There was once a point in my life when I called Bob Dylan a prophet, like a literal prophet, and thought I meant it.
I dropped out of organized religion around age 14, but even if the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily fit with what’s in your heart, that doesn’t mean all your spiritual questions are immediately satisfied. At the same time, though, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to just up and join another religion. I think there’s a certain amount of belief you’re just born with, but if you lose that, then something really crazy has to happen for you to regain it. In other words, I couldn’t just choose something because it made sense; I had to feel it.
So I turned to music. The closest thing I could get to religious ecstacy or a connection with something greater was screaming the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone” while driving home, or pacing my basement at 3 a.m. to Elliott Smith and The National, or sitting in my backyard listening to Astral Weeks. I got caught up with the artists whose voices touched my soul, got obsessed and started to take my relationship with music incredibly seriously. I wanted to believe that just ‘cause I cried when I first heard Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” it meant he could save my soul, and that Dylan held the secrets of the universe in his tightly knotted verse and if I could just untangle them I’d know exactly how to live. I needed these guys with guitars to be my preachers. Their albums were so special to me that I wanted them to be scripture. I felt like their songs should be able to fix me whenever I felt broken.
And I still feel that impulse more than I wish I would. I have stomachaches that I try to medicate with acoustic guitar, confrontations that make me long for David Bowie or existential problems I want to resolve with Van Morrison. I mix playlists like cocktails — one part Paul Simon, one part Paul McCartney, one part Townes Van Zant — and drink them hoping they’ll make me feel the way I want. Instead, they’ll usually just feed into the feelings I’m already having. I’ll be on my couch listening to a song over and over and over again, and I won’t be able to stop, like I’m trapped and keep hitting the l<< button on my iPod but I can’t explain to myself why, and I’ll just be frustrated that the music isn’t helping anything.
But other times it just clicks. And when it does, it’s with weird artists. Like, there’s a song by A Flock of Seagulls — of all the bands — called “Space Age Love Song” and it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard not because it “speaks to me” or because it even knows I exist and am listening, but because it just is. I love it because the singer is hopeful and the guitar feels like it’s propelling me on a fantastic journey and sometimes that’s all I need more than anything.
And then out of nowhere I’ll get mesmerized by something like the intro to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “I Need a Lover,” just this piano sprinkled over hard drumming and heavy riffs. I start smiling because the cowbell that just came in feels like it’s being hit to the exact same pace as my heart. And then everything starts to quiet down for just a second after about two minutes, only to return with about 10 times as much force — the fireworks-blasting, jump-up-and-hit-the-ground-in-unison full-band moment that makes the whole track perfect. And then I realize the main part of the song hasn’t even started yet.
Honestly, as anticlimactic as it might be, I think the difference is as simple as expectations. I want Van Morrison to make me fly and give me a life where everything’s perfect, and of course he’s not gonna be able to manage a task like that. I just want A Flock of Seagulls and John Mellencamp to deliver something I can enjoy, and when they do, I don’t try to make the song into anything holy. Music is special, but it’s not magic, and digging for answers by listening to old albums is more often an exercise in self-conscious nostalgia than an action that will get you anywhere new.
So I’ve been listening to Seu Jorge’s David Bowie covers, and honestly, as I’m writing this, I feel really good, because every time I finish a paragraph I’ve just been sitting back and taking deep breaths and just kind of laughing to myself, because there’s a very strong part of me that actually wishes I could solve life by throwing my entire being into all kinds of music — whether it’s with a record as huge as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or with the recordings of a dude with an acoustic guitar just trying to wrap Portuguese sounds around “Queen Bitch” and “Five Years.”
I’m really just trying to clear my head and breathe and not try to think or feel or force anything, to just let these songs flow through me and cleanse me without directing them to the problem areas of my brain and forcing music to fix them. And I love it, and I feel so much better now — not because the artists I love have mystical healing powers, but because I realize they don’t and can still love their work with all my heart anyway.