Songs are powerful medicine. They can punch you square in the heart. Put a whole different spin on your day. Good songs have a way of sneaking up on you, whether through an infectious groove that makes you dance spontaneously, or they can ambush you with insidious introspective lyrics and haunting melodies. You could be out, doing a little shopping when you walk into a store and suddenly get an ear full of Billie Holiday singing “In My Solitude” and instantly find yourself transported to the dark end of “Downer Avenue.”
Watch Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca sometime as he belts back bourbon and tells Sam the piano man that if Ingrid Bergman can stand to hear their old song again then so can he. But after a couple bars of “As Time Goes By” you’ve got to wonder, as Bogie winces, if he’s really as tough as he seems. Or maybe it was just smoke getting in his eyes.
For some folks it’s “All of Me,” or “Bye Bye Blackbird,” or Judy Garland doing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that kicks them, as Lord Buckley used to say, in their “most delicate gear.” When Little Jackie Paper “comes no more,” it bummed out a million Peter, Paul and Mary fans and put “Puff the Magic Dragon” six feet under. Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” was enough to make broken-hearted lovers everywhere go reaching for the razorblades. Scoff if you like but James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” will forever keep alive memories of that old high school chum who, whether due to a fateful car accident or a careless handful of Quaaludes, never made it to graduation day.
Corny as it seems, “Greensleeves” is the number that always worked my heart over harder than a lead pipe. More than my eyes or stomach, or even my penis it seems that my ears have always been the express lane to my soul. Whenever I hear “Greensleeves” I immediately begin to drown in an abyss of sorrow. Images of the past begin to flicker on the inside of my eyelids as the home movie of my life suddenly comes into focus: I was ten years old when the coolest kid on the block was riding his bike after dark and killed by a drunk driver. Everybody was devastated. How could a boy of such promise be struck down before his fourteenth birthday? It was at that time that I concluded life made little or no sense at all. Alexander was clearly the kid who had it all - a great athlete with a charismatic smile and a lucky streak a mile long, that was, until fate cruelly cut his short life even shorter.
The next day our school held a special assembly in his honor. The boys of the Newark Academy Glee Club stood tall in their crested black blazers, tears welling up in their eyes, trying not to crumble while their hair, slick with Brylcreme, stood fast in the October wind. As they gently cooed “Greensleeves,” the custodian dug the hole and planted a young oak in honor of our fallen classmate.
Alexander’s death left a gaping hole in my soul about the size of an airplane hangar and just as cold and drafty. No matter when or where I hear “Greensleeves” again I will forever be that ten-year-old kid at prep school, singing with tears of grief running down my cheeks.
From that point on everything in my life changed, even my relationship with my mom. I’d always thought of my mother as a kind and loving human being incapable of hating anything. “Never say you hate anyone except Hitler,” she would scold. But even more than Der Fuhrer, my mom hated death. She found nothing poetic about the sweet perfume of rotting autumn leaves and every year on Halloween she’d lock herself inside the house with the lights low while angry trick or treaters pummeled her car with eggs and trimmed the trees with toilet paper.
You weren’t even allowed to cheer when a bad guy, who deserved to die, was brutally killed on TV. She’d shoot you down with a stern glare before a resounding “Cool!” could even pass your lips. To mom there was nothing cool about death. She simply wouldn’t allow the subject mentioned in her house.
A few years ago when her only sister Hortense lay on her deathbed, dying of brain cancer, zonked out on morphine, hiding her chemo-bald head under a sparkly bright blue turban, she wouldn’t set foot in her house. From that point on, mom figured Hortense was on her own.
Two weeks later when I stopped by to escort my mother to the funeral, I found the front door locked. I stood outside of the house like an out of season Halloween spook pleading with her to let me in.
“Mom, don’t be ridiculous,” I shouted up to her. “You’ve got to go to Aunt Hortie’s funeral for God’s sake! She was your only sister!”
A minute later her silhouette appeared in the window. “I’m not going to any goddamn cemetery. I’ll be there soon enough!” she grumbled. (And of course she was right…)
As everyone gathered round the gravestones, I offered my mother’s condolences, and tried to explain her conspicuous absence as well as her personal vendetta against death. A long line of relatives stepped up to the open grave to shovel dirt on Aunt Hortie’s coffin, as my cousin Ellen opened her flute case, assembled the instrument and began to play “Greensleeves,” of course, at Aunt Hortense’s request.