The pitch of the accordion begins low in the dark, but as the spotlight slowly focuses, I see the bellows of the instrument open up, the top ahead of the bottom, like a giant fan in the musician’s arms. As the invisible reeds vibrate, one note becomes two in the air above us. His fingers touch the vertical keys on his right, adding the beginnings of a slow, familiar melody. Slow, quick-quick, slow. Slow, quick-quick, slow. I very suddenly feel as though I am walking in the sun underneath the Eiffel Tower, the calm, sad, lovely gypsy music in time with my deliberate steps.
Instead, though, it’s a chilly Saturday night in Washington, DC and I sit in a pew far back in a former synagogue that has been converted to a live music venue. This place is all stained glass and smooth wood and perfect acoustics from the ceiling on down. Although it is technically Passover, I’ve come to find calmness, rather than to worship, though I suppose some people think these acts are one in the same.
Listening to live music releases me. Standing up then, in the dark, the sound pushes me into a state similar to the sluggish calm I imagine normal people feel after taking a nap or smoking pot—two activities I tend to avoid due to, respectively, the disoriented self-loathing or paranoia of imminent arrest I feel after taking part. Music created in real time, in front of us, distracts. Even if I want to, I can’t calculate an interest rate, or consider the illness of my elderly relatives, or crack the code of an awkward phone conversation when I’m standing by an eight-foot speaker, 110 decibels just inches from my ears. For the first 15 minutes of almost every show I stand in the club (or, in this case, sit in the pew) and attempt to be as productive as I am during the rest of my day. I try, and try, making to-do lists in my head and feeling guilty about abandoning schoolwork, or forgetting to respond to a business client, or leaving the filtered water pitcher empty. But eventually I have to give in, look in the general direction of the stage, and allow reckless worrying to slow down. Like movement under water, my problems rise and fall in a delicate bubble with the tone of the bass, to the snap of one drumstick against another. As I watch a group of musicians, the band Beirut, their fingers picking and sliding and their mouths open, the standard tension wrinkle between my eyes smoothes and my shoulders sink two inches.
Over the next two hours, I see myself in flashes, in scenes, as the band plays. From imagining Paris, I beam back to the synagogue. Standing there in the back, I watch a tuba player raise his instrument up as though it were made of Styrofoam, over his head and around in a circle, quickly, as he pushes air through it. As the slow music picks up to a slightly faster pace, I feel a swell, and close my eyes, feeling the warmth that I recall from years earlier, lying across a thick, flat rock, listening to water run, low, along the Rappahannock River in rural Virginia.
The show closes even more quietly than it began, with the lead singer standing alone in the pulpit, plucking a ukulele. I remember hearing that he took up the instrument because of a problem with his wrist, that he was unable to manage the thicker neck of a guitar. We do what we can to work around our deficiencies.
He sings softly, first in French and then in English: It’s ancient days and I’m on trial . . . This once was an island. His hands move leisurely, creating pauses between the notes. When the sound of each pluck reaches me there in the back, I stare up at the stained glass and rock slightly back and forth, the way you might while holding a baby or sitting in a straight jacket.
When I was about ten, I developed a habit of digging the nails of my index fingers into the crease by my thumbs, rubbing them until they were raw. This evolved to picking at the corners of my mouth in the same way, ripping at the skin until it peeled on both sides, like tiny circles of sunburn bracketing my lips. I hated the way it felt, but loved it, too—the very definition of a compulsion, really. In middle school, I began biting at the insides of my cheeks. Today, this is called Dermatophagia, but back then it was referred to as, “What the hell are you chewing on? Jesus Christ, cut that out.” Then there was the obsessive blinking. And the sniffing.
The worst compulsion, though, arrived when I was in high school, as a bizarre, almost guttural noise I made—or, rather, had to make: a low “ribbit,” like a frog, coming from deep in my throat. It was audible, but my lips didn’t move, as though I had turned into some kind of a creepy frog ventriloquist. One can only feign ignorance so many times when asked, “What are you doing? What is that sound?” You could hear it in class if you sat very close to me. You could hear it in a movie theater. You could hear it in a car. But you couldn’t hear it over live music.
