of travel, in the luxury of uncommitted time. I found to my dismay that I couldn’t quite talk myself into the enjoyment of that freedom and that luxury. When my inner ear wasn’t clamoring with the sound of all the work I wasn’t accomplishing, monitory quotations from some long-abandoned moment of scholarly diligence would come bounding over the sill of consciousness: “Quicksands of leisure!” the poet James Merrill at some point despairingly proclaims. Or worse, from a character in Hawthorne, who speaks of “the vague wretchedness of an indolent, half-occupied man.”
Meanwhile, from Maine to New York, and then from Italy to England, from the tranced air of libraries to the clatter of foreign speech in far-flung bars, I moved in a haze of undispersing grief.
Everything, then, was a kind of trip wire. I’d look too long at a stranger’s curling smile, or I’d linger too unguardedly in the pages of a book, and there’d be these terrible flashes of memory. A bright day. A shared joke. Fragments of a lost self, a despoiled life. I walked around feeling like nothing so much as my own puzzled ghost. Out one cloud-congested Parisian morning on a mopey stroll, I wandered past a playground, a tumult of children speaking rushes of words I did not understand. And there, in an instant, with day-derailing clarity, a vision rose up before me. I saw two little girls on a schoolyard in Maine—sisters—standing inside a crowd of classmates in the clamoring minutes before the first bell. And one of them, the oldest of the two, is looking at me, and then to one of her little grade-school friends, and then back to me.
“Oh, that’s Pete,” is what I heard her say. “He’s my stepdad.”
For a long tremoring moment, it held me, that vision.
Mine was a wretchedness becoming daily less vague.
But there’s this band, you see, and they’re called the Wedding Present.
The Wedding Present, I should say, is a British postpunk outfit, anchored by a singer named David Gedge, who, in a thin unpretty voice—honestly he sounds less like a vocalist than a middle manager being interviewed on BBC 2, with a backing of frantic guitars—sings about the humiliations, defeats, weirdnesses, and occasional errant delights of grown‑up romance. I like to think of him as the great guitar-rock poet of the romantically aggrieved post adolescent. You know the type (and, perhaps, are the type): junkies for the turmoil, the high-blooded anguish, of those vibrant years of teenaged fumbling and ardor. More or less every Wedding Present song makes the argument that rock and roll and love are, in most all the ways that matter, exactly alike. Both of them carry us down Persephone-like into selves we may sometimes fear have abandoned us, left us to wander the colorless deserts of adulthood. But that descent is also a kind of renewal, because those putatively outgrown selves, ridiculous though they may have been, are awash in these undiminished intensities of feeling.
If you like arguments made mostly of enormous distorted sound, guitars up and vocals down, you may well like the Wedding Present.
I like the Wedding Present. I like especially a record called Seamonsters, from 1991, that high season of my youth, on which “Dalliance” appears, track one, to tell you exactly where the record is going. “Dalliance” is a rock song built around the smallest of reversals. You know the long tradition of songs about the Other Woman, about her deferrals and duplicities and inevitable disappointments? For its part, “Dalliance” tries out a rival proposition: pity, for a moment, the other man. Sung in the voice of a man whose lover has, after fully seven years of illicit intimacy,
given him up at last, it takes its title from the concluding lines, where, with bitter ironies rebounding in every direction, the singer wonders, “Is that what you call. . . a dalliance?”
For a nervy few minutes, though, the song swoons a bit, over brimming with questions this singer can’t quite bring himself to ask. What kind of sorrow is that lover entitled to? What is jealousy, and what can living inside it feel like, for a man who has himself been so much the cause of someone else’s dread? Our singer, all wounded petulance, has no kind of answer. What it proves he does have, though, arrives in the layered upwelling of furious noise to which the song, in its final moments, at last surrenders itself. I mean nothing denigrating at all when I say it sounds, when it happens, exactly like the ’90s. Or rather, it sounds exactly like guitars in the ’90s were so good at sounding: like some huge exhilarated anger—cleansing, ecstatic, very probably unearned—finding for itself a livid vital form.
