Last summer, in the peak of July, I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I could’ve flown–the plane ticket would have cost less than the gasoline that my ancient Camry consumed so casually–but I had to drive, had to cruise through the scorching western summer, had to swallow California inch-by-inch, had to move very physically through that strange, burnt wilderness.
I was in LA again last weekend to see The War on Drugs with a good friend, and this time I took Virgin Atlantic. Flying has its pros and cons. The upside was how I arrived in LA by mid-morning, after one tiny, painless flight. The downsides–and these may be specifically affronting in my world–were all in some way connected to the TSA: I had to stand with my hands over my head inside the scanning machine (a hatable surrender-pose), an agent patted down my waist and butt (“oh, that’s just a zipper!”), another disrupted my meticulous carry-on, and on the trip home, my solitary souvenir was forcibly confiscated.*
When I drove down to LA last year, everything was colored with heartbreak: the vibrating desert, the gas stations where I stopped for iced coffee, the charred black hills just north of the city, the whole sweltering sprawl of the city of angels. Subjectivity is a lifelong fever. There’s no way to get out from behind your own eyes, no way to see a clear and de-lensed world, no way to see anything as it really is. You’re always seeing a kind of interpretation of things. I think this is better acknowledged than ignored.
That summer, I repeated a three-song playlist** for the whole drive down, and somehow I didn’t get tired of the songs. My AC wasn’t working, so I kept the windows down and drove as fast as I could. I could hardly hear the songs above the roar of the pavement and the wind. You lose your sense of speed in the desert when there are no other cars around. 90 mph feels like 50. At 100, a little breeze starts to trickle through the interior of the car. At 105, I finally hit my groove, took off my shirt, leaned back in my seat.
I remember crying hysterically on Highway 5, in the middle of the agronomic American barrenness. Watching everything wobble in the wide, empty heat: grass, tarmac, turbines, air. Skin sticking to the seatback vinyl. Hoping all the sadness would be flushed out of me by the time I reached the coast. I remember finally pulling onto the cool slopes of Santa Monica in the mid-afternoon, emptied and skinned. I could not tear my eyes from that band of sea-blue between the buildings.
Last weekend, my heart wasn’t broken, and Los Angeles felt a little less poignant–that’s how it works.
On Friday, Terr and I went to the Troubadour in West Hollywood to see The War on Drugs. The night air still carried shreds of spring cool, and we arrived way too early because we were excited. We ordered onion rings and beers and sat on the smoky interior balcony and watched the crew set up the soundsystem in the saloon gloom. I could not believe how beautiful the world was.
Later we moved down to the sweat-and-gum-stained floor. Adam Granduciel (my stringy-haired celebrity crush) took the stage, made a crack about the venue’s showerhead (still broken since the last time he visited) and rolled into “Under the Pressure,” the opening track on Lost In The Dream. It was so strange and wonderful to hear the songs I’d listened to a million other times, now resounding at a size that filled the room to its rickety limits and commanded four hundred hungry souls with easy authority. I will never get over that surprise: music de-recorded.
I was slow to pick out melodies. Reverb was moving through the crowd like it was a body itself, physical and swaggering. His drawls were falling all over me, getting knotted in my hair. I love the physicality of live music, I like to feel jostled by much-loved songs, to feel them on my arm-skin afterwards. I love the bass in the ground, and the big hollow ring in my skull when the music stops. My favorite song–not on the album, but in concert–was “An Ocean In Between The Waves.” Granduciel knelt among the cords and speakers like he knew the sounds didn’t belong to him, like he was just a chosen channel.
I wonder what we mean when we call something “transcendent.”
My guess is that any time you forget yourself for just a second, it feels like transcendence. Whenever something is so beautiful that it frees you of your own eyes–when it’s the only real thing to you in the entire spread of existence–there’s this momentary sloughing-off of subjectivity. You’ve finally lost your lenses. You’ve been replaced by the beauty in front of you, made irrelevant.
That’s one way to get free.
*a bottle of exquisite tropical Iguana hot sauce
**Taste My Sad” by Bear//Face, “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon, & “Harlem” by New Politics