An ex-boyfriend of mine once said that I was only happy when I am busy, that I was, perhaps, scared of being still. And on some level, he was right; I do not handle idleness well. On an average day, I carry a large purse, filled with a wrinkled Sunday Washington Post Magazine, my planner, and a book, so that should I be handed a four-minute reprieve, I can be productive with my found time. But inside clubs, it’s just too dark to get anything done. The dim lights set my body up for relaxation, so after a few minutes I’m lulled in slowly by the quiet strumming of a guitar, just a soft voice or, even better, a fiddle or an upright bass. I strain to hear this beginning, as the audience stops talking, and off to the side the bartenders forgo winging bottles into the trash and begin to set them down quietly instead. The slow strand of sound picks up as another layer is added, a quiet bass, the rhythmic beating of a low drum. Then, just a minute in, the tempo changes with the guitar pickup, or the addition of another voice, a thumping drum, the rise of a faster, more complex melody. I feel a swell in my stomach and my eyes fall shut halfway. My right hip pushes toward the stage, slightly up and then back to the beat.
The list making fades and my brain fogs, similar to those moments just before sleep. I begin to consider pleasant things, daydreams that match the music. I think about walking in the snow or riding my bike. I think about gondolas. I think about how I want to fly on Singapore airlines, on a real bed, with a flight attendant wearing a high-collared, embroidered dress serving me green tea.
This calm is not tied to a certain type of music, but some situations do make it more difficult to reach. A huge arena combined with screaming pre-teen girls and a light show leaves me wanting. Justin Timberlake can feed other daydreams, but, in the end, his show only added to my tension. Other times, the process is simply delayed by outside factors, as it was a few years ago at a music festival in Austin, Texas. For three days in July a hundred or so bands play on stages set out in a huge open field. It is difficult to find peace in six thousand degree weather, surrounded by pot smoke and a painful lack of shade. I stood, trying to remember why I was there, to conjure up the peace I’d felt a few weeks earlier watching a funk band in a cramped DC club, the sequined dresses of dancers catching the quick-moving light, or absorbing the vibrations through my shoes from speakers stacked high on cement floors in suburban basements and garages. None of it worked. I drank bottles of four-dollar water and waited.
Just after the sun set, Van Morrison came out in a royal blue suit, surely boiling. He wore sunglasses and a hat, carried a cane, and generally looked like someone who might yell at you on the bus for standing too close to him. He spent a few minutes situating himself and then seemed to settle, sink and inch or two in front of the microphone. He started with the quick but mellow guitar jangling of “Wild Night” and I immediately remembered why I had come, and forgot about the sweat dripping down my back into my shorts. The song cooled me, picked me up quickly, like a strong wind, and set me back down. I bounced despite the tight crowd, staring in wild wonder, bending my knees steadily to the beat for an hour or so.
I have always wanted to play music myself, but I haven’t got any rhythm or, apparently, any hand-eye coordination. It’s one of the great tragedies of my life, this dearth of talent. Throughout my life, my attempts have had, in fact, the opposite of a calming effect: I became even more anxious at my failings. First it was the violin. Then the guitar. I moved away from stringed instruments to the piano a few years later, but failed at that, too. “You can hear that, right?” my piano teacher asked, pointing at the ticking metronome to my left. I nodded and that night asked my parents for a drum set, which they were smart enough not to purchase. Instead, I joined a very inclusive chorus and then, in a last, desperate attempt, auditioned for my school’s chimes choir. I assumed I could manage wearing white gloves, picking something up and shaking it, then sitting it back down. I was offered the position of “chimes manager,” which, even then, I recognized as a slap in the face.
