Cosmo Kramer walks through a Hollywood Video and picks up VHS. He reads the cover.
“Straight to video, huh? That means I’m the premier.”
My favorite musicians have a talent for creating a sense of privacy, like they’re speaking right to me.
Like I’m the only one this song has ever been played for.
I put on a pair of headphones, close my eyes, and suspend a little belief,
and concepts of marketing and supply and demand melt away.
There’s this human in between my ears who’s communicating with me in the most intimate way.
They say the mind is like an iceberg. Our conscious mind is the tip. Everything you think about, everything you know floats above the surface in icy air.
But there’s so much more beneath the water.
Ninety percent of the working mind is subconscious, unseen, unknown.
It’s why we have compulsions. Obsessions.
It’s why even when you tell yourself that you’re over an ex, the flash of her eyes get you all goosebumpy and make you feel doomed.
A few years ago, I became obsessed with the Strokes.
“Obsessed” is an understatement.
That whole winter, the only music I listened to was the Strokes.
My friend Nathan would say, “The Strokes again?” when he’d hear songs bleeding through my headphones as we rode the Red Line to work together.
I walked around singing the choruses or humming the guitar solos of the same 24 songs from October to March.
But they never got old.
Instead, I felt like I got to know them better, deeper. They began to mean more.
At the time, I was going through a pretty rough break-up. The songs became mantras to me.
The lead singer of the Strokes, Julian Casablancas, usually writes about turbulence, relationships gone wrong. But his voice reveals something that I still can’t put my finger on. Some secret about life or love or being a human being.
On cold nights, I’d lock myself in my room, put on head phones, close my eyes and search for the thing he was trying to express to me. I never found it.
By January, I was going on youtube. Watching his interviews, watching him talk about his life and his art in half-drunken nonchalance, waiting for him to tell me what this secret was.
This was the winter of the polar vortex.
Every morning, Nathan and I would wrap ourselves in four or five layers and trek out over snow and ice to the Red Line train and ride down to the office.
At work, I’d drink gallons of coffee and punch numbers into a data system.
At home, I’d crack open whatever available alcohol was in the fridge, open my laptop and listen to music. Then, I’d go to sleep and start the whole thing again the next day.
Going out wasn’t an option. Some days it wasn’t even safe, the windchill well below zero.
So most of my hours, some times all of the hours in a given day, were attached to a computer or a phone, listening to the Strokes.
Round the clock research for this secret. This secret to being cool, to anguish to dealing with pain.
This secret that Julian Casablancas had and I didn’t.
The only time I felt like I had a clue was when I sang the songs to myself.
When I was alone and idle and had a song in my head.
When I was frustrated or lonely and just sang make a cold walk home a little quicker.
But even then I was only expressing myself. I wasn’t getting any closer to this secret.
Over time, my singing became more interesting.
I became more focused on what I expressed, what I felt, what sang about.
I remember walking home from the train, unplugging and singing myself home, then picking up a guitar and singing myself to sleep.
I became interested in what was happening deep inside myself.
What I didn’t understand. What I’d never looked at.
The winter ended. Sun came out. Ice melted. The water rose.
I felt better. I wrote more. I took long walks. I called up old friends. I stopped listening to the Strokes.
Not for good. I mean I still love the Strokes, but there were new musicians, new things to check out.
I felt like I had a hold of myself. I had a sense of weight, a sense of mass. Presence.
The Spring came. The layers came off.
I don’t know where I’d be without the Strokes.
Julian guided me towards myself.
It’s like I put my ear to a long soup-can telephone and he was on the other end. I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t ask questions. I couldn’t hear quite clearly, but eventually I listened until hard enough until I heard myself. If that makes sense.
I think the best art does that. There’s the illusion that you’re the premier. That you’re the sole listener.
And you listen harder and harder and sometimes that makes you feel more alone. And you listen harder and harder to someone else, only to find that you’re actually listening to yourself.
Listening to a little voice that’s been living deep down in dark water, now brought to surface.
That’s the goal any way.
It could be Julian Casablancas, it could be Kramer. It could be a leaf on the side of the road.
It gets warmer all the time. More ice melts. The water level gets higher. It floods the little towns you build. The little facts that you line up thinking you’ve found the answers. The constant sound of the tide reminding you of what’s beneath the surface and that more’s to come.