I want to see Nick Lowe again. No—I NEED to see Nick Lowe again. The one time I did see him in September 2007 was lovely, but there was so much bad karma associated with the performance that another live dosage is the only way to right the cosmic wrongs that occurred that evening.
For nearly 3 weeks now I've been on a major Nick Lowe kick. The Rockpile "Seconds of Pleasure" re-release accompanied me on a recent out-of-town trip, which was a good thing because my screwed-up flight schedule translated into Hours of Agony. "Basher" has been enjoying a heavy rotation in my CD player at home. And "The Convincer" got snatched up along with a George Carlin album I purchased the day the news of Carlin's death broke.
Which leads me to today's topic death, and how music enables us to cope with it.
The connection between music and memories has long been established. For example, the connection between music and its ability to enhance memory was the basis for the creation of ABC's "Schoolhouse Rock". Most of us can remember what song we slow-danced to at the prom or what was playing on the radio while we made out in the back seat of the car. If things did not turn out well with the person we slow-danced and/or made out with, we might avoid listening to the music that we associated with this particular person. Hearing the favorite artist of a friend or family member may cause us to pause and think of our loved one. Therefore, when that loved one dies it is only natural that the music we associate with him/her can enable us to keep their spirit alive in our hearts and help us cope with our loss.
I first discovered music's power to soothe the pain of grief after the loss of my friend Barb in 2002. Barb was a stay-at-home mother of two school-age children and like me at the time, a rabid Rockapella groupie. If Rockapella was performing anywhere along the East Coast and her husband could arrange for time off work, you could bet that they would be at the show, front and center. The fact that they lived in North Carolina and Rockapella performed mainly in the Northeast at the time did not stop them. They thought nothing of packing up the kids and their two cats into the van and driving across the country just to go to a concert.
Barb and I first "met" online through a Rockapella message board. Messages led to private emails, emails led to phone calls, and the phone calls led to a joyful face-to-face meeting at a big Rockapella charity event in the NYC area, where I was living at the time. Being new to the area as well as being new to living on my own, I often needed practical "grown-up" advice, and Barb was able to provide me with it. Her most memorable nugget of wisdom involved instructions on how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. (Hint: If you buy it fresh, do NOT let it sit in the fridge for 3 days before you begin to cook it. I learned this the hard way when the fowl went foul and I had to chuck the whole thing. Thank God Domino's delivers on holidays.) In fact, her benevolent parental demeanor quickly earned her the nickname "Ma" among the Rockapella groupies, most of whom were in fact young enough to be her children.
When a series of unfortunate events led me to live in a new area of the city, broke and isolated, I started calling Barb on the weekends because my cell phone plan allowed me to do it for free. For the next several months this became a weekly ritual, one that I like to believe was as beneficial for her as it was for me. I was able to keep her up-to-date on all the local goings-on of all the Rockabretheren past and present, as well as provide her with the opportunity to engage in adult conversation. She in turn provided me with a confidential ear. One of the advantages of being a groupie is that it if you're diligent enough and polite enough about it, it allows you real "face time" with your favorite artists. However, the minute you start to brag to the world about your face time opportunities it makes you look cheap and shallow. But still, you've got to share with someone, right? For me, Barb was that person.
Late in 2001 Barb noticed that she was feeling fatigued more often than usual and was quite often short of breath. These were bizarre symptoms for a woman in her 40s who was an avid exerciser and a healthy eater. Weeks and weeks of tests followed, and the diagnosis was more bizarre and dreadful than any of us who knew her could have imagined. Barb had amyloidosis, an extremely rare disease in which the body manufactures toxic proteins. These proteins then travel through the body and settle in one or more of the organs, causing them to fail. In Barb's case, the disease was attacking her heart.
The prognosis was grim. Amyloidosis has no cure. The only medical option that would have bought Barb any time was a heart transplant, and even if a donor heart became available in time and the transplant was successful, it only would have given her a few months. Faced with these odds, Barb made the difficult decision to forego any heroic measures and simply wait for the inevitable.