Unlike some creepy or drunk adults, or most teenagers, I do not find concerts to be particularly romantic. Although I go with other people, I feel that rock shows are mostly a private event. I do not want to kiss in a huge crowd of people, nor can I be forced to dance. Such was proven during a particularly ugly incident with a boyfriend at a show put on by a swing-revival band in the late 90s. He tried to get me to move alongside of him by bumping my hip with his, unsuccessfully. Then he grabbed my wrists from behind, trying to make me sway and wave in unison as though we were on Sesame Street or in a chorus line. I wiggled my wrists from his grip, turned around, and gave him a very specific look of disgust I had perfected while spending time in public with my parents in my mid-teens. We stuck around to get an autograph and by the time the lead singer was signing my ticket, I knew the relationship was over.
I stuck the signed ticket stub in the small wicker box on my bookshelf with the others, my only memorabilia. They all sit stacked, more of less chronologically, accumulated over the past fifteen years. In this pile, I recently found a ticket to a Culture Club concert from July 29, 1998. I would have been 19, but I don’t remember this show at all. In fact, if I’d been asked before I came across the ticket, I would have said I’d never seen the band. Forgetting a show entirely does seem strange, but I am not all that shocked. Concerts run together, but that doesn’t make them any less fulfilling in the moment. I can’t remember it, and the ticket confirms that it wasn’t a cheap show, but live music is one of the few events in my life that I do not consider and reconsider, worry over or regret. I also take comfort in the enjoyment I must have felt in seeing Boy George sing “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” a decade before he was imprisoned for locking a male escort in his closet.
In my mid-twenties, I went through a period where I cried fairly often. I did it in my room, mostly, a large, green, front-of-the-house bedroom, and, sometimes, late at night, on the screened-in porch. During this time, one of my oldest friends visited me for a long weekend. Christian was a massage therapist and believed in things like meditation and sleeping in the woods for weeks alone. At the time, I was writing deadening, insipid marketing copy and I really only believed in working, and in worrying. Just the same, after two glasses of wine, he sat Indian-style on the carpet, leaning against my bed, and I stretched out in front of him, my head in his lap, heavy on his open palms, and the back of his hands resting on his crossed calves. His voice took on a tone that was even more soothing than usual. He told me to relax each part of my body, one limb then another, one segment at a time. He turned my head back and forth slowly, rubbing the underside of my neck as he looked down at me. Then he sat my head down, placing his middle fingers at my temples with just a slight pressure, and he began to move them against my skin in little circles. His thumbs ran a smooth line from the center of my forehead, under my eyes toward my hairline, and then back over my eyebrows. He made this motion over and over, changing the pattern only occasionally to smooth the skin of my cheeks with his thumbs, the way one might pull fabric taut in an effort to draw out the wrinkles.
At the best shows, after the daydreaming, this is how I feel. The music clears me like the inside of a drawer, picking up each of my worries and placing them out of sight, a wet paper towel wiping the wood until all the dust and loose dimes and pennies and pen caps are gone.
Ten minutes into a show last month, a young kid, the tallest kid in the crowd, wove his way through and stopped directly in front of me.
“Who’s he? The captain of the fucking varsity basketball team?” my friend Michelle whispered in irritation.
“It’s fine,” I said. Because I am short and hate confrontation, Michelle believes it is her duty to clear my line of vision whenever possible. She becomes annoyed on my behalf, and does not believe me when I tell her I really don’t mind not being able to see.
She bumped into the guy, which was her body language for “This is our space, and you’re intruding.” Her movements were subtle at first, a forearm lightly hitting against his as she danced, but after a few minutes, she became more aggressive, ultimately digging her elbow into the small of his back.
“It’s not fine!” She was shouting, but over the music, I could barely make out her words. “His head is enormous, and we were here first!”
I don’t mind not being able to see. Occasionally I’ll arrive early enough to claim a spot in the front, by the stage, but often then my bladder wins, forcing me to give up my spot to find some nasty ladies’ room, the seats covered in urine. The crowd is inevitably less forgiving as I try to work to make my way back up to the front, so I give up pretty quickly. I’m 4’11”, so most live music brings more of an aural kick than a visual. I do not wear high heels to shows. I prefer to stand softly, easily, seeing nothing, than to shift all evening, the balls of my feet aching, forcing me to remember exactly where I am in my discomfort.
