Saturday, July 21, 2012

Moving Music: Songs That Make Me Cry Like a Baby

Here come those tears again. No, not the 1977 Jackson Browne song, the real stuff.

They've been coming out in squirts for a couple of days now, ever since I began writing a 2,000-word freelance essay on Elton John. Instead of whistling while I work, I've been listening to music, his music, remembering how much I've always loved his sad songs -- they say so much, and they're so so good. I've been crying, too. Not sobbing uncontrollably, or even weeping. Just tearing up. A little. On and off and on again.

It's fitting that I'm losing it over Elton John songs right now ("Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," "Curtains," "Sacrifice," and too many others to list) because he was actually the first singer to make me cry. The year was 1982, and the song was "Empty Garden," John's post-mortem tribute to his fallen friend John Lennon. I don't think I've been able to listen to the song since without getting a little wet around the eyes.

Some might call me a big cry baby, and once upon a time, they would have been right. Back when I was a kid, I'd cry over anything. I must have used up all my tears because I rarely cry over everyday life as an adult. Sometimes I dream that terrible things are happening to me, and I can't bring myself to the point of tears.

It's a recurring nightmare that's actually based on reality. One Sunday morning in 2001, I received an early wake-up call from the NYPD. They wanted me to come down to the Gramercy Park station to answer a few questions. When I arrived, they told me that one of my best friends, from whom I'd been estranged since we'd had a huge blowout over the 4th of July on Fire Island a month earlier, had been murdered in his apartment the Friday night before.

I wasn't surprised. He was probably the most reckless person I'd ever known, and although I wasn't expecting it to come to that, I always knew that it wouldn't end well for him. As the cop broke the sad news ("I'm afraid your friend is no longer with us," he said), I felt sorrow start to well in my eyes. But my internal faucet must have been malfunctioning. Nothing actually came out.

I panicked because I knew I was a suspect (along with anyone linked to the phone numbers in his mobile phone, which was how the police had been able to contact me), and I'd seen enough police procedurals to know that the friend who doesn't cry always gets the blame -- at least, initially. Even without any tears on my part, the cop must have thought that I seemed appropriately upset, which was an understatement for what was going on inside of me. I've never really gotten over my friend's death, nor have I, to this day, shed a tear over it.

"Jeremy, when was the last time you cried?" a friend asked me several years ago when she was visiting me in Buenos Aires from L.A. "I can't imagine you ever crying." Does she know me or what? I thought to myself. I can count on one hand, with a few fingers left over, the number of times that a real-life incident has made me cry since I reached adulthood. Movies move me but with a few exceptions (Trois Couleurs: Bleu and Interiors are the two that immediately come to mind), rarely to tears, and aside from those creepily effective voice overs at the end of each episode of Desperate Housewives, nothing on TV does either.

Oh, but when I hear music! I should have told my visiting friend that I probably cried the last time I listened to a good tear-jerker, but I was too busy thinking about the lost friend I never cried for, and those devastating dreams in which I never weep. Maybe what all of life's saddest moments need is a really moving soundtrack because songs always seem to take me there. Here are some of the repeat offenders.

"Only Human" Dina Carroll If you've ever had the displeasure of watching someone you love's rear view as he, or she, walks out of your life, you know exactly what Dina's talking about.

"Something So Right" Annie Lennox In Lennox's hands, Paul Simon's song about withholding emotions always makes me lose control of mine.

"Making Love" Roberta Flack Aside from it being the first time I ever saw two men kiss onscreen, I can remember very little about the 1982 film Making Love other than Kate Jackson without her Charlie's Angels halo, a post-Clash of the Titans/pre-L.A. Law Harry Hamlin, and Roberta Flack, killing me softly with her song, the movie's love theme.

"The Windows of the World" Dionne Warwick I'm generally immune to the emotional manipulation of your average state-of-the-world pop song (love "We Are the World," wouldn't shed a teardrop over it), but then, Warwick is not your average singer.

"I Still Love You" Terence Trent D'Arby Here's the thing: I rarely mourn the end of a romance with tears -- until a great song comes on that makes it impossible for me to think of anything else.

"Immigrant" Sade I once spent part of a London-to-Paris train ride listening to this song from Sade's Lover Rock (the perfect soundtrack for an an album-long crying fit, if ever there was one), trying to hide the tears running down my face. Why? It's a gorgeous song, and this sort of thing still happens, you know.

"Wouldn't That Be Fine" Nanci Griffith I never cry over spilt milk, but what ifs are such an emotional landmine.

"Long Distance Lover" The O'Jays The song that was playing on repeat on my Discman (yes, for me, this was still pre-iPod) as I walked to the police station that sunny Sunday morning in August 2001.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major (The Second Movement) Would The King's Speech have won last year's Best Picture Oscar without it?


ThisGirl Lori said...

Love this post! Thanks, Jeremy. By the way, the moment that made me realize I should marry my now-fiancé John came a few years back, when he teared up in my presence. We were in our car, driving my cancer-ridden cat Junior to the vet to put him to sleep. On the way, he passed in my arms. I said, "He's gone," and started to cry. When I looked over at John, his eyes were welling up with tears also. Then he pulled over and both let it all out. A man who is capable of showing his emotions like that is a rare breed -- and a keeper.

Jeremy Helligar said...

Thank you, Lori!

I remember when you told me that story about John, and I'm still as surprised by it now as I was then. John is such an even-tempered guy, I can't imagine him getting emotional over anything, much less drivin' and cryin' (reference to the band intended). I, on the other hand, am so sensitive and passionate about everything that most people might expect me to spend half of every day in tears.

The friend I mentioned in this post (the one who visited me in BA from L.A.) sent me an email after reading it, and she put it all into perspective for me: "Tears, Jeremy, are only an expression. A physical reaction. They themselves are not a feeling."

I suppose that more than anything, it's the feeling that matters.