I was attempting to cope with this knowledge that my friend had no hope of recovery during a weekend in April 2002 when I traveled to Connecticut for a performance by Sean Altman, one of the founding fathers of Rockapella. Upon entering the room, my companions and I noticed a bucket of ice with several bottles of Mike's Hard Lemonade chilling. Being somewhat of a teetotaler, I was hesitant to sample any of it, and my fellow groupies mocked me mercilessly for it. So I grabbed a bottle out of the bucket just to get them off my back but I didn't open it. I took it home with me that night thinking that I would probably need alcohol to soothe my heart when Barb finally succumbed to the illness that was eating away at hers. Sometime during the evening I also noticed that Sean had dropped one of his guitar picks on the floor. I snatched it up and slipped it into my purse, thinking it would make an interesting souvenir.
Once I got home, that bottle didn't spend much time cooling in my fridge. Almost 24 hours to the minute after I retrieved Sean's guitar pick I got the phone call with the bad news that Barb had died.
She was buried on one of those cold, rainy, shitty days when all you want to do is curl up underneath a quilt with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate. As I filed past her for the final time I retrieved Sean's guitar pick from my purse and placed it on her casket. Barb had never had the opportunity to see Sean perform live, and I thought it fitting for her to take a symbolic piece of him with her to the grave.
Barb died about 10 days before her birthday, which happened to be the day after mine. Every year since her death I have marked those 10 days by loading up my CD player with a mixture of old Rockapella and Sean Altman and sipping on a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade.
It was during my most recent self-imposed 10 days of mourning that I wrote a very difficult letter to my friend Leah. Leah was a dedicated teacher, a gifted playwright, and one of the coolest people in the universe. She was also a music junkie like myself, having been a contributing editor to the indie music magazine Punk Planet.
Shortly after Leah and I first met about a year ago, we were having a conversation about music. Somehow Elvis Costello's name came up. After our conversation I remembered an upcoming show I'd heard about earlier in the week, and I shot her an email: "Speaking of Elvis Costello...Nick Lowe is doing a free outdoor show at the WorldFinancialCenter in a couple of weeks. You wanna go?"
She emailed me back: "Oh wow...Nick Lowe. I love his stuff. 'The Sound of Breaking Glass'—very dark. Yeah, I'd love to go."
Concert day finally came, and I reminded Leah about the show and asked her if she was still planning to come with me. She gave me some lame BS about being tired and not feeling like it. I thought she was nuts. "Leah, you've got to be kidding me. It's NICK LOWE! It's a free show! And the weather is gorgeous today! How can you pass that up?" She shrugged and said she just wasn't up to it, and that I should just go ahead without her.
And so I did. And in many ways, it was a perfect show. The weather was indeed gorgeous. Nick Lowe did a superb set accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. Little kids were splashing in a nearby fountain. Middle-aged Wall Street guys with suits and briefcases were headbanging. (Yes, that's right. Headbanging to acoustic guitar. I can offer no explanation except that Wall Street guys probably don't get out and party much.) Nobody was drunk or obnoxious. And it wrapped up early enough for me to get home and get a decent night's sleep.
The next time I saw Leah, I gave her a complete rundown and also made sure to give her plenty of grief for fanning on such a fantastic musical opportunity. She assured me that she'd take me up on the next one.
But it was not to be. About a month later, the leukemia she thought she had beaten the year before came back with a vengeance. Her doctors threw everything but the kitchen sink at it, but by late April it was obvious that she was not going to beat it. So she checked herself out of the hospital, arranged for hospice care, and went back home to her apartment to wait for death.
By this time Leah wasn't up for too many visitors, so I opted to write her a letter as my way of saying one last goodbye. And although the Mike's Hard Lemonade buzz helped a bit, it still was not an easy letter to write—something I acknowledged while writing it.
"So...what is one supposed to say at a time like this? It's not like they make Hallmark cards for it. Maybe they should. You could have the sentimental: 'Wishing You Well on Your Journey to the Great Beyond'. Or the cheeky: 'As you draw your terminal breath, we hope you have a wonderful death!' Or the irreverent-but-not-too-irreverent-for-Hallmark: 'You can't take it with you...so how about giving it to us? J ' Or the NYC version: 'You can't take it with you...so can we move into your apartment?'"
I told Leah she was an amazing person and that I was glad to have known her. I also told her that I reserved the right to remain just a teensy bit pissed that I wasn't able to convince her to go to the Nick Lowe show with me.
Leah died June 12th. The day after her death, I went to sit shivah with her family. The day after that, I took my out-of-town trip from hell. And I've been listening to Nick Lowe almost non-stop ever since.
