In my car on a country road, 2020.
Every now and then there’s a song you know you’re going to love just from the very first few seconds it hits your ears, like when you meet someone and you can tell straightaway they’re going to be a friend. When I heard the gentle opening strums and plucks of The Magnetic Fields 1999 song The Book Of Love, I already liked it. But when I heard the first melancholy lines, it was like it reached in and grabbed my heart.
The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts, and figures
And instructions for dancing
When the song came on through my car stereo that day, I was driving along a country road listening to a random playlist a streaming site had “discovered” for me. I was in one of those spaces where I was sick of my usual choices and couldn’t decide what I needed or wanted to hear. I guess that matched my mood. I wasn’t sure where I was at these days. It was a kind of “waiting for Godot” point in my life – a little bored with the state of things, tired of my grievances with the world, itchy for the good bits that I knew were out there somewhere for me, and not quite sure yet what this day would bring.
At the time, there were no significant dramas going on for me. Well, aside from the matter of a global pandemic. But even then, I was safe, OK, and lucky to be well-positioned in so many ways. But a long isolating lockdown had made me look my life in the eye, and while across the years, I had had the great fortune of experiencing many wonderful relationships, of both loving and being loved, including a long marriage and two awesome kids, my main gripe with the universe remained – that after all that, I was now in my 50s, single and often lonely. And that loneliness sometimes made me feel like a failure, somehow defeated in some important game. Come on, you’re not dead yet, I’d tell myself in response to those feelings. And then I’d push them aside and get on with all the other stuff in my busy life. But still, after all these years, matters of the heart have remained such a bewildering conundrum.
And over the decades, it’s been music that has been my most stalwart source of comfort through the bumpy ride. It has been songs that have helped me cry, rage, unravel the fur balls, hold on, move on, let go, or whatever else has served me or the situation best. They’ve been such a form of therapy, comfort and healing, whether blasted loud on country backroads, blared among the clutter of a comfort food cook up, or played quietly at night in my darkened bedroom. They have tenderly crooned me the words I’ve wanted or needed to hear, but that never got said. They have made the heartfelt declarations that I never had the courage or presence to make. There’s been the songs that spoke through the silence of stuck relationships, the screamed songs that have released the anger and fuck you, songs to allow the tears, sadness and loss, to name the unnameable missing and yearning, and others still that waved their fists of encouragement, barracking for my survival and egging me to move on. Songs have been there for me when people haven’t. And yet they are made of people.
And every now and then a song comes along that kind of covers the whole damn lot, and helps you make sense of it all. The last time I encountered one of these was in my late 20s, after my first big break up, when a housemate put on an acoustic version of Love Is Strange by Everything But The Girl. I must have played it a thousand times, and it helped me take it all less personally.
After you’ve had it, you’re in an awful fix
Fast forward to the “discovered for you” playlist 30 years later, and again I encounter something that seems to resonate so completely with the key and tone of my own heart’s journey. The song manages to pull off wise, tender and irreverent all at once. And in the breadth of its short verses, it contains moments that capture everything I have loved about love and have been lucky enough to experience – being close enough to someone to be read to, sung to, given things. These acts in themselves don’t measure love, but they do capture the vulnerable intimacy between people that is part of it. And beyond the lovely heartfelt first person tribute to those special moments, the song so beautifully places the whole ride into the bigger picture, by inserting it between the covers of an unwieldy timeless old “book” capturing the music, dancing, and tenderness, but not leaving out the cliches or difficult to decipher content.
The Book Of Love made me both laugh and cry. In its simplicity, it spoke to me deeply and warmly about my own experience, and after all my soul searching and whys and what ifs about love, it again helped me to take it all less personally. And like any great song does, it made me feel OK by affectionately articulating what I ultimately knew to be true about the nebulous concept of love:
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
Stereo Story #569