Several weeks before the pandemic began in earnest was the last time I would sit across the table from a woman I had been seeing for a time, more off than on. I often listen to music when I write, as did she, and without much thought I clicked on a playlist whose first song was Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself. Not ten seconds into the intro guitar riff, she snapped and said: “You always play the same music.” To which I responded, No I don’t, before turning it off. Having spent my adult life traveling the world hanging out with incredible musicians, cultivating a varied taste, I was annoyed. “You’re too sensitive,” she had said on several occasions. To which I responded, Yes I am—I’m an artist. During our tumultuous few years she never asked me a single question about the many paintings hanging around my apartment or to play her a song on my guitar. I had long noticed what was either disinterest or discomfort with the arts, so in a sense I was being too sensitive. Just as I was dancing with myself.
I’d never had a relationship with someone who was significantly younger than me. I was born in 1982 and she in 1989, so by some neoliberal calendars we are both millennials. But it dawned on me that when she was a toddler, I was already developing a taste in music. My sister’s friend Nalini had let me borrow Blood Sugar Sex Magik and I was listening to it on repeat. By the age of twelve, music (the guitar) and paint (the brush) were becoming central to my existence, though I was not possessed with natural talents, nor gifted the kind of training required to transform a ham-handed kid into a virtuoso.
During the course of that relationship I found myself often defaulting to whatever random Spotify playlist she decided to put on—mostly hip hop, jazz, R&B, occasionally the Beatles—much of which I loved. Songs that she rarely knew the titles of, nor the lyrics to. Subconsciously, I defaulted to not playing my music to avoid that scrutiny, a blanket disregard for songs deemed too white or too heavy (read: rock n’ roll) or too whatever. She had grown into a world of pop singles, music apps, streaming services, skipping and scrolling forward to immediate gratification. We didn’t have the option to tune out as soon as the music didn’t exactly fit our taste; we listened to tapes, CDs or the radio, all of which required of us a certain patience. On a rare occasion, I pulled out the guitar and started strumming clumsily, she walked to another room and closed the door behind her.
Over the course of those years, she had, like my music and the paintings on my walls, completely tuned me out. The months of isolation that would follow the death rattle of that broken thing, would bring me back to listening to music the way I did growing up: Obsessively. Full albums and songs on repeat. Studying all the layers until for a time being they, along with the connected emotions and experiences, are exhausted. The ritual of diving and surfacing into assemblages of sounds and words, was a much needed catharsis after the steady obliteration of self-worth and trust, both political and personal. A return to that wonderful, childish excitement that precludes betrayal and heartache.
As 2020—a year that seemed far-fetched when I was saving pennies to buy albums—comes to a close, I realize how much I’ve aged in the past four years. Watching my dear friend and mentor wither from cancer and pass away, the murder of a “little bro” gunned down in the streets, drowning in the political filth of America, while barely keeping my head above the crashing waves of conditional love. We have all experienced involuntary solitude in some form or another this past year. I’ve watched relationships thrive, limp forward or completely collapse. Friends cycling through depression, anxiety and frustration, some weathering the pandemic better than others. On the streets, pent up frustration from stay-at-home orders and rising unemployment manifested in weeks of firecrackers and kids (and childish adults) tweaking their engines to an obnoxious growl or to backfire. As irritating as it was, I felt a kinship with that tendency to want to be noticed, appreciated (or detested if all else fails), but present somehow.
In the absence of creative mediums and the encouragement to use them, people will express themselves somehow—often in ways that are disruptive or destructive. Rates of robbery, domestic violence, murder and suicide have spiked all over the world. Our imaginations and creative tendencies—the characteristics that preserve our humanity—are of no concern to the governments and corporations whose actions compromise our mental health and sense of self. As they wreak havoc on ecologies and communities without repercussion, we are bombarded with breaking news and a collective sense of helplessness becomes consistent and pervasive. Lately, I’ve been thinking that perhaps I’m done with the news for a while. Instead of bludgeoning ourselves with depravity or mediocrity (at best), may I suggest we roll into 2021, listening, watching, creating and enjoying what we please, when we please, and as loud as we please. Rewinding and pressing play, exhausting the painful emotions and experiences, celebrating the joyful ones and drowning out the noise as we move forward.
I'm looking out at a volcano
Trying to read the world today and see where you're at
I'll never do that
I'm a model that is uncomplicated
You can play a happy tune on me, but don't turn me off
'Cause then I am silenced
High tide, high tide, high tide, high tide
And it feels like I’m falling in again
Gorillaz – “Aries” ft. Peter Hook & Georgia