Japanese Breakfast, a little Lou Reed, and music’s strange, crazy power to provide relief from grief

Michelle Zauner performing with Japanese Breakfast at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Calif., on June 25, 2018. (My photo)

I remember standing very close to a stage on a Monday night, suddenly overcome by a feeling.

Quick, I thought: Make a mental note to file this under ‘unforgettable’—though perhaps ‘unmistakable’ comes closer to describing its magnified meaning. Thinking back on it now, I realize what set it apart was its strangeness. As in, an immediate awareness of rarefied air. Purity. I knew I wouldn’t forget it, because I associated it with weather.

Weather of the mind, you might say—if you’ll excuse me getting all pedantic for a moment in my predilection for metaphors that stretch like taffy.

First, a bit of context. I tend to do my best thinking—well, I’d never say as much; what I mean is I feel best about my thinking—when I’m wending my way through the famed fog of my city. Maybe it’s a brisk walk up a hill a few blocks from downtown’s epicenter, backpack with too much in it weighing me down and causing shortness of breath.

More likely, it’s removed from the hustle and bustle of this postage stamp of a city. The quiet of Ocean Beach giving me sufficient room for my mind to maneuver. Never underestimate the power of the sound of waves crashing to put you in the right kind of mood.

Oh, right, you’re wondering what city…I’m talking about San Francisco, whose weather is just about the only remaining constant amidst the tech-fueled change currently sweeping over it—although even that might be changing too (Ick).

So back to that initial thought, if I’ve not lost you already. Even though I was across the Bay, ensconced in the pit of Oakland’s Fox Theater, in my mind I was totally removed from that thrum. Enjoying a quintessential kind of San Francisco day: you know, lots of fog. Stuff of delectable foreboding.

It follows what I’ve often felt about music: that with my limited attention span and even-more-limited cognitive abilities, it indulges my favorite pastime—leaping from one idea to the next like nonchalant hopping across a pond full of lily pads. Sorry, I ripped that image from one of Nick Cave’s excellent Red Hand files. It’s probably more along the lines of the relentless racing from Nick Valensi’s guitar in a Strokes song like Reptilia.

But the lily pad works in a way, because you, uh, want to make sure that while you’re barreling down the corridors of your mind, you don’t suddenly realize the futility of your endeavor, and that of human existence in general…whereupon the dream collapses and you crash into the water.

That’s not fun—one of my most vivid memories is of losing control of a jet ski going way too fast and being thrown over the handle bars. (Do you call a jet ski’s steering mechanism ‘handlebars?’ I don’t know…and I’m too lazy to check.)

Anyway, as I flew through the air, time caught in cliche’d slow motion, some arcane lesson from a Physics class came rushing into my head. This seems strange, considering I hated Physics in high school, so if all I get in near-death experiences is, like, velocity formulas, or e=mc^2 drudgery, I’m gonna be pissed.

Oh, yeah, the point of the jet ski story. Hitting the surface of the water, at that velocity (the same speed as the vehicle was traveling. YAY Physics!), made it seem like a solid surface. I remember thinking, Huh, that’s weird. Then, That really hurt.

This is all to say that we have no idea where music will take us, and that’s part of the fun. Goes along with my favorite scientific fact about music: that it triggers the release of dopamine, known in this setting as the motivation molecule. I’m relentlessly chasing the next hit of it.

Combine that with the way music can hit you like a sledgehammer. Or, hitting water after being thrown from that jet ski. And it’s most potent when you least expect it.

There’s this memory I have of Julian Schnabel’s film Before Night Falls. This sequence begins with Javier Bardem riding shotgun in a convertible, on the way to a night of fun at a club in Havana. It’s a magnificent mélange of image and sound, eternal lessons revealed, as only film can do, in the span of a few seconds.

But what made it stick in my mind was the the song Schnabel attached to it. Lou Reed’s Rouge. I remain convinced there are secrets of the universe in this mournful sound.

Without warning, this snippet had ripped me apart. It’d been months since my dad had passed away after an accident. Suddenly, I felt a hook ‘round my navel, grappling me back to that strange land of grief.

This tightly-wound bundle of emotion, set to simmer on the back of my mental stove as the daily grind of the past months had sucked me into its dreary rhythm, suddenly hit HIGH and roared back into life. This sound was a salve; it was also swinging wide and running me through.

This is the easiest way I can try to describe the truth music reveals to us— infiltrating, then embedding, on that unseen molecular level. Like most things primal, this cannot be communicated in words. Or maybe with a select few, placed for optimal reception, but indulge in too many and it becomes an exercise in slog akin to reading someone’s experience at a concert.

Erm. Not that that’s what I was trying to do, um, here. But after the fifth attempt to describe just how special that music was, man, and how high and charged and fucking invincible you felt coming out of that theater, you begin to realize, as a reader, then as a writer, the futility of the endeavor.

It’s Voldemort’s diary telling an inquisitive Harry Potter that he can’t tell him about the Chamber of Secrets; something that strange must be shown. Forget for a moment that lesson in the Bible about Doubting Thomas: there is a reason why we have eyes. Seeing is believing.

But maybe it’s what we hear that registers most deeply. At the very least, it’s a combination of the two; senses work together to inform memory. Something primal calling you home.

It’s like that line from the Spoon song, Everything Hits at Once, but perhaps that’s a touch too obvious. My favorite life lessons tend to come from Karen O’s lyrics in Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs. Take, for example, The sharp shock to your soft side.

Much as comedy springs from the unexpected, so it goes with sound. Something similar with Japanese Breakfast, that evening in Oakland (see: I do get around to my points…eventually). A song called Everybody Wants to Love You, with a call and response refrain that, for some unexpected, inexplicable reason, sends the mind spinning on a track back to that black hole of sorrow.

It’s the suddenness that unseats you. Memories so painful they move you to tears. But what makes a great artist is the ability to help us navigate those painful voids. Register the pain, realize it is a part of life. Then, push the black sky away.

It’s why I’ll end that lyric, and these words, from Nick Cave, in one of those Red Hand files (which I actually bothered to link). Like Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast’s lead singer, Cave has moved me to tears more than once with his meditations upon loss:

Absence is not vacancy. Vacancy has no voice. Vacancy is empty and banal and atheistic. Absence, on the other hand, is a fertile ground where loss and love coalesce around memory to create ghosts that live among us. Absence is alive with energy.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is the necessity of learning to live with the tragedies that befall us. There is a terrible beauty in the universality of the knowledge that everyone can relate to tragedy. Everyone has seen sorrow, everyone will experience death. We need not let it define us, or defeat us.

I’d like to thank Japanese Breakfast for teaching me that, along with so many others.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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