I really don’t want to start another piece talking about being cooped up in Espresso Royale and contemplating life. It’s been done before, and if there’s anything a burgeoning writer strives to avoid, it’s clichés. But I’m here — the walls are the kind of red that looks like home, the paintings are abstract enough to distract me — and I’m starting to think. Funny how that works.
Espresso is a fine establishment that arguably fuels the entire city of Ann Arbor, serving up fresh brown nectar that nourishes the busy bees of town every day. They sashay these streets with their burgundy cups in hand, headphones on ears, life restored. Buzzing, buzzing, buzzing. But since I’ve been on a mini caffeine-hiatus lately, I need something more. I don’t have a burgundy cup in my hand. The background conversations aren’t cutting it today; my eavesdropping abilities are kind of rusty. Nay, I need a great song to fill the void. After all, what else can? Love, some say? But what the hell is that?
I’d be lying if I said Espresso’s playlists aren’t confusing. At this very table, I’ve written an English essay to The Bends by Radiohead, read “Twelfth Night” to something that literally sounded like Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” and heard some good ol’ Marcy Playground while sending out about 200 e-mails in a row. These jams have done the job at their respective, distracted playtimes, but right now music is paramount. I need the real good stuff in my ears, the ooey-gooey fusion of voice and instrumentation that will command my full attention and sweep me off Earth and help me forget.
“So what’s your favorite song?” I ask Natasha, Megan and Maddie.
Natasha says, “La vie en rose” by Edith Piaf. The track is creaky, smoky, almost as if it was recorded that way on purpose. Cooing brass and strings lead the listener in, but somehow it doesn’t sound hokey — and this bit goes on just long enough, mimicking Edith’s iconic cadence. Dahhhh, dah dah, dah dah, dah dah. The original queen enters: “Des yeux qui font baisser les miens / Un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche.” Come again? “Eyes that gaze into mine / A smile that is lost on his lips.” Ah, okay. Now we’re talking. She’s in that kind of love.
Piaf straddles the fine line between desperate longing and the simultaneous thrill of a mundane conversation — as long as it’s those eyes, those lips, all of it is ecstasy. La vie en rose. Her verses are a casual tête-à-tête in a Parisian café, but her chorus is an amphitheater of bended French syllables and deep dives into the diaphragm that yields the world’s most romantic growl. It’s no wonder the song is universally beloved. Somehow, Louis Armstrong’s version pales in comparison — all covers seem weak, inappropriately meek. Piaf gave us courage and attitude, and she showed us that it was perfectly okay to be yourself when you fall in love. None of that feigned sugary bollocks. Just sweet sass.
And then Megan says, “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by The Smiths, which is one of my favorite Smiths songs (and songs in general). Megan is right on with this one. Unfortunately, I can’t help but think of Zooey Deschanel when I hear it because of the elevator scene in “(500) Days of Summer,” which aroused every jeans-rolled-up hipster man in the nation. But if you can push the bangs and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl “quirk” to the way back, “There is a Light” shines through.
Morrissey is melancholy but trying his best not to be: “Take me out tonight / Where there’s music and there’s people / Who are young and alive / Driving in your car / I never never want to go home.” As he’s on the cusp of asking this auspicious girl out, he finds he can’t, but he’s still so content driving with her. He sounds almost childish, clingingly puerile when he pleads, “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” Whether that’s the agony of life or the agony of love beating at his glorious British chest is uncertain, but it’s intoxicating nonetheless.
Like a car driving down a highway at night, the song’s drums are the engine. The guitar chords are forward-thinking; the strings are filled with enough whimsy and wonder and fleeting phrasing to make you think everything is going to be okay. “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die,” Morrissey weep-croons. It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s us.
And then Maddie says, “Somebody to Love” by Queen. Ah yes, the ultimate ballad of horniness.
Does it get better than this? Freddie Mercury is better than Morrissey, debatably better than Piaf. His voice is obliterating everything I just listened to, and I’m sitting here smiling like an idiot. How did someone combine opera and rock so well? Where did that voice come from? How is it so masculine yet so pretty, and how does it overflow with passion while still hitting some of the most delicate, crystalline notes in rock ‘n’ roll history? I don’t know.
I could go on and on and try to dissect it, like I did with the first two, but that’s not helping me. I can sit here and ponder and ponder, wondering why I don’t have a favorite song and why my three friends were able to rattle off theirs so quickly, and I can try to unravel the enigma of Mr. Mercury. But that won’t give me a favorite song. That won’t tell me why sometimes I get irrationally freaked out, nor will it explain how I can feel incandescently glad a few minutes later. And we can’t even bring love into this, not again.
Music, then, is what we’re left with. What I’m left with — always. I’m here, in Espresso, with Freddie and Edith and Morrissey and now Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and they’re talking about everything. Songs are a kind of eavesdropping, a two or three-minute long glance into the lives and loves of certain lucky, creative individuals, and we’re fortunate enough to have headphones to facilitate our nosiness. I’m trying to hear it all; I need something to invigorate me like the coffee I’m smelling, the people I’m seeing. Smiling, smiling, smiling.
Just as Cuomo is about to finish, I pause my music in a daze. Playing in Espresso, I notice, is some ethereal troubadour singing a real depressing number, probably lamenting the loss of his Birkenstocks — bizarre, as usual. I smile. And I’m given a choice: I can look at the walls again, notice the paintings. I can start to think, and wonder if I’ll ever find a favorite song, if this one is the one, if Freddie actually found somebody to love. Will I?
A big breath. My pulse starts to decelerate. My finger hovers above the keyboard. I press play.
Or I can just listen.