10.01.2011

BURNING THE DIARIES, THE SOUND TRACK: Talking Heads, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Donovan, Jonathan Richman


Last summer I was seized by an uncontrollable urge to burn my diaries. I admit it was a strange thing to do. Violent, even. I wrote an essay about it, trying to figure out what the H I was thinking. The piece is in The New York Times this weekend.

I've brought up the Big Burn a couple of times with people at dinner parties--strangers, mostly. It starts conversations. You never know who keeps diaries, and it turns out the most unlikely people have the habit. One man, a fierce and brilliant litigator, who has been keeping journals since he was a child, told me with anger and disbelief that I had committed a form of suicide. Whoa there.


Maybe I was burning through the accumulated karma of a couple of lifetimes. I did it with anger, and with glee. Be gone, Undead! Be over, past! I wanted to let fly all those pages full of heartbreak and yearning. Some of the spines of my old notebooks were bound with packing tape from Conde Nast, marked, appropriately enough, FRAGILE.

In an odd way, this blog has taken the place of keeping diaries--not that it is anywhere near as revealing, of course. But writing to publish--rather than writing to hide--forces me to give shape to inchoate longings and confused stirrings. And to share joy.

The very act of sitting down to write means you have a beginning. The writing pushes you on towards an ending. Or at least, a resolution.

It will be years before I know what exactly I was doing when I raked up that burn pile. But I do know what I am listening to while I think further on it. Here's a playlist for the essay. Clamp on headphones, reading and listening playtime 10 minutes! You won't get this experience from the New York Times version. At least not yet, anyway.

We start with Talking Heads, Burning Down the House. "Watch out, you might get what you’re after…." I am an unregenerately devoted Talking Heads fan. "All content. No action." I vividly remember when they slinked into CBGB from RISD in the seventies, and lit a bonfire in the music scene. David Byrne, an impassioned activist, is a Slow Love Life Household God. And I love his book, Bicycle Diairies. It helped me understand why my son Alex loves to ride so much. As I watch those early music videos my heart does a little flippy contraction...how young we all were.


One of my favorite fun things to do: skip through covers of beloved songs. I went on to Bonnie Raitt's cover of Burning Down the House, which I had never heard. Bonnie, another Household Divinity. Parallel lives? I remember first hearing her when there were ten people in the tiny basement coffee shop in Cambridge. And diving for the same shirt on the rack at the local thrift shop. I let her have it. Of course.

The mood turns more somber. What, exactly, was in those diary pages? The music says it all; my lifetime playlist would be a very long scroll, but here's a tiny excerpt. Start with Bonnie Raitt’s Storm Warning, a song I have listened to about a thousand times. It still brings tears to my eyes. "Can't stop a river, when it's burst its banks. I wonder how long it's gonna take to get over this heartbreak?"

Does everyone go through periods in their lives characterized by hours of grief-stricken stupor in front of a speaker, hitting REPLAY....REPLAY....REPLAY....?

I got sidetracked into Hunter Hayes’ Storm Warning because browsing through YouTube is like being lost in the card catalogue at the library. You never know what you're going to stumble onto. I have lost marvelous hours scrolling through music videos on YouTube.

I Can't Make You Love Me done by Bon Iver, with whom I am now obsessed. Lost in the Woods captures the way I often feel--lost, but with wonder and beauty. He turns feeling lost into a state of grace.

Then I moved into Dimming of the Day, by Richard Thompson, another song I have listened to about a thousand times. It may well have been my theme song for entire years. I just found a version Raitt sang with Thompson, and died and went to Heaven. Then I found a recording by David Gilmour; I had never heard this one either. It is completely different, smoother, somehow, and not so full of pain, but it is still lovely, and his voice is gorgeous.

Another in my REPLAY category, when I'm in a panic of loss: Emmylous Harris singing Leonard Cohen's Ballad of a Runaway Horse. "Some say love is like smoke, beyond all repair." In the small hours of one of those replay nights, having spent hours just gazing into a fire, I pulled a piece of charcoal from the embers and scribbled that over my hearth, where it remained for years.

And just because I cannot resist Steve Earle either, here he is with the beloved Emmylou Harris singing Goodbye.

You have to pull yourself out of a tailspin before you crash: Jonathan Richman got my feet moving. I remembered how much I loved to put on a tune, and dance my heart out--even if I was alone. Must we get old and give up such private frenzies? Never!  We need more parties in the USA

And were those books full of heartbreak? Of course not. You don't get there without the joy. For the rest of my life, I will wear my love like heaven, thanks Donovan.

As the embers glow, and I think about burning the diaries, I come round full circle to Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime. "You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?...You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?"

And guess what? You'll never know the answer.

No matter what you're burning through, music makes it better. Take an hour or two to dance today!



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