Too young to hold on, to old to just break free and run
On Jeff Buckley's Grace, and finding respite in a New York November
Howdy, and welcome to Good And Good For You, a newsletter about music and feelings. I haven’t written in over a month, and I’ve missed you all dearly (each of you individually) - I have a full-time job now, which takes up way more of my brain space than I wish it did. Anyway, thanks, as always, for being here!
It feels strange to say, but life feels a little slower and more solid here in Manhattan. I have to walk to get places. There are no frantic drive-thru lunches, no hurtling up and down I-35, no Keurig at my parents’ house on the way out the door that spits out just enough watery caffeine to get me through the morning. I have to plan out every step of every day, practice a microdose of mindfulness to make sure the keys are in my pocket, think through the amount of phone battery needed to buoy me to my next location. I exist, physically, miraculously, on a sidewalk, in a city. An act of grace.
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Public transportation isn’t a haphazard pseudosecret like it is in Austin; it’s a normal, reliable thing—a backdrop, not usually a hassle-filled event unto itself. Not a last resort. The thought brings up my same old anger that in Texas cities we’re told it’s an unattainable myth; Bigfoot, Chupacabra, a robust transit system.
I haven’t witnessed anything sad or shocking yet in the city, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this Twitter thread I saw a few months ago. I don’t remember the wording exactly, so I know I’ll never be able to find it again. But it was a picture of a bird on a sidewalk that had died from colliding with the glass exterior of a skyscraper. The tweets explained that large reflective surfaces like skyscrapers are a common cause of death for migrating birds. And the thread ended with something like: how unbearable, that an innocent creature was killed trying to navigate this heinous monstrosity of a world that we humans have imposed right in the middle of its ancestral flight path. How unbearable, to look upon a dead bird and know that in a different kind of world, one where we had never intruded in such an ugly way, it might still be alive. How unbearable, this microcosmic portal into the graceless abyss of the world’s cruelty.
I’ve spent the last month in various degrees of drowning, of falling. I’ve been in the city ten days now, and the first few I spent in a haze of sorrow. I planned this trip to happen on the immediate tail end of a bunch of unsavory necessary things, on purpose, in an attempt to purge the inevitable sorrow from my system, rattling shiny toys in front of my wailing heart to get it to shut up and give me half a second’s rest. The week leading up to the trip—the move-out—was torture. I had to pause multiple times from sorting through letters and photos, books, packing up old empty ceramic pots, to weep in a way that felt like free falling into an endless, pitch-black well. A week later, I found myself, as planned, in New York City, wondering what do I do with all this sadness, as I passed the Subway (sandwich franchise) and the fallen leaves and the glass buildings and the people holding each other’s hands. What do I do with all this love.
Reckoning with shared music is the crux of any breakup. Or, at least for me it is. What do I keep, what do I discard, what open flames to I acquiesce to touch with my soft, bare fingers, because I can’t imagine doing anything else. Jeff Buckley’s album Grace has fallen into the third category; I put it on and let the warm waves of his despair break over me in this Lower East Side apartment as the 4pm light begins to disappear. Jeff wrote songs about being in love at the end of the world, being in love at the end of love. Where is my love? Lilac wine, I feel unsteady. Oh my love, I feel unready.
I made wine from the lilac tree, put my heart in its recipe, it makes me see what I want to see, and be what I want to be, sang Jeff in the softest iteration of his mustang-wild vibrato. I’ve been drinking too much on this trip. It feels like falling down the well again. Listen to me; I cannot see clearly.
And now I’m crying in this Greenpoint coffee shop. Crying in public is okay in New York, I’ve heard. The hefty realness of the city draws out the hefty realness in people, bringing them together in tiny spaces, strangers kissing on couches in bars and girls crying in little cafes. People’s eyes have been surprisingly kind here. Turning away when I need them to. Meeting mine when they can.
“Hallelujah” starts with a sigh. Then the soft electric guitar notes meander into the chords we all know, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift. Jeff was that triple threat I often worship: classically-talented lyricist, vocalist, guitarist. Although, of course, the lyrics to “Hallelujah,” specifically, weren’t written by him. They’re his, though. Surely, Cohen has enough to spare a few.
Jeff Buckley died in a river in 1997, at 30 years old. More than any other dead artist I love, his ghost torments me. I cannot believe I can’t think of any better way to say this, but he had the voice of an angel—ethereal, soaring over and whispering under his guitar strums, until he whips it into a loopy, almost psychodelic vibrato without ever missing a note. It’s unfair that we didn’t get more of him.
When “Hallelujah” fades out, the most gut-wrenchingly sad and gorgeous organ chords you’ve ever heard waft in, followed by his warm, soft guitar and voice on my favorite song of the album, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” It’s a song that sounds and feels exactly how you’d think, based on the title. It’s hard to believe such beautiful lyrics as the ones in this song exist; the most gorgeous words you could imagine, from a dead man, from an era of my life I never thought would end. I feel too young to hold on, the dead man howls; but I’m much too old to break free and run. That line, an unmerciful razor that refuses to kill me. My kingdom, all my riches, all my blood, he begs to bargain. Bargaining is one of the five stages of grief, you know. A bottle of lilac wine poured down a bottomless well; a bird lying dead on the sidewalk; a lot of years I don’t know what to do with. It’s never over, Jeff sings, with such impossible conviction. I love him, but he’s wrong. And I think, despite the tenderness of his words, he knows it, too.
The album then winds its way through the ghostly “Corpus Christi Carol,” out into the wilds of “Eternal Life’s” frenetic grunge, then back into the Weird Brooding Zone for “Dream Brother” and “Forget Her” to close out side B.
Grace’s surreal, meandering melodies offset by grunge guitars—it feels exactly like New York City does right now, the end of November. Cold, and crystal-clear. Pierced with crazy golden sunlight for precious few moments until the long night begins, all black steel and concrete and stone. But a more material black—not a shapeless, dizzy abyss. A solid black. A bottom to the well. Something that might, against all odds, be able to finally break my fall.
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