The Place Where Music Takes Us
Each of us knows what we're escaping from. That's the easy part. But when we listen to music, where do we escape to?
This question came to mind recently when I was trying to recommend music to a friend. "I want something loud and physical, something I can feel," she said. After whiffing on my first two suggestions, it occurred to me what she was really looking for was an escape route from her reality.
The sense of being someplace else: it's a trick of the mind offered to us by music. Other things provide this temporary consolation, too: drugs, religion, TV, gambling, shopping, and food -- for starters. But pop is different. Again and again through its lyrics, pop has proven itself uniquely aware of its potential for offering us an exit ramp from reality. Though the best songs to have dealt with the finer points of escape have always been about their own limitations for providing it.
The most subtle song I know about music's power to spirit us away was written in 1969 by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell. They called their tune "Groupie." Bramlett and her then-husband, Delaney, recorded a version that was issued as a B-side on Atlantic Records in the final month of the '60s. Bonnie and Delaney's take is raw, with Eric Clapton's wayward guitar filling in the bars between the verses:
so far away
I fell in love with you
before the second show.
it sounds so sweet and clear
but it's just a radio
and you're not really here.
At first listen, "Groupie" might appear to be a simple song about the aftermath of a one-night stand, written at a time when the general public was just beginning to learn about the systematic exchange of sex and idolatry that had become part of touring with a rock band. But there's something more strange, yet more universal, hiding behind the scant plot points here. Driving the lyric's imagery is a synesthesia that will connect with any listener who has ever exited their body through a pair of headphones. The narrator in "Groupie" sings not only about her carnal longing, but also of a mind wearied to the point of fracture. The real and the imaginary are confused. And in the second verse, both the singer's sensual and sensory urges meet upon the symbol of the guitar:
is such a sad affair
and I can hardly wait
to sleep with you again.
What to say
to make you come again?
Come back and play for me
your sad guitar.
The play between reality and fantasy that runs throughout "Groupie" remained buried for another two years after it was written. In the meantime, artists as diverse as Cher and Joe Cocker performed it on record and onstage. Bette Midler was the first to give the tune a national airing when she sang it on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, in 1970. But ironically, it was when the Carpenters softened the song's focus and arrangement and turned it into a top five hit called "Superstar" that the more troubled meaning -- the one stressing music's limitations as a means of escape -- came to the fore for the first time.
Where has the narrator in "Superstar" escaped to? And what does she expect to find there? Bramlett and Russell's song is a story about a listener seeking a kind of wholeness through music, but also through sense memory. I identify with "Superstar" because there was a time in my life when my iTunes library was my primary means of psychic survival. When my friend requested music that was "loud and physical," I was brought back to a place I haven't visited much since my early 20s, a place I feel is accurately mapped in Bramlett and Russell's song. On returning, I can see the contours of this space more clearly than ever. I realize why it was once necessary I spend so much time there and what I gained from those visits. Like the narrator in "Superstar," I sought a kind of wholeness through music. And it's partly through those desperate sessions where I sought some kind of union with my favorite artists that I found my vocation and eventually gathered the gumption to write for a living.
Perhaps that's what all of us are looking for when we escape through music -- a place where we will find another voice, one to strengthen our own in close harmony. Or maybe, through sheer volume, we seek an intervention: we want to be rattled back to our core and to our first principles, before fear led us astray. Maybe we want to shake away the sense of triviality that, beginning in adolescence, settles upon our actions, layer by layer and year by year. Maybe it's not an escape from reality we crave, but an escape to a greater awareness of our possibilities. And maybe music's charge temporarily takes us back to a state of being we knew before lots of little failures and disappointments began to dent our childlike sense of invincibility and block our imaginations.
Our imaginations, uncluttered: This is the place we return when we listen to the music we love. But maybe it's a misnomer to call our means of getting there escape. Maybe it's more accurate -- and infinitely more helpful -- to call it rediscovery.