LARGE-HEARTED BOY - 8 JUNE 2014
After the big blast in Beirut, when the country's top intelligence chief was killed, I started a playlist. By this point, we'd lived in the Middle East for nearly half a decade. Our daughter had been born in Riyadh, we'd traveled to Yemen, where the little girl caught measles, and when my wife took a posting in Baghdad, I moved to Istanbul, where Loretta learned how to walk as her mom covered the "end" of a war. Then, in the fall of 2011, we moved to Lebanon, where everything was supposed to be different. There were mountains and beaches and great wine and a solid crew of fellow foreign correspondents, many of them with children. We allowed ourselves to relax, to unpack our books, set up a stereo, light some candles, and consider a dinner party. Then there was a seven-hour shoot-out just down the block from our house, followed not long after by a massive car bomb.
Scrolling through all the playlists I've made over the years, I can retrace the path:
Saudi Claus, made to commemorate that first weird Christmas in the world's most Islamic country in the world, featuring: "Alcohol," by Saturday Looks Good to Me and "Woman in the Ghetto," by Phyllis Dillon
New Dad/New Mom, made just before my wife gave birth in a Saudi hospital, where I met our daughter Loretta, featuring: "Back on the Chain Gang," by The Pretenders and "A New England," by Billy Bragg
Baghdad, a very short list I put together during a five-day vacation to Iraq, to visit my wife in the beleaguered capital, featuring: "Slow Motion" by Wilco and "Just Like Honey," by Jesus and Mary Chain
Sold a Book?, a celebratory list I made when the contract arrived by email, featuring: "Money Ain't a Thing," by Jay-Z and "We Are Real," by Silver Jews
Loretta's Jamz, a compilation of songs adored by my daughter, a list begun in a Beirut kitchen, extended during a summer in Illinois, and updated most recently in Venice, California, featuring: Lots of Magnetic Fields
LA, to Stay, marks that moment when I turned down a big job as a professor...in the Midwest, when we really committed to a life in California, featuring: "History Lesson Part II," The Minutemen and "Rock Bottom Riser," Smog
It's all there: From moving to the fearsome Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where we became unlikely parents, to Kelly's posting in Iraq, then me selling a book while in Beirut, where I'd spend long afternoons listening to music with Loretta. Then, when we had yet another chance to flee, we decided at last to put the brakes on and stay in California.
So now we live in Los Angeles, in a house by the beach. Life is good. Things aren't bad. There is some regret. But in an instant, I can cue up any playlist and be transported. The most affecting is still probably "After the Bomb," made on the Friday of the book's title. When those tracks unfurl, I can remember a less hopeful, more fearful time in my life.
"This Must Be the Place," - from Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads
The night of the bomb, we had a friend over, and our daughters ran around the house cutting things with scissors, and we stared at our phones, trying to figure out who we were and what kind of lives we were about to lead.
I first got obsessed with this song when I read it had been played every night at Chloë Sevigny's brother's nightclub, during its brief glory days. I loved the idea of all these drunk, beautiful, perhaps lonely people, lighting illicit cigarettes and trying to convince each other they were happy and having a great time and that we weren't all going to die. That sounds grim, but this song's mix of lightness and melancholy was a perfect way to get the smell of fire and brimstone out of my nose.
"I feel numb...guess I must be having fun. The less we say about it the better, making it up as we go along, feet on the ground, head in the sky, it's OK, I know nothing's wrong."
"Come Around," - from Kala, MIA
At a certain point, I poured stiffer and stiffer drinks, and a night of fear gave over to a night to tie one on. No matter how dire things might seem -- and they often seemed more dire to me, I must admit, than to anyone else -- a body can still enjoy a good cocktail, and song with a big beat.
Listening to it again, this is a sort of ridiculous song, and I kind of can't stand the Ludacris, let's-fuck-baby guest-spot, but the insistent shake-shake of the tambourine was right for the time, and not a few of the lyrics hit home.
"In a faraway land we got shit made, Ray-Ban shades, warheads laid, babies born in air raids."
"Could It Happen to Me? ," - from Siren, Roxy Music
The next day, hungover and confused, I found my fear giving way to disbelief and anger. Why would someone risk injuring a hundred people -- a hundred! -- just to kill one guy, who was actually a pretty good guy, by some accounts. But of course that was naive. To live so close to such barbarity, and the chance it could happen again, this was inconceivable and the darkness irreconcilable.
But oh, the driving melody of this fantastic Roxy Music single, which is a bit of a love song, but which is also about who we are and what we can and cannot accomplish.
"Now I'm cracked wide open, I can't conceal, My all-over trembling, I'm acting strange...Should I light that fire again? Could it happen to me? Did it happen to you?"
"Lust for Life," - from Album, Girls
The next stage of the playlist grief cycle was a kind of welling up of anger, and then this manic feel of going slightly crazy. That whole weekend, I'd oscillate from each pole, drinking to slow it all down.
This crazy song is once again more or less a love song -- aren't they all, sort of? -- but I so loved the specific ideations of desire. Who doesn't want pizza, wine, and a beach house? I wanted it all, and none of what I didn't. I mainly wanted to be alive.
"Oh, I wish I had a suntan, I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine
I wish I had a beach house, Then we could make a big fire every night,
Instead I'm just crazy, I'm totally mad,
Yeah I'm just crazy, and fucked in the head"
"Lover Lover Lover," - from New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen
But by Sunday, the anger became unsustainable, and walking through a city on lock-down -- all the shutters drawn, people either headed for the airport or resigned to staying -- the overriding emotion was the bitter, deadening blanket of sadness.
A sadness for those who'd been hurt and those yet to be hurt, and this deep and oceanic yearning that the injured to not and never to be anyone we loved -- combined with the more obvious and troubling situation: That we weren't leaving, that my wife would go toward the violence, not away from it, until something changed.
"I locked you in this body, I meant it as a kind of trial. You can use it for a weapon,
or to make some woman smile... Please let me start again, I want a face that's fair this time, I want a spirit that is calm."
"Range Life," - from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement
Then Monday rolled around. Very tentatively, around noon, more and more people began to emerge from their homes. The obvious question seemed to be: How can we solve this? I was interested in that question, but I became obsessed with a more obvious answer: To get the fuck away.
I met my neighbor on the corner and we exchanged a grim handshake. "You leaving," he said. "Not yet," I said. "You?" "Not yet?" And I didn't say it -- and maybe I could have sung it -- but I wanted so badly to go right then.
"I want a range life, If I could settle down, If I could settle down, Then I would settle down...I will agree there isn't absolutely nothing, nothing more than me"
"Laugh Til You Cry Live Til You Die," - from Flow Motion, Can
But leaving betrayed a kind of cowardice, a huge selfishness. And anyway, we were trapped -- so it seemed! So I laughed and I cried and I hoped none of us would die.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit any of this fear, as bashful as I'd be about sharing any of the lyrics to this song, but I'm completely confident that if you don’t already listen to Can, you should start now.
This piece was published by Large-Hearted Boy. Read the original here.