Monday, October 17, 2016

My Year in Music

It might seem as though October is an odd time to start the “Year in Music” posts. The truth is that I haven’t been operating on a calendar year lately.

For me, the passing of time has been measured against my layoff. And that occurred one year ago.

This is my year in music.

If there will be a musical theme to the last twelve months, it will be the deaths of so many of our musical heroes. Of course, I loved Prince – we all did – but Bowie and Lemmy were actual influences on me. More so than any other two musicians, they were the ones I looked to when I was afraid.

Bowie taught me I could be whoever I wanted. Lemmy taught me to be true to myself. That guidance never seemed the slightest bit contradictory to me. It seemed true and it felt right.

The loss of both Lemmy and Bowie within weeks of one another – at a time when I needed heroes so desperately -- should have crushed me. But I didn’t mourn either of them the way that I would have expected.

I was already grieving something more important.

Losing my job was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to work through. I’ve written about it before, but this was a job that I treasured. It was a job that brought me happiness. It was the job I’d always dreamed of. And how many of us ever get to say that we had a dream come true?

I am one of the lucky few.

And, so, when faced with the deaths of two of my favorite artists, I just didn’t have that much to give. After all, it’s one thing when your heroes suddenly die. It’s something else entirely when your dreams do.

I realize that losing a job isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. But it remains a deeply humiliating and invalidating experience. It wreaks havoc on your finances, your emotions, your relationships, and your career prospects. It destroys your plans for the future, and sometimes forces you to make undesirable decisions. If you take any pride in your role as a provider, the experience will attempt to torch that part of your soul.

So often in the past, I had turned to metal in these moments of crisis. I've referred to it in the past as my own primal scream, a forceful expression of my deepest self whenever I felt hurt or unvalued. When careers and relationships were in disarray, it was my reminder to the world – and to myself – that my spirit would always be untouchable.

Extreme metal, in all of its grotesque aggression, is magical that way. It is an ugly, ferocious genre, often hateful and destructive, but deeply committed to its core. It is outsider art, made by and for people who are thoroughly at peace with their identities.

For most of the past twenty-five years, that was always me. But for the past twelve months, I was having an identity crisis.

Without my job, I no longer knew who I was as a professional. Without my income, I no longer knew who I was as a husband or a father. And to add to all this confusion, many of my closest friends simply stopped talking to me during this period. Without my friends, I really didn't know what I was worth.

My core? My spirit? My soul? I had lost my grip on all of these things. No amount of blast beats, death grows, or screams would give me anything to declare on my behalf.

And so, when I retreated to music this year, it wasn’t metal. I was in a deeply-hurt state of mind, and I no longer had the energy to lash out at the world. 

I was defeated, and I just wanted a salve.

The first several weeks of my layoff, I medicated myself on immense doses of shoegazey pop. I didn't understand a single word of Yukari’s “Marginal Man,” but I’d surmise that it soothed me more than any other track during this period. Not far behind was Mum’s “Green Grass of Tunnel,” with it’s childlike vocals and nonsensical lyrics.

Songs like these were haunting and tender. So many times I felt myself become nearly dissociative as I listened to them - which eventually became a troubling pattern.

Then there was the long foray into Van Morrison. This was an overdue artistic appreciation on my part. I'm grateful for it, even though it became the soundtrack to my self-pity (along with big doses of Bob Dylan and Butch Walker).

As the year went on, things got marginally better, and I found my way back to metal. I listened to Ghost Bath….a lot….never entirely sure if it was "good," but knowing that it felt pretty, and sad, and desperate, and that it touched me somewhere where I was hurting.

And then there was the day that I looked at my iTunes account and realized that “Slaughter of the Soul” by At the Gates was my most listened-to track of the year. (I suppose I had subconsciously identified it as the perfect song for tuning out the constant babble and noise that comes with working in a coffee shop).

Still, I missed out on a lot of metal this year. I decided to skip Maryland Deathfest and the Shadow Woods Festival. Somehow, I also managed to not attend a single live show of any genre the entire year. In retrospect, I can see just how unhealthy this was.

Of course, in time, things sorted themselves out. 

Nearly a year to the day from my lay-off, I received a job offer, and I am now officially employed again. I'll probably be working through the aftermath of everything for a long time, but I know this is the start of believing in myself again, which means the metal won't be far off.


It's funny, but I can point to the musical moment when the healing began, and I suppose it wasn't very metal.

I was sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop, laptop out, transitioning one of my low-paying freelance accounts now that I'd accepted my job offer. Music was shuffling randomly through my earbuds, when Bob Mould snuck up on me, and I realized that everything would be ok.

And as the chorus hit, I bowed my head down, squeezed out a heavy tear from each eye, and took a deep, deep breath. 

And my year in music was complete. 

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