The Soundtrack of My Life

Break Up Songs                             


Some days the only thing that makes me feel better is a really sad song: some earnest expression of hopelessness, with none of the gloriously aggressive exultation of rock and roll. And, no, not the blues, which seems to throw sadness back in the face of grief, although maybe John Lee Hooker’s “I Cover the Waterfront” will do. To be honest, my heart is broken, which, believe me, is no easier at 55 than it was at 35, or, for that matter, 25 or 15. Stupid heart. So cue the Diana Krall and a little Lyle. Here we go.

I put on music all day. I shuffle through my playlist, and thank goodness it contains Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” (the happiest break up song ever), or my daughter would be very unhappy in the car. I search through old CDs and copy old songs into the new moment. I even dig up performances on YouTube (by the way, Ricki Lee Jones’ “We Belong Together” sounds much better in the studio). One song I keep coming back to is Ani DiFranco’s “You Had Time,” in which she answers the question, “Did they love you, or what?” with “They love what I do. The only one who really loves me is you.” This is as chimerical a statement as anything, because love, or not love, there is the absence—of hope, of answers, of the future, and yeah, finally of a love that makes all those other things possible—and it is the absence that causes the hurt.

Listening to it over and over, I swear I can hear another song. And thinking of it, I blow the lyric, looking for “I bleed you. You bleed me.” Or thinking I’m digging for a Cat Stevens’ song. I’m not. Finally, epiphany overtakes poor memory, and there it is—almost the same tinkly piano opening—just ever so askew in Ani’s song—and the deeply keening refrain. It’s Jimmy Webb’s “All I Know” that Art Garfunkel recorded a million years ago. And between the two songs I hear two different ways of going through this gruesome little patch.

“All I Know” begins with: “I bruise you. You bruise me. We both bruise too easily.” Yeah, I get that these aren’t literal bruises, but seriously? Then it proceeds to: “All my plans have fallen through; all my plans depend on you.” And may I just say “my plans?” This is one of those dead giveaways of a relationship that was doomed from the start. A couple never has “my plans” because the fundamental commitment to being a couple means planning together. The hardest part of living as a long term single man—and I have been a single adult much longer than I have been in a relationship—is ceding the well-worn prerogative of making all the decisions: from bed times to travel; from the playlist to the dinner menu; from this to that and back again. A relationship is all negotiation. Even if one person leads, it had better be because some kind of bargain was intentionally struck. Of course I am confusing healthy relationships with what most of us go through (okay, not you, or you, or you, either), replicating our parents’ habits without will or awareness.

Okay, rant over, back to the song, which builds to a crescendo of “I love you and that’s all I know.” I’m not really sure what the singer hopes for at this moment. Forgive me for the bruises? The bruises and plans don’t matter because I love you? Can I just say, this is the ultimate “guy” move: the only thing that matters is how I feel. Webb’s song drives that point home: “That’s all I know.” Yes, that’s all very nice, young man, but I believe the object of your affection just left the building with your car keys. I hope you have a ride home.

(And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s just more of an end of the concert song–the singer pleading with his audience, knowing that his art relies on them, and realizing that although this moment may end, another is sure to come. My penchant for reading everything as indicative of the artist’s perpetual struggle with his or her art and audience is my own perplexing burden).

I’m not sure why we (the males of the species) believe that simply pronouncing our deeply held emotions will ever make a dent in the fabric of reality. Or why we persist even after we acknowledge the deeper flaws (yeah, I bruised you, but you bruised me too). And lord knows I have done it, stupidly, automatically, and genuinely. I’ll give myself some credit.

And that’s why I keep listening to Ani’s song. The song comes from the person who is leaving, who doesn’t have an answer, who knows that she is loved, and still, all she has is “an empty head.” She doesn’t have an answer when her partner pleads, “You said you needed time and you had time, and she feels pretty crumby about it. “How can I go home, with nothing to say?” Even home becomes impossible when things end, because home is a place you (sometimes) make with someone else.

So there just isn’t an answer, or at least not the answer I want. As dissappointed as I feel about that turn of events, it’s as akin to being on the ocean rain that won’t stop for four or forty days. Cursing and complaining don’t help, and putting on dry clothes just guarantees another set of wet in the duffle. Fingers swell with brand new whorls—I’m not even myself anymore. But the rain will stop, the sun will return. Stevie, cue the Brazilian band, ah “Another Star.” Yeah, I’m sad, but I’m here.

For now, I embrace the discordant moment in my life, knowing that it will not be a moment, knowing that as it has before, it will pass, and knowing that the right song (or poem, or sandwich, or trip) may not make everything better, but that eventually I will move on and the music (and poetry and sandwich and trip) will be there and that if I’m a little bit lucky, I will share them.