Have you ever had a little cut in your mouth that you couldn’t stop chewing on?
Poking at, worrying over, jabbing and stabbing against with your tongue, endlessly, compulsively? Even though it hurt, even though you knew all that biting was only prolonging the suffering? Didn’t you feel just inexplicably, irresistibly compelled to mess with it, even if doing so kept it from healing over?
And didn’t even you sort of secretly enjoy the salt-sting clamor that erupted when a dollop of steak sauce sets its fissures ablaze as you thoughtfully chewed your dinner, the bitter anointment of orange juice cleansing it mercilessly as you dutifully swallowed your breakfast?
You didn’t ask for that little cut, but you got it anyway. So you learned to live with it. And you learned, in your dark and roundabout and oh-so- human way, to like it.
It’s like that with sad songs and me. Every lover I’ve ever lost has been immortally enshrined within the lyrics of some depressing little tune or other. I can’t help it. I call them my Hate Songs, and they’ve been with me for as long as I can remember.
Actually, that’s not true. They’ve been with me since I was 11, when a boy broke my heart for the first time and I stole my sister’s Tiffany cassette single from the family entertainment console and raced up to my bedroom to be alone with my humiliation. And Tiffany. And “All This Time,” her fourth and final hit song.
And, as it were, my very first Hate Song.
I don’t really mean hate, though. I mean, instead, simply, the opposite of love. Un-Love. Not Love. The Emotion Formerly Known as Love. The mucky, sucking vacuum that appears when the boy you’ve not-so-secretly adored since you were nine laughs at your glasses and sends you running down the street and through the front door and up the stairs to your room with that wretched little tape and you pop it in and hit the little play button and the whine-pitch teen idol sentimentality comes roaring into your brain:
All these tears/
And Iike a night, love disappears/
But hearts are good for souvenirs /
And memories are forever
And it’s just so exactly perfect that you lay your head down on the cream carpet right next to the tape deck speaker, and you hit rewind over and over again, even though it hurts, like a rat hitting a feeder bar for a pellet, until your head and heart feel satisfyingly emptied and you feel vindicated, or at least justified, in your brokenness. The song plays through a final time, the tape clicks off, and you stand up, sensing, without a doubt, that all will be well. Not now, but soon. You sense that you can and will survive fourth grade, and all the other grades and boys that will come after it, most of both of them unpleasant but somehow necessary, until you marry 24 years later and put the whole wretched experiment of dating behind you and for good.
But those Hate Songs trail you like a comet’s tail. They follow you through 29 moves, five of them overseas, some half-dozen serious long-term relationships, plus double that number in not-so-serious short-term relationships, which pack their own kind of bitter punch; all that, plus one relationship that it turns out you were mistaken about completely, as it never actually happened at all.
Oh, yes. In the years since Tiffany and grade four, I’ve amassed quite the manic-depressive mix-tape. By now, Tiffany shares her set list with everybody from obscure hipster rocker balladeers like Ben Kweller to sturdy sentinels like Bob Marley and The Beatles. I’d like to think my tastes are slightly more refined than they were in those old tape deck days, but probably, they’re not. Mostly, still, my Hate Songs describe in plain terms the sting of romantic rejection, the simple and abiding sharpness of loss:
He’ll realize the only thing that’s real are the kids that kid themselves /
And the demise of the beautiful /
What is beautiful?
The day breaks/
Your mind aches/
there will be time when all the things she said will fill your head/
you won’t forget her
Each one of these songs has, for me, a person standing just in front of it, springing to life as vivid and impenetrable as a hologram every single time I curse my own sentimentality and push the play button yet again.
Sometimes, not every single word rings true. Sometimes the gender pronoun is off, and it requires a bit of magical thinking to really get the most out of whatever particular Hate Song it is I happen to be keeping sniveling company with. But it always feels good. Even when it feels bad, it always feels good.
I suspect I’m not alone in practicing the particular brand of musical masochism. We’ve probably all got an old reel of the suckers looping through our heads and hearts. Don’t we? They are the soundtrack to the Very Worst Moments of our lives, and they define us in deep and private ways.
Willie Nelson has a line in one of his oldest, saddest songs that talks about feeding his nightmares, and how they wait all night long for him to come along and throw them a few scraps. As he always does.
If I may be so bold, I’d like to theorize that when he penned these lines, Mr. Nelson was talking about roughly the same thing I’m talking about: our strange and sometimes embarrassing proclivity to pick at our psychic scabs, over and over, our exhaustive search for just the right surgical instrument to help us with these morbid extractions.
It feels somehow proper for us to do our deepest grieving in this way: all the rage and disappointment and dread and despair some gone-away person has inspired condensed into a clean three-and-a-half minutes. Filed and labeled, though never really gone. Dormant for years on end, yet insta-retrievable at the click of a button, like an old virus. Like an old lover.
But let’s get one thing straight before we wrap up: life is not a clean string of rhyming words set to pre-produced melody. For all of my earnest attempts to construct a soundtrack that might narrate with some touch of eloquent sympathy the low points of my romantic life, I very much get that.
The progression of losses that defines each one of our short existences here on earth would never abide such emotional tidiness, such sterility: Intro, verse, chorus, repeat twice, then fade out. Ha!
Here’s how that tune really goes: with repeatings and trailings off and doublings backwards and tuneless whistling and sometimes only just static and ugly sound, until the tape reel ends and the batteries burn out and the room goes dark and still, till we’re all left standing together in the blackness, holding hands to keep warm against that Great Looming Silence, from which all sound comes, and into which, eventually, all sound shall mercifully disappear.