If you tend in your relation to music even a little toward the obsessive, there is a moment I’m going to bet you know. It’s the moment when, after years of living with a song floating around
the rafters of your consciousness, it snaps into a startled, intricate clarity—when the words you’ve spent years singing recombine somehow into new and cogent form, alive with density and irony and crosshatched meaning. Inside the normative frame of daily life, this is a happy enough microevent, one of those small-scale disturbances of the dulled surface of things that make the world
seem to flash, for a bright instant, with unexpended possibility.
Imagine this, then, unfolding inside the battering cacophony of a live show. There, it feels a good deal less like dawning clarity than like a deeply pleasing species of assault—a siege on sense, played out on the fine responsive instrument of your whole body. Stand in front of a wall of shuddering amplifiers and, as they resonate in your sternum and along the bones of your face, tell me this isn’t true.
So I shook and sang and shouted. I leapt; I clenched and unclenched. And at some point, maybe around the second verse, the clinging grip I’d been keeping on my misery must’ve begun to weaken. Because then, deliriously, like every teenager ever, I found myself you could say comprehended by this song, hailed by it in a way that would have been eerie and unsettling were it not so stupid—I had never been anybody’s other man—and, also, so hugely, so inarguably, so radiantly fucking pleasurable.
“Do you know,” the man on the stage shouted, “how much I miss you?”
And my heart, my bruised and seized American heart, sang back: I DO KNOW IT, DAVID GEDGE, I DO.
And then he sang the next lines: “It’s not fair, after all we’ve done / That I’m so. . . I still want to kiss you.”
I should say that I had, at this point in that year of free- fall terror, expended many thousands of words in letters never to be sent, each one saying the rosary of my losses, and written, it
seems to me now, in the dismal hope that some proper torque of grammar, some untried flight of syntactic complication, might wrench it all into a manageable intelligibility. You’ll have to trust
me when I say that I do that dire outpouring no injustice in suggesting that it is diminished very little, and probably not at all, in its rendering in these words, and these words only: It’s not fair. I still want to kiss you.
And yet all that grief, that wild self- pity and imbecile rage: it came back to me, as I shouted out these words in a crowd of strangers an ocean away from my friends and my ex‑lovers and my family and my stepdaughters, as an exhilaration so jolting and remainder less I swear I may have starting laughing out loud. (Laughter, says the philosopher Henri Bergson: “a momentary
anesthesia of the heart.”) And you can say it was the ordinary delirium of loud frenetic music. You can say it was the familiar ecstasy of communal immersion and stranger- intimacy. You can call it juvenile. No one will say you’re wrong. But I will tell you this: the sense that this was misery, and that misery could take form as joy, sang through me like voltage.
If what I felt then had words, they might have been these: That you are here, and not anywhere else, is the luckiest thing in the world.
In November of that terrible year, there was, for me, no thought as profoundly unlikely. I stood there, sweating and grinning a probably frightening canine grin, and the odd fact that I was not dead, that I was indeed very much not dead, came flooding through me in a great dumb rush. I enjoyed a brief reprieve from the grinding misery that, to my staring horror, had come in that year to fill quite completely the space between me and being alive. In an unfamiliar city, in a bar, as I surrendered to pleasures that at thirty-seven I was long since supposed to have aged out of, something shook loose. A plank in sorrow broke.
I’d like to be able to tell you that was the end of the story, or of one long section of it. I’d like to be able to say that perseverance and restoration followed loss the way verse and chorus follow bridge. Nothing would please me more than to tell you a story of blossoming serenity and achieved contendedness, at the center of which is the unlocking magic of loud, propulsive music.
That’s not quite how it goes, though.