The question I'm asking myself right now is why? Granted, on one level the Leah-Lowe connection is obvious, but how is this helping me right now? What is my psyche trying to achieve? Am I trying to crawl back in time mentally to a point when she was well? Am I trying to send her spirit off with some of the musical joy I couldn't share with her when she walked the earth? Am I subconsciously trying to punish myself for being unable to convince her to come to the concert with me? I don't know. All I know is that before too long I'm going to know Nick Lowe's lyrics better than he does. And so will my neighbors.
Speaking of death and bad karma, kiddies, here's another really negative vibe associated with that concert. If you've read my bio here on the Muse's Muse, you'll notice that I am a WorldTradeCenter survivor. I don't make any big secret of this because talking about it is actually a mentally healthy thing to do. I had to take a lot of psychological counseling courses when I was pursuing my master's degree, and one of the things I learned was that when someone experiences a trauma of any kind, the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder can be minimized if the person tells the story of their trauma over and over again, to the point where telling it becomes routine and not particularly stressful.
While employing this technique has in fact kept me from developing PTSD, there was one major PTSD symptom I had for several years after September 11: flashbacks. After I had evacuated the building, many of us were standing across the street from the WorldTradeCenter watching the north tower burn. Someone had the presence of mind to yell out instructions: "People! Start walking north! We've got emergency vehicles coming in and we can't have people in the way!"
This was the first logical thing I'd heard all morning, so I did exactly that. I had just turned the corner to start walking away from the building when people started to scream. Then there was a huge BOOM!, more screaming, and swarms of people running for their lives. For the second time in less than an hour I thought I was going to be trampled, so I followed my gut instinct and tried my best to get out of the way. There was a subway gate nearby. I went behind it, grabbed it with one arm, and squatted with my other arm covering my head. I remained in that position for about 30 seconds, waiting for the panic to subside.
I didn't know it at the time, because I had been walking away and my back had been to the building, but the second plane had just hit. One of the reasons people had been running was because debris had been flying everywhere. There was a scaffold above the subway gate where I had been crouching, and I think that protected me from the flying debris.
For a few years afterward, anytime I heard a sudden loud noise (like a siren, a car backfiring, a fire alarm, etc.) it would trigger a flashback. The experience is as close to an acid trip as I ever want to come. (This is why I don't mess with drugs—my brain is weird enough, thank you very much!) No matter what time of day or night it was or what the weather was like, for a split second it would be a warm sunny morning in September and I would be crouched behind a subway gate underneath a scaffold.
Back to the Nick Lowe concert. As I mentioned, it was held at the WorldFinancialCenter in lower Manhattan. I obviously knew it had to be close to Ground Zero, but I really didn't have much of a clue just how close because the layout of that area of the city is a bit confusing. I've lived in the NYC area for nearly 10 years, and to this day I have to carry a street map with me whenever I'm in lower Manhattan. Otherwise I get hopelessly lost.
At one point during the show the Grand Old Man of Punk decided to wax poetic. Glancing to his right at the full moon brilliantly shining that evening, he intoned, "Ah yes...and as the moon rises over the DeutscheBankBuilding, a hush falls over the crowd."
It took a moment for it to hit me. And then I thought, "The Deutsche Bank Building?? That's right next to--wait a minute, what street am I on?" I looked around at the street signs, got my bearings...and realized at that very moment I was probably standing at or near the exact spot where I had crouched behind the subway gate 6 years earlier. The subway gate was gone, but I was definitely on the same street and about the same distance away from where all hell had broken loose.
I tried to enjoy the rest of the show. Really, I did. And on some level I did enjoy it. As I said, in many ways it was a perfect concert. But it was an effort.
So this is why I NEED to see Nick Lowe again. I need to see him in a place that's not associated with so much death and destruction and fear. And maybe I'll buy two tickets instead of one and invite another F.O.L. (Friend Of Leah) to come with me so that we might collectively bring a part of her spirit with us. "The Sound of Breaking Glass" was on his set list back in September 2007, but I recently read somewhere that he's since chosen not to do it because he feels it doesn't work well acoustically. Hopefully he'll make an exception the next time he comes around these parts. I'd surely appreciate it. And so, I suspect, would Leah.
Now...if you'll excuse me, I've got to go tear the shrink wrap off my new copy of the "Jesus of Cool" re-release.