And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? If you're like a lot of people, very little. Or less than you'd hoped. Or it's hard to remember. Or all three.
This would normally be the time for a fond summing up—and what was on your top 10 list this year? But all those satisfying ordering systems, with their normative zeal, just don't seem to be clicking in at all right now. Instead, there are calendar pages white as snow. Instead, all is off balance, out of sync. 2020: tilt.
In the general absence of activity, the question has become, can you get and generally keep your own head and household together during this very distressed, prolonged, global moment? We are told to focus on the present, on our breath, on our aliveness, and to be grateful. But there are far fewer of our usual signposts to guide us. So we try to develop new routines, and new approaches to living, despite the unsettling difficulty of it all, "for staying," as Rilke wrote, "is nowhere."
Everything gets to be seen in a new light, with the sad conclusion that our chosen trajectory is far less secure than we thought. We believed, somehow, that we were the masters of our own destiny, despite all that climate change and a blind commitment to growth are bringing our way. As for our beloved city, the last quarter century has seen New York grow into a giant service economy, one that has made everything more expensive and less interesting. But there have been some good residual effects. The percolating reach of money gave rise to some new developments and opportunities. Musicians found ways to function in the outer reaches of these spaces. It was in these nooks, these little-room venues, that music could take root and musicians could grow. The band was likely scraping by, but at least they had a place to play, and increasingly, with home recording and the internet, a chance to be heard. The precariousness of it seemed just tolerable—it always does, until something breaks it. Now that growth is arrested, and no one knows when it might return.
The New York Times published an article describing a “great cultural depression” for performers, who are suffering tremendously. In detailing how the brilliant violinist Jennifer Koh is recording concerts in her home and living on food stamps, I was shocked. Lately I have been listening to and marveling at her delicate but tensile readings of works by several contemporary composers in her series of String Poetic recordings. Koh is a major artist, one who grows out of a much larger context, in which culture is a viable choice. We need that context, that density, for the whole musical landscape to thrive. And right now, musicians are being forced out of their field. The $15 billion provided to Save Our Stages by the COVID relief bill is a small but important acknowledgement of the centrality of performing arts to our lives. Its focus is on venues, which are indeed essential. But performers themselves need a lifeline. Right now, they are living on a wire, and we are letting them fall.
Now the usual celebratory air of the holidays intersects with a need to mourn. Besides our straitened circumstances, there are hundreds of thousands gone and the same number of deaths expected in the months ahead. So, instead of lists touting the best and the brightest, I found myself thinking of some of the saddest memories from the year just past—those who succumbed to the coronavirus. One of those who was taken away by the pandemic was the producer Hal Willner. He was a great uniter, urging the world to see musicians the way they saw themselves; not bound by convention or genre, but available for every type of experience. And he was always open to the sheer range of music, just how many types of it there are, and what they evoke in us: sea shanties, Thelonious Monk, Nino Rota, Walt Disney. I have vivid memories of two concerts Hal produced, both were marked by incredible passion. His tribute to the genius songwriter and performer Bill Withers (who also died earlier this year) brought out depths of love in all who played and included a very rare public appearance from Withers himself on an impromptu "Grandma's Hands" with guitarist Cornell Dupree. Willner’s homage to Doc Pomus, songwriter of “This Magic Moment,” and so much more, told the incredible story of the artist’s brash triumphs in the face of contracting polio, with performers ranging from Lou Reed to nearly lost soul belter Howard Tate. Hal cast his light in such a way that you saw others’ lights much more clearly. The last album he produced came out this past September, a tribute to Marc Bolan and T. Rex, which appends a fitting coda to his own wildly eclectic, loving approach to music and life: “It really doesn’t matter at all / Life’s a gas.”
Another person who died early in the pandemic was Adam Schlesinger, founder and principal songwriter of Fountains of Wayne. The gently melancholic strain in all his music, expressed through Chris Collingwood’s sighing voice, remains unusually affecting, like a dream you can’t quite remember or shake. He was followed by the great John Prine, who recorded as his last song the perfectly poised “I Remember Everything.” It was one of several great songs he was writing right up until the end. Another was a far more haunted composition, “Summer’s End,” about a death created by opioid addiction, which resonated with a more general sense of loss at this time.
Amazingly, music doesn’t go away. Even when commercial prospects for it are slim, people keep making music; it's an imperative. But desperate times lead us back to basic questions: what is music for? Its visceral lure pulls people together, and that is where it starts. It creates connection, now remotely transferred, and corresponding pale. We fervently await the return of direct transmittal, the oneness of music when it is played and apprehended in person. Music engages us, pleasantly distracting us from day-to-day dilemmas—the great drummer and bandleader Art Blakey used to say it “washes away the dust of everyday life”—and allowing us into a different realm. And since music is action, it is also the memory of action, and a link to the past. Music preserves. Its emotion, its physicality, is made manifest every time it is played.
And SO despite the frequent wretchedness of the past year, we will hold on and hope for better days. Maybe our new president will help bring back some basic regard for truth and decency. Biden’s selection of Deb Haaland as US Secretary of the Interior—the first Native American to hold a Cabinet-level post—is already a step in the right direction. And the rollout of a vaccine promises, if not a return to the Before Times, at least the prospect of reengaging with the world in a more intimate way. That, too, is an imperative. As my late friend David Rakoff wrote in his last work, a book-length poem called Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel, “We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether / to kiss or to wound. Still, we must come together.”