When I was in my early 20s, some of my friends used to joke about the ages of the people around us at shows. I remember specifically at a punk show hearing a friend say, “Look at him. He’s, like, 30. Shouldn’t he be at home with his kids?”
Now, I am 31. Oddly. Suddenly. A few weeks ago I saw a woman who had to have been in her fifties at a small indie rock show. My first thought was that perhaps the musician was her son, or a nephew, but I hoped he wasn’t. I hoped she just liked this music and needed a release and didn’t care that her hair was white and that her thick clogs were frumpy against a floor full of hip boots and sneakers.
It is not often that we find something to calm us, especially something as easily accessible as live music. In the past I have awkwardly bent myself into painful poses in hot yoga studios in an effort to rid myself of fear and anxiety. An hour later, my shoulder muscles feel even tighter. I’ve tried lavender-scented bubble baths and hiking. Meditation and chamomile. Nothing has the same effect as a well-timed clash of drums, a bellowing voice.
There was an evening seven years ago when I unhappily stuffed myself into a tiny seat at the very top of a tall but narrow auditorium in Richmond, Virginia, where even my own short legs grazed the seat in front of me. I had planned to stay in my apartment and cry, focusing as intensely as possible on the imagined scene of my ex-boyfriend sleeping with his new, younger, cuter girlfriend, but my friends talked me into going with them. It was just before Beck’s Sea Change album was released, an album known even at that point to be his most melancholy. Bleakly themed entirely around his recent breakup, the album contained songs titled “Lonesome Tears,” “Lost Cause,” and “Already Dead” (as well as the ambivalent-if-slightly-better “Guess I’m Doing Fine.”) I’d read that at the previous shows on the short tour he’d played almost exclusively from the album. This, I thought, might be all right.
In the songs from Beck’s other albums, I believe I can hear him smiling as he sings, the way customer service representatives are taught to giggle before answering the phone in order to present a subconscious pleasantness. He is sharp, but goofy. On Sea Change, though, and at this show specifically, he sounded positively on the brink of tears. During the first song I predictably, pathetically welled up in camaraderie as I stared far down at him, sitting in jeans and a t-shirt with maniac hair, alone on the stage in a bright spotlight. After a few minutes, though, the music overwhelmed me in a different way. It rushed into me, beautifully, and the sad lyrics became simply sound overlaid on stunning sound. The drawn-out minor chords drowned out any real sadness and I felt at ease—uplifted, even—for the first time in a month. The sense left me when the lights came on, but the memory of it stayed.
As the best concerts progress, I find myself growing hazier and hazier. I squint a bit, realizing that this happiness should not be so elusive, and I make grand plans to attain it more often, to find ways to make my shoulders drop, relaxed, every day. I decide, definitely, to stop more, lie on the floor or on the ground and stretch. Inevitably, though, my anxieties resurface the following morning, if not on the way home.
Only the calm from a Willie Nelson show lasted a full week. My friends and I watched the sun set, breathing in the musky Virginia summer-night heat, while we waited for him to walk onto the outdoor stage. When he began to play, I leaned back on my elbows against a worn, plaid blanket laid across a deep lawn slanted toward the stage. Down the grass and past the gazebo, I watched him and listened for almost two hours, longer than I’d expected, as sweat darkened the bandana wrapped around his forehead. And after a while, I stopped watching and shut my eyes. The music seemed to get louder, to rise, as my elbows slacked. I set my head back onto the ground, and tapped the hill beneath me to the refrain of “Stay All Night,” evenly in time.
Stay all night, stay a little longer,
Dance all night, dance a little longer,
Pull off your coat, throw it in the corner,
Don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer.
After the show ended, we rode home in silence, but the melody continued to run through my head, urging me to allow the peace of the evening to remain. The wind rushed in through the open windows onto my face and bare shoulders, picking up my hair in pieces and twisting it with the long red curls of my friend Rick, seated next to me in the back seat. Our hair danced like that the whole way home. Later, just before I fell asleep, I picked dirt from underneath my nails, the tips tinged green from pulling at the blades of grass next to my blanket all night, and I tried to remember the last time my hands had been dirty.
