When people meet a famous musician, they often say, “Your music helped me through a really difficult time in my life.” I wonder about what the function of that sentence really is and what it means. I think it’s a punchy and often true thing for a person to say, and also it’s an expression of gratitude, which is good. But for me, I don’t really listen to music to “help me through a difficult time in my life” – it’s way more complex than that. Music provides nuance, complexity, and milestones in my life. It shaped and shapes my identity and provides little thrills and rides through the day – it’s just a really interesting and beautiful thread to weave into the fabric of your life. I think that when a person meets a musician, they have like 15 seconds to say the punchiest, simplest thing that has the greatest impact before the musician moves on to the next three hundred people in line, and people just don’t have the time or audacity to say “your music is an interesting and beautiful thread to weave into the fabric of my life” and I’m not sure I’d respond to that if I were a famous musician.
But here’s a time when music really did “help me through a really difficult time in my life.” I don’t know why I thought of it today. Once I thought of it I figured I’d write it down so I remember.
Almost ten years ago I met this guy named John at church. He was a talented and intelligent musician and immediately we became good friends.
The first night I really talked to John, we went over all the amazing music we were into at the time, including Bela Fleck and the Beatles. He demonstrated Mongolian throat singing, which he had actually learned how to do. And then we started making plans for how we’d do music together – we’d start playing open mics and do blues jams here and there until we figured out what would be better. About a week later (in my memory), John and I had both brought our guitars to church, so we could practice a song we were going to perform at an open mic. I don’t remember exactly what the song was – something in my mind is saying it was a Beatles song, like “Two of Us” or “Mother Nature’s Son,” but I don’t know whether that is a true memory. After we practiced, John had the idea that we could play for change in the church gym where everyone was sitting. I expressed that I was uncomfortable trying to make money at church, and he got a little frustrated. I think he understood why I was uncomfortable with it. Now and then, when I look back at what happened, I sometimes wish I had just played anyway. But other times I still feel like that would have been weird.
Later that week, while I was sitting in my living room with my friend Anna, I got a call from a church leader who informed me that John had died. He was hit by a car while crossing an extremely busy street in Lexington. When I hung up the phone I started crying, and I had to tell Anna what I heard. And when I was done crying everything just sort of went numb.
Eventually some friends came over so we could all try to comfort each other. It was really nice to have company, and we talked about John and what we liked about him. My feelings seemed to alternate between sad and numb. I don’t know how this type of experience is for other people, but the numbness was the weirdest part. I just kept mentally asking myself, “What do I do now?” I didn’t know what the procedure or script for this was. Are we supposed to just sit here crying? Do we try to cheer ourselves up? Do we get some ice cream or play a game or watch a TV show? I was just 22 or 23 years old, and I didn’t know what you’re “supposed” to do at a time like that. The numbness and confusion was way worse than the sadness somehow.
I think the numbness was enhanced by the fact that I’d just met John. We were solidly in the beginning phase of our friendship, when I sensed that we were both really excited about the possibilities that were ahead of us. We hadn’t gotten to get sick of each other or argue at all. None of that stuff would ever get to happen.
At the time, my friend and then-roommate Jim had just gotten me into the Hold Steady, and I loved the song “Stuck Between Stations.” So in the middle of feeling numb, I just pulled out a laptop and played “Stuck Between Stations.”
When the song ended, I just played it again.
And I continued to play it that night. I knew that the song made me feel better, so at any point when I asked myself, “What should I do now?” I just answered it by thinking, “I’ll play ‘Stuck Between Stations.'”
So in a way, that song helped me through a difficult time in my life. It didn’t give John’s death meaning, it didn’t help me feel better, it didn’t fix anything really, it only existed for the purpose of answering the question, “What should I do now?” It was just a little bridge to help me get over a time when I just didn’t know what to do.