Music has always been a source of joy and strength. I even dedicated an issue of PC to the topic, and I have written a lot of things rooted in or inspired by music or musicians. So when it became clear about a month ago that I would be working from home as a result of the coronavirus I made a playlist. It reflected my thinking at the time -- this will pass, and probably quickly. I didn't choose the songs because I was looking for any deep or sustaining meaning in the face of an indefinable threat because I didn't know how serious the threat was then. I chose songs because choosing gave me an excuse to group together an hour or so's worth of music I liked that was tangentially related to a topic I didn't.
I had "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police, which is about social distancing, but not the kind we're tasked with now. "Fever" by Peggy Lee made the cut, as did "You Sound Like You're Sick" by the Ramones. There was "Cough Syrup" by Young the Giant, and "Can't Feel My Face" by the Weeknd. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" by the Georgia Satellites was suggested by my wife, and I started things off with "Time to Get Ill" by the Beastie Boys. When it was all done, my playlist looked a lot like others I would see on social media as people sought not to minimize the virus, but to make it manageable; approachable even, until it blew over.
As much as I like to use music and humor as masks to diffuse and deflect, it became clear to me after a week in lock down that many of the songs I had chosen weren't appropriate given the gravity of the situation. I still believe we need music and humor, most especially in times like these. But as it became more and more evident that a lot of people were going to get sick, maybe even ones I cared about, having a song from the same album as "Fight for Your Right" -- especially when spring breakers were ignoring social distancing recommendations in the name of partying while people in New Rochelle were virtually walled in -- didn't seem appropriate at all.
That doesn't mean the virus killed music for me. It's just that other songs that seemed like a better fit for what was happening began playing in my head. These songs don't have anything to do with the coronavirus, or illness of any kind as far as I know, and only one is from the list I made BCE (before corona exploded). They are not the end of a playlist, but the beginning of a soundtrack.
In movies, songs can be allusions designed to tune the viewer into a specific frequency. How else do you explain why Quentin Tarantino used "Cat People," a song David Bowie recorded in 1982, during a pivotal scene in Inglourious Basterds, a movie set during World War II? They can reinforce the importance of an action or event the way "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion does at the beginning of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver. On film, songs often accent or expand on a scene's emotional heft, be it joy, sadness, fear, or excitement. We seem to be living in a movie, though what kind remains to be seen.
My COVID-19 soundtrack is made up of songs that, when I hear them after all of this is over, will be linked to this moment when the world cocooned. I'll be presenting them in a series of posts, in no particular order, starting with...
"DOLPHINS" - AZTEC CAMERA
"I've been a'searching for the dolphins in the sea..." - Fred Neil
I could have included "The Waiting" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in this soundtrack because for me these days have been a long, slow exercise in standing by and biding time. My fight-or-flight button has not been pushed. My adrenal glands have kept my catecholamines in check. Instead I wait for information and news and I hope it's not bad. Are the numbers going down, or at the very least, holding steady? What stupidly confusing thing did the president say at today's briefing? Can I go back to work soon? Is everyone safe? These days I burn for hope.
So when news reports from sources like The Guardian and the London Evening Standard began reporting that dolphins were returning to Venetian canals two things happened: I shared the story, and I listened to this song. Originally released by folk singer Fred Neil in 1967, "Dolphins" has been recorded by Tim Buckley, Linda Rondstadt, and even the Black Crowes. I first came to know it via this live version released by Roddy Frame in 1991, and it's my favorite of all the versions I've heard. It's a song about the potential of having your faith in the world restored by nature, by the sight of dolphins gliding through the sea. It's about the possibility that maybe on the other side of that lonely ocean there's someone on a shore thinking about you.
The idea that dolphins would be knifing through clear waters that were just weeks ago choked by commerce and cruise ships made something in me breach. It was a silver shimmer of movement across the dark seas we've been drifting on. But it wasn't true.
Andrew O'Hehir, writing for Salon, explained how "one of the most widely repeated silver-lining stories of the global coronavirus pandemic turns out to be -- not fake exactly, but partly mythical, the result of a single tweet, drawn from fragments of disconnected evidence, that went around the world at lightning speed and launched dozens of thinly-sourced articles." It was an old fashioned game of telephone in the midst of a very modern #pandemic. Short of just debunking the story, O'Hehir went on to identify why it resonated and spread so quickly prior to being properly fact checked: because we needed it to.
Right now waiting isn't enough, especially since that's essentially what we've been asked to do. So we use the power of story to create fact from fiction and we call it hope. We celebrate and share reports of dolphins and drunken elephants that, in the end, turn out to be less than accurate. Why? Because our need to search can carry us when our legs can't (or when they shouldn't, as is the case for those of us being told to stay home). Anyone who has ever looked for Santa as a kid knows just how tangible the things we hope for but never see can be.
Roddy Frame said that "Dolphins" was a song about human nature, and that at least is true. Everyday during this pandemic people are going on fruitless searches and facing down false hopes ("It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine”). That doesn't mean we should give up on what's possible, and that's why "Dolphins" resonates with me. Searching is sustainable. It's one thing we can do when we can't do anything else. Even if there are no dolphins currently swimming in the Canale Grande, the waters are clearer than they've been in a long time. That makes looking easier.