Live music answers a surprisingly different problem than recorded music. We blast Modest Mouse on a road trip somewhere deep in Tennessee, and the repetition of the drawn-out cymbal fills us with the emotion of leaving. We set Nick Drake on volume level 3, low, during anticipated difficult talks in hopes that the careful plucking will reassure us, keep us calm. We play Rancid on 12 when we are home alone, hair swinging with the windows open, but the blinds closed. Recorded music has the potential to give me the perfect background sound, but I can’t lose myself in it the way I can when it’s live. Inevitably, I reach to turn it down, or up, to balance the sound with my thinking.
Control is important, and for some of us, the loss of control is even more crucial—a release from not only our fixations, but also from our inhibitions. Unless one enjoys sporting events or doesn’t care about being called crazy, opportunities to jump, scream with eyes closed, or pump a fist in the air don’t often present themselves. I hate football and I also hate seeming like a lunatic, so such releases are rare for me out in the world. At shows, I take them, yelling along, jumping hard, feeling the pulse of a thousand feet hitting the floor, and sweating. Like a sauna drawing impurities from our pores, at their most cleansing, rock shows are hot, steamy, just outside of uncomfortably so.
In 1995, I was sixteen and new to the rural Virginia town where I would spend the next three years. I had one friend, Marta, who led me, plastic-ring-clad fingers wrapped around my wrist, up into smoke-filled tree houses and into the light of the fire at field parties, where I usually stood, silent, biting my nails, until my curfew finally came.
One Saturday, instead, she convinced me to ride three hours in the back of a minivan to see the band the Violent Femmes perform at The Boathouse in Norfolk, Virginia. The seats of the van had been removed to fit more people, and I sat Indian-style, my knees resting on Marta’s ankles, my back against the shoulder of her new boyfriend’s buddy. The boyfriend’s older brother drove, and his girlfriend rode beside him. The whole way, my back ached and I worried that I would say something stupid, or even something intelligent, but in my then still-thick New Jersey accent. I may have pretended to be asleep at one point in order to avoid joining in the conversation.
Because we were still young then, we got to The Boathouse good and early, and stood for hours at the very front of the mostly empty venue, leaning against a thick metal barricade, waiting. The place filled up eventually, and from my spot, I stared right up at the band as they took the stage, looking older than I had imagined—too old, I thought briefly.
But then the lead singer, Gordon Gano, began to sing acappella. His voice was familiar from CDs, but sounded even stranger from a few feet above. On recordings Gano sounds random, sporadic, but in person, I sensed total control, the ability to move and make intense sounds deliberately. The twang was a bit sharper, the sarcasm clearer, the rise and dip in pitch more distinct.
During the first song I began to tap my heel, low. Gano screamed: The pavement knocked her head around/when she hit the solid concrete ground. Each word staccato, forceful. I shook my head hard and felt my legs begin to shift. By the time they played “Gone Daddy Gone” my arms were up and I’d separated from my friends without realizing it, allowing my body to be pushed around, jumping and dancing, limbs wild. I pushed back, and yelled every line, an anonymous screech in a boathouse full of screaming. After another few songs, the stage diving started, and my friend’s older brother dragged me out from the front, afraid I would take a kick to the head. I watched from the side then, my back against the wall, but my feet still stomping. On the way home, the van seemed bigger, and I talked—if not a lot, then more, changed in at least this small way, released by three guys on stage with a didgeridoo, heaving before me as I shook and yelled, momentarily forgetting all of my fears, all of my itches.
Jessica McCaughey teaches writing and English as a Second language classes at George Washington University and George Mason University (GMU), respectively. She earned her MA and MFA from GMU, and her work has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2011, The Colorado Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Silk Road, and other journals. Jessica lives in Arlington, Virginia. This piece was originally published in print Issue 40.2 of Phoebe.