How Music Draws Us Out of Ourselves
This week, I'm your far-flung correspondent, reporting from the island of 3:58 am. I'm indulging in a favorite bad habit, one I've stumbled in and out of most my adult life. A little before midnight, I crawled into bed and started listening to Patti Smith's Horses. Four hours and three Patti Smith albums later (plus some time spent reading and trying to will myself to sleep), I've moved back to my desk for a quick Google search that has turned into this column. Such are the undisciplined ways of this vice I've given much of my life over to, which I call bedtime listening.
Bedtime listening is like bedtime reading. In fact, most nights one merges with the other. And they seem to share a similar purpose. As children, we are read to at night by adults who want to "send us off to dreamland." Many of us who are brought up with this routine
continue it on our own as we grow up. And my dream life has been enriched by those nights when the last sound I hear before nodding off is a voice lifted from a page.
I call bedtime listening a bad habit because it doesn't have nearly the same benefits for sleep and rest as bedtime reading does. It's almost pure indulgence; it demands little of the same mental effort that can swiftly wind down a reader. On many nights, it actually winds me up. I guess this surrender to cozy and familiar music comes from the same impulse that drives the ratings of bad TV shows. I mostly do it to escape the day that has preceded it. But I also listen to music in bed simply because I can, like a grown-up who one day realizes they can have Fruity Pebbles for dinner if they want. As such, bedtime listening is the mildly libertine perversion of a basic need.
I know I'm not the only person who suffers from this need for escape. I've lived with people who fell asleep nightly to a TV emitting a strobe and warble around them. I once dated a girl who couldn't sleep unless there was an old-school horror movie playing at her bedside (an arrangement that didn't hold for very long). What is it that some of us seek at the end of the day through the hum of these various media? Escape, sure. But escape from what?
Maybe the better question is: escape to whom? For reasons I don't entirely understand, nearly five hours of listening to Patti Smith compelled me to google "patti smith photographer." A couple pages into my search, I found an account by Christopher Benfey of a talk Smith gave in 2010 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She spoke about letters exchanged by the painter Georgia O'Keeff and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In his essay, Benfey tells of a letter Stieglitz wrote in the spring of 1918, an elliptical document of yearning Smith read "in a hushed voice." The photographer's words seemed to say a lot about the curious grasping forward that is the heart of a lot of music listening, bedtime or otherwise:
What do I want from you?-- --It's hardly six--morning--Sunday--cool--clear--the window wide open--I propped up in bed--feeling rather sick at heart--yet--still dreaming--having thought all night--sleeping impossible. What do I want from you? Your letter--I sent you a letter finished at the Manhattan Hotel--I went away & ordered something to eat--I re-read your letter--read it really for the first time... There it stood in large blazing letters--Wherever I looked: "What do I want from her"--And there was no answer.--Do I want anything from her that she hasn't already given me over & over again--from the first moment I saw the drawings.
What do we want from each other? What do we hope to find in our drawings, in our pop songs, and through our shy glances and clumsy compliments? As Stieglitz's letter implies, with his fetishitic handling of O'Keeff's letter, the answer would seem to be: connection. No matter how fleeting. Yet even an unguarded exchange of nods among strangers is a mean feat. A heart-to-heart among confidants rarer, still. Yet, music offers this connection time and again with a confidence and force that can be startling, if not plain off-putting, when a stranger offers it to us nakedly, without the defanging grace of a good tune.
So now I'm thinking bedtime listening -- maybe all solitary listening -- isn't so much about an escape from the proverbial dreariness of (say it with me) everyday life. Maybe, instead, music provides an escape to another mind and silences the echo chamber that forms in our own heads after a long day of missed connections. Media of any kind -- whether it be a Patti Smith album; a late night infomercial promising virility; a George Romero film; a marathon GChat session; or a letter we re-read to soak up the nuance of the person who wrote it -- offers a last ditch effort to pass through something else, and let this something else pass into us. It's my last chance tonight to make some kind of connection: the grown-up's dreamland. There are no pink trees or Wild Things there, but sometimes it seems just as fanciful.
Six hours (six hours!) have passed since I slipped into my PJs. On my nightstand, five ounces of lemon water and a soggy bowl of Special K mix with a Georges Perec novel and a book of movie trivia. The bedside still-life suggests wee hours mired in half-assed gestures of self-improvement. And now it's 4:05 am. I only know it's 4:05 am because the automated sprinkler system in my courtyard has just told me so. With any luck, the sound of the spray on the grass will be the last bedtime listening I do tonight.