Dear Elliott,

Did you plan to be synonymous with rainy days, sitting on the floor of the shower? Foggy breath caught in street lamps? Lonely walks wearing a beanie, feeling isolated in a crowded room? A single bar stool in a dimly lit dive bar? The Thanksgiving table?

I imagine you sitting in your Echo Park home, head against cracked drywall under a sterile fluorescent light and guitar lethargically seated on your crossed legs as the melody of Between The Bars leaked from your creative subconscious. Maybe taking a sip of from a bottle of Early Times between notes. Perhaps these images now associated with this song drifted in your mind like the soundtrack of a tragedy. Maybe a young facsimile of yourself walking along a busy street in Los Angeles as the refrain, People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore layers and weaves through the wandering bodies of the streets.

Or perhaps you took a walk on one of those paradoxical days where the smog layer clashes against blue skies over the city with that heavy yet comforting heat of Southern California. Life seemed good and you thought of a friend who echoed those lines, drinking up to forget the misery of artistry in an industrial world. But you smiled then waved to your favorite barista sipping a vanilla latte and soaking the beauty of life completely unaware your music would embody sadness.

But I can’t help but feel the ache. When your nearly-straining voice pushes those words out, the forced tones drag, no pull, out the emotions as if hinged with a chain and lays them out on the floor. Almost as if you had to release the frustration and sadness and despondency but your vocal cords resisted the catharsis. Grasped at that chain and yanked back but your voice fought harder because it had to. None of those emotions could stay or they would devour you from the inside.

Intention often gets forgotten when it comes to art and all that remains are interpretations. How others remember our insides in music or words or pictures is what survives time. Our place of creation and aspirations for the work fall away and what remains is what has been assigned to us. Maybe that last day defined you and your music. Forget those other songs you wrote. Miss Misery and Between The Bars typecast you as the rhythm of the morose, the melancholy and the hurt of life. I have to ask you: is this a bad thing?

I’d say no.

Emotions need a voice and Between The Bars releases a catharsis within the listener. A form of immersion therapy that, if absorbed properly, helps us to face the misery and melancholy. Embrace it for 2:21 and then let it go. The shower, the grey clouds, the isolation, the grief has its moment and then fades because you allowed us means of feeling it without losing ourselves. So, in a sense, your stereotype could be a savior.

Ben Folds, in his posthumous gratitude to you in his song Late, said it best:

The songs you wrote got me through a lot
Just want to tell you that.

I guess I wanted to say thank you also.

Sincerely,

NTM

Stereo Story 577

Read more of N.T. McQueen’s work.

 

 

See also Maria Majsa’s story about Between The Bars.  “Every so often you come across a song which can demolish you; take you down in slow-mo, floor by floor like an old hotel, ending in a puff of plaster and dust.”

N.T. McQueen's new novel The Blood of Bones, is due to be published in 2021. N.T is also the author of Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento and his work has appeared in issues of Fiction Southeast, The Kentucky Review, The Grief Diaries, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, Transition Magazine, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children and teaches writing at American River College.