Monday, April 20, 2015

Currently Listening: Goodbyes

I found Townes Van Zandt a few months after moving to New York. My girlfriend of five years had just broken up with me, but we were both broke, so we continued living with each other. I had struggled to find a good job. The ones I did find paid little. I quickly learned that the idea of New York City commensurate pay was a myth, or at least it was in retail. I didn't have many friends and lived a solitary existence. In other words, I was particularly primed to become a fan.

Now, don't worry: things got better. But before they did, I would need Townes Van Zandt to pull me through. His songs are about the down and out, the ones living on the margins, the discarded, and the lovelorn and they are all set to distinctly haunting melodies, sung with a high lonesome baritone that wouldn't sound out of place around a campfire burning brightly along the trail and under the deep velvet of the Texas sky.

Beyond all of that, though, Townes Van Zandt writes songs about life on the road, about moving on. This is a subject that has been on my mind a lot recently. At the end of June, my wife and I will also be moving on. The birth of our son, August, has led us to face some economic realities as well as familial ones. Being close to family also seems like a good idea right about now. My wife and I are both fiercely independent people, but having a child means facing the reality that a little help would go a long way. So, we will be heading to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to start a new life.

I don't relish this looming new life. I like my life in New York. I like my friends. I don't want to leave. Once again, I will need Townes to get me through. Specifically, his beautiful To Live is to Fly. It's a song that captures the bittersweet quality of moving on filled with lyrical phrasing that offers jewels of wisdom in every verse, but this will be the verse that makes my eyes go all dewey as my wife and I pack up a Uhaul:

"Good bye to all my friends
It's time to leave again
But think of the poetry
and the picking' down the line

Well, I'll miss the system here
the bottom's low and the treble's clear
But it don't pay to think too much
on the things you leave behind."

The other song that will be rattling around my brain as we leave New York is Lou Reed's NYC Man. While it might seem silly for a guy from Florida to think of himself as a New Yorker, I felt the pull of this city since I was a kid. I don't know why the city played on my imagination so much as a child. I am certain it had something to do with my allegiance to the Marvel roster of comic books superheroes. Through the stories of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil I felt as if I knew the city better than my own town.

But what cemented my fondness for New York was the music of Lou Reed. The Velvet Underground as the perennial house band for Andy Warhol's famous parties at The Factory captured a side of life that was as grimy and dangerous as it was alluring. Songs about drug use and transvestites set amongst the backdrop of 1960s  bohemian New York City? Uhhhh, hell yeah. As a solo artist, Reed continued to push boundaries and write for the underbelly of society, essentially giving a voice to the voiceless. Not only did Reed influence my musical tastes, he ultimately helped shape my political beliefs.

But NYC Man hits at a personal level. The song is ostensibly about a man who is saying to a lover that if she want to break up, its fine, he'll get along (oh, yeah, Lou Reed is also a tremendous jerk). Ultimately, the song states that as an NYC Man, Reed has weathered the worst, he is tough, and will get through this heartbreak.

When I first got the idea for this week's blog post, my intention was to post a bunch of sings that have defined my New York experience, detailing all of the highs and lows I have experienced in the eleven years I have called this city home. In the end, I think, what I really care about is how I feel right now. I hate to leave this city. It encapsulates all of the culture, intellectualism, and humanity that I longed for as  a kid growing up in Florida. And these two songs by Lou Reed and Townes Van Zandt help me to face this new chapter of my life with courage.

Despite popular opinion, I have never thought of New York as a hostile city, or found its inhabitants rude. In fact, just the opposite. The city is packed with people and we have learned that we need to work together together. If you see someone helping a young mother lift a stroller up a steep flight of stairs in the subway, you can bet that someone is a New Yorker.

Yet, this city has nearly torn me apart hundreds of times. I came here with dreams and goals that never materialized; partly due to my own failings and partly due to circumstances out of my control. I didn't set out to find a wife or start a family and yet just that has happened. Now, I can't comprehend ever wanting anything other than what I have found in them. I never thought of myself as "school" guy and yet I will be graduating from Brooklyn College with grades and sense of accomplishment that have far exceeded my hopes. I just want to print out multiple copies of my transcript and roll around in the A's.

Still, when I look into the rear view mirror of the Uhaul and see the giant, sparkling New York City skyline recede from view as we begin our trek into the middle of the country, I'll have these two songs cued up. I will need Van Zandt's aching melody and pragmatic philosophy, "Where you've been is good and gone/all you keep's the getting there." And I'll need Reed's nonchalant, I don't give a fuck New York attitude, "New York City, How I love you, /blink your eyes and I'll be gone."

-Justin Gray

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