But Madrid is where I started to figure something out, something I’d been carrying around with me long before I met Evany, long before we made a little family in Maine with two small girls—my sudden stepdaughters—and a little house, and a garden tucked behind a stand of pine trees. It was around then, I think, that I began to contend with the possibility that, despite a career devoted entirely to books and talking about books, and despite spending virtually an entire life in the company of bands and records, I did not have quite the language I needed to say just what it was I thought songs did, or why I believed in them in the needy, devoted, not entirely defensible way I did.
It wasn’t that I had no language. I’d grown up to be a critic, a person who made a kind of living getting into states of wordy animation about novels and poems and other such “slight, useless things” (to lift a perfect portable phrase from Robert Lowell). As friends and exes might’ve told you as readily as editors, the availability of words was never my problem. As much as I liked to read I liked to talk. I liked to talk the way some people like to run, say, or to eat. I liked talking the way some people could be said to “like” breathing.
So I knew there were lots of useful ways into songs. You might understand them as solacing, or galvanizing, or humanizing, three-minute rehearsals for the disciplines of empathy and understanding. Conversely, you might regard them as anodynes and bourgeois opiates, the cheapjack consolations offered up by a hyper capitalized global marketplace for the miseries it induces, cannot cure, and wishes only for you to misrecognize. There’s a lot to both of these positions—a good library’s worth, in fact—just as there is to the impulse to sidestep both banal heroicizing and lazy dismissal by hearing in songs the density of historical unfolding itself, of contradictions and clarities straining toward resolution in the available idioms of genre, form, style. I knew this too. You do not grow up a boy of my enthusiasms and not read Greil Marcus.
But what happened to me in Madrid seemed involved in all these ways of addressing songs without being grasped by any of them. Brokenly, which was the way I was doing everything then, I started thinking about that. I started thinking about the objects we devote ourselves to, some of us, with such weird implacability. I started thinking about how songs and things like them (slight, useless) had made but also—maybe, maybe—unmade me. Why was it that I could not quite imagine, except through these noisy word- drunk rituals of devotion, how to make friends, hold intimates close? Or for that matter how to be a boyfriend, a lover, a stepparent—and, now, it seemed, of all mystifying things, an ex‑stepparent?
Like about ten million other people—perhaps like you—falling for things like songs had taught me an alarmingly large amount of what I knew about love.
Was that strange? Wrong? It seemed, just then, a thing worth figuring out.
I suppose I should confess that, if I turned in those long lonely days toward songs and their intoxications, I did so not solely in a spirit of neutral inquisitiveness. It was also another kind of flight: a way to escape from something significantly less thinkable, something larger, looming, a puzzle presenting itself to me daily in new and unworkable configurations.
I just mean the terrible fragility of the wish to be alive.
What do you do when you find yourself abandoned by that elemental desire, staggered by some ordinary grief into a grave uneasiness about the prospect of “continuing to live,” as Philip
Larkin puts it in a bleak poem I long ago committed to memory—
An uneasiness that, some days, sharpens toward antipathy and fright? How do you live in the ruins of a life you loved? What makes a scene of intractable sorrow somehow habitable, perhaps only for moments but, possibly, not only for moments?
Some people, surely, could answer questions like these without reference to the world’s array of slight, useless things. I was not one of those people.
I went home from the show to an empty room above the Gran Via, jangled and body-sore, a cooling film of dance floor sweat clinging to my skin. I smoked one or two furtive cigarettes out the cracked-open window, and the city beneath me pulsed and glowed. It seemed alive with a buzzy sort of late-night serenity. So I sat down and wrote a little letter to my stateside friend. I still have it. Dana, I said, my dear. Tell me: have you ever, in a state of unanswerable sorrow, turned to a novel, or a song, or a poem, or whatever, and found there enough of something—affirmation, recognition, unforeseen joy—to sustain body and soul through another unavailing day? Maybe not. Not everyone turns to songs and books in this childish, hungry sort of way. But oh, my dear, if you have?
Listen, I’ve got a story for you.