There are few times in my life when being a little careless works out for the best, let alone for the rapturous and revelatory. But last week – on a rainy but refreshing afternoon – it did. Let me set the scene.
I had left work earlier than usual. I had just called my dad to wish him a happy birthday and learned that, entirely by a remarkable coincidence, we would be seeing each other in Las Vegas in less than three weeks. Upon arriving at my apartment, I found (oh bliss!) The Power of Art in my mailbox (guess who was responsible for that). And the crux: that morning I had spilled an entire cup of coffee all over my car.
I was charged, flushed and gleeful. It was time to take action. I would clean up not only the coffee spill, but all of the papers, show flyers, media kits, bar coats, loose magazines, all of the detritus of every day life that had accumulated in my car for the past few frigid months.
And prominent among the refuse, I am ashamed to admit, were CDs.
I found a stack crammed in each door pocket and another stack in the glove box. I found CDs under the driver seat and the passenger seat and my visor sleeve of CDs was above capacity, with two in each sleeve. I found burned copies of albums I couldn’t get enough of, bizarre double-features (Thom Yorke, Eraser burned on the same disc as Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha?), podcasts-on-plastic, data CDs that don’t actually work in my car stereo.
Most of them were unlabeled, distinct only by level of sun damage and CD-R brand. Some of them were destroyed beyond belief – translucent, gouged, water-damaged. I threw out the ones I knew were done for. And then I found a Sharpie in my console, and I set to work as archaeologist, and archivist, of my own life in music.
I thought this would be a routine, methodical exercise; I’d pop one in, find out what it was and if it still worked, then file it for keeps or throw it away. But almost immediately, I was seized. One CD I’d given up for dead – a mix I’d made in 2004 – played almost all the way through, charting a course through mysterious, half-remembered terrain. The last track on a volume that was both emotionally transporting and evasive – The Mountain Goats and Cat Power one minute, “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Britney’s “Toxic” the next – was the Blur song “Out of Time.” I’d forgotten this song completely; hearing it again, remembering it beat by beat, was like seeing a ghost.
I excavated the twin mixes made a year apart for my boyfriend – neither of which I’d heard since we split up two summers ago. The first CD – I must have given it to him three weeks into our relationship, which now seems crazed and completely preemptive to me – is striking in its confidence, full of Chopin etudes, accordions in dangerous waltzes, singing in French. There are tender folk songs, and Count Basie, and Etta James. It’s breathless, flirty and cosmopolitan – like a wobbly bicycle with a balloon tied to the handlebars, or woman in a sundress, sunlit.
The second mix is almost all soul music, and never has soul been the righter word for soul music – listening to it now I am almost embarrassed by how wanting it sounds – and how wanting I must have felt. Somewhere in me, somewhere in my soul, I knew we were on our way to being over, and it made me want to shout. Otis Redding howling, “Don’t be afraid of love.” Brenton Woods, cool but growing impatient, imploring, “Gimme some kind of sign, girl.”
It went on like this. I sat in my car for an hour, entrapped by half-alive emotions and memories, half-decayed albums, the architecture of time and experience becoming transparent. Whatever I played – Elliott Smith, The Shangri-Las, Wolf Parade – was draped with gauzy layers. Falling in love, falling away from love. Leaving home, coming home. A demo cut on a four track that had put me to sleep on a shaky train out of Poland. A mix of power jams someone left in my car – Belinda Carlisle, AC/DC – that drove us through an obliterating thunderstorm in Branson, Missouri. A searing Turkish pop song that kept me from crying on a long, lonely bus trip across southern Anatolia. Rowboats in central Wisconsin. Apple orchards in the fall. One interminable winter where I’d listened to nothing but dirty Southern gospel songs, searching for strength and guidance.
I found my burned copy of Oh, You’re So Silent, Jens, long ago given up for lost. Something about this album had made me bashful when I first heard it (the same summer I made that brazenly flirty mix CD) – the swoopy flutes and glissandos under Jens Lekman’s insecure, inflected tenor, like a paper boat on a glittery sliver of water. It was so vulnerable, so unapologetically pretty. It was one of those albums I was conscious of, careful not to have on in the car if I was driving with someone I didn’t know very well (or with my boyfriend, who really didn’t like it – probably out of that same shyness).
But in my car on a Tuesday afternoon, and in the rabbit hole I’d fallen into, it all felt virtuosic, even in its most naked, honest moments. I sat there – in my winter coat, my windows foggy, the rain getting forceful – and listened to “A Man Walks Into a Bar” over and over again.
When I finally came inside it was dark out. And I decided to make this meta-mix CD for you – a mix CD of my clearest moments from all of these mix CDs, a distillation of this eerie and gorgeous hour of my life. It won’t sound the same to you, of course.
FORGOTTEN SONGS: THE MIX CD
Burn it, play it a few times, lose it for a few years, return to it gloriously
1. “Out of Time” – Blur (from Think Tank) (buy)
2. “Rocky Dennis’ Farewell Song” – Jens Lekman (from Oh You’re So Silent, Jens) (buy)
3. “Midnight Train to Georgia” – Gladys Knight and the Pips (buy)
4. I have no idea what this song is called! – Melodia
5. “Don’t Be Afraid of Love” – Otis Redding (buy)
6. “Shine a Light” – Wolf Parade (from Apologies to the Queen Mary) (buy)
7. “Akbaba” – Nil Karaibrahimgil (info)
8. “Wheels” – Cake (from Pressure Chiefs) (buy)
9. “God’s Unchanging Hand” – (from Southern Journey V. 3: 61 Highway Mississippi – Delta Country Blues, Spirituals, Work Songs & Dance Music (buy)