Music

Don’t Stand So Close to Me: Listening to Music in the Age of Corona

You know it’s grim out there when you wake up every morning looking forward to hearing the latest Internet sensation, Pluto the talking schnauzer, whose sole purpose is to console the “two-leggeds” of the world, juxtaposing the silly with the sublime.

Talking dogs aside, in recent weeks we’ve all had to get used to a new kind of normal and, in the process, learn a new lingo: social distancing, shelter in place, flattening the curve, Zoom, PPE, N95 masks, virtual cocktail hour, quarantinis.

Each of us is expected to play our part by essentially doing nothing, by hunkering down, by staying behind closed doors: being together by keeping apart.

New rituals have emerged. Every night at 8pm sharp, like clockwork, I hear a litany of voices and noises outside my South Loop condo: whoops and whistles, hoots and hollers, neon lights and flickering flashlights. One night someone played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. Another night I heard “Scotland the Brave” on the bagpipes no less. Typically, the evening festivity lasts anywhere from 5 to 8 minutes. During these nightly light shows people come together to forge a type of informal community, creating a secular rite among strangers, and reconnecting to something bigger than ourselves: even if we can’t go out, the message seems to be saying, we can make a lot of noise and prove that we are still here on this earth. We can make our presence known. We still matter.

Lately too there’s been a trend of rewriting classic songs with coronavirus lyrics (Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and the Knack’s “My Sharona” come immediately to mind). But there are plenty of other songs out there that don’t need any revision or reboot. They are perfect just the way they are. With that said, I’ve put together an entirely subjective baker’s dozen of songs that speak to and resonate with these peculiar times or, at the very least, take on a new meaning:

“Reflections of My Life” (1969) by the Scottish band Marmalade is a mournful but gorgeous piece of 1960s psychedelic pop. “The world is a bad place . . . a terrible place to live” lead vocalist Dean Ford sings, “but,” he adds, “I don’t want to die.” Ford’s lyrics also echo the conflicting emotions that the Decemberists evoke on their 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. The title is taken from one of the album’s songs “12/17/12,” in which lead singer Colin Meloy reflects on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting while appreciating, and acknowledging, the good and abundant fortune of his own life.

Now is a good time as any to heed the message behind the Police’s post-apocalyptic 1980 hit When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around. Another Police hit, also from 1980, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” sounds like sage and timely advice during the age of corona––undoubtedly, Mayor Lightfoot would approve–but Sting, inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, wrote it about an inappropriate relationship between a female student and her teacher.

 “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” from the original cast recording of the musical Hamilton (2015) refers to the Battle of Yorktown when the Continental Army under Gen. George Washington defeated Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ British army, which led to the end of the Revolutionary War. The unsettling subtitle takes its name from a seventeenth century English ballad, reportedly sung by the British army band during their retreat from the battlefield; alas, the story may be apocryphal. Either way, it could just as easily apply to the feeling that many of us have when we wake up each morning. Jim Morrison’s prophetic words––“strange days have found us”––on the Doors’ Strange Days (1967) are particularly apropos. “We linger alone,” he intones. Decades later, on Uneventful Days” (2019), Beck observes, “everything has changed and nothing . . . feels right.” (For those doomsayers and gloom-meisters who prefer their songs served with a high dose of despair and desolation may I suggest anything by the saturnine Joy Division or the equally moody the Smiths?)

Too many people are feeling lonely behind closed doors. Sometimes just acknowledging that we are all in the same predicament can help. You may feel you’re all alone but, as REM reminds us, Everybody Hurts” (1992) “sometimes.”

In moments like these where seclusion and isolation are the new normal you still want to make some kind of connection. “I just want someone to talk to,” offers Bruce Springsteen on Human Touch (1992), reminding us what we have lost. On the singer’s 1984 hit Cover Me,” he sings about the difficult road ahead: “times are tough now” and “getting tougher.” Sometimes you just want to tune out the news and turn off the smartphones and laptops altogether. On “Chasing Cars” (2006), the soothing voice of Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody asks, “Would you lie with me and just forget the world?”

Feeling stir crazy yet? Nothing quite cures boredom like listening to the Ramones. Try “I Wanna Be Sedated” (1978) (“Nothin’ to do, nowhere to go’’): two minutes of joyful frenzy that gets the blood going.

Leave it to the late and great Tom Petty for the last word. “The waiting is the hardest part,” he sings on “The Waiting” (1981), in his appealing, seen-it-all-world-weary voice.

Ain’t that the truth.

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