So here you are, up on your feet, standing. You do not remember standing. You do not remember the moment you rose from your seat, rose with the thousands of others, clapping, singing, swept into the rhythmic wave of song and chant and arm-waving joy, the guitar-driven music washing over you, lyrics shouted into the nighttime sky. But here you are—with a full moon glowing softly in the hazy summer sky, out over the river, the trees and fields to the west, Indianapolis skyline to your back, sparkling like a giant, jeweled city—and it feels so very good to be here. Better than you thought it would. Better than you had imagined.
Your wife is dancing beside you. She grins back at you. It is a look you remember from years ago, when she first grinned at you, those first looks of happy recognition tossed like a shooting star into your dark-night life, a flaring glimmer of adventurous fun, thrilling life. The beer tastes cold and good. Up ahead, in the glare of the stage lights, you see the silhouettes of heads bobbing and arms waving and girls clapping over their heads, sitting on the shoulders of boys holding them aloft, above the pulsing, swaying crowd. All together now. Musicians and kids, long-haired girls in tank tops, shuffling tanned boys in T-shirts and rumpled baggy cargo shorts. A few thousand cells of life, each thrumming in unison to the body’s heartbeat, paced by the background drummer pounding away like a jolly madman. You can feel it all inside you, even though it flows like a typhoon onto you, your eyes and ears and skin.
You had come here not for this but for the warmup act, the opener, the guy who came out early and sang alone just as the orange sun was setting to the west. Ray LaMontagne. You had gotten to know Ray LaMontagne, well, the music of Ray LaMontagne by listening to his CD Trouble over and over again in the middle of the night. You and your wife were sleepwalking through the early months of newborn triplets when the endless, rest-deprived cycles of diaper-changes and feedings and bottle-washings dragged the nights into days and into bleary-eyed nights again. That was two years ago, and you would listen to Ray LaMontagne ’cause it was quiet and mournful and broken and anguished, and yet somehow redemptive and soothing and whispering of hope. Lonely troubadour singing of love’s saving graces. A pacifying tonic in the midst of a loving delirium. Words that somehow told your story, too.
That is how it is with music. Some exquisite blending of melody and meaning slides into your bloodstream, your soul, says just what you feel right then, merges another person’s heart with your own, until it seems those songs have been written just for you. And you and that artful stranger become bloodbrothers, kin, soulmates getting through life together, reaching out, touching across the miles. It gets you by when the books and sermons, the platitudes and parents stop working. The healing of psychic massage.
How many nights in your life, how many late, late nights did you slip into the shadows—into your basement, your bedroom, the attic—and put some music on? To find solace in the singing. Find comfort in the poetry. Find peace in the raindrop pitter-pattering of piano, mandolin, acoustic guitar. Good medicine for the lonely, the lost, the wondering. You’ve never met James Taylor or Jackson Browne, Tom Rush or Greg Brown, but each could be called a dear good friend of yours. They’ve given you a lot through the years, kept good company, yet you’ve had to give nothing in return. Sometimes you think you’d like to tell them, you’d like to say just what they’ve meant, or at least let them know you know exactly what they meant in a “Child’s Song” or “For a Dancer” or “Hey Baby Hey.” But you also know that is a silly, childish thing and would be a trivializing gesture of dreamy adolescence. Besides, you know it’s best to let the connection be the music itself, the art that bridges one to another, that collapses the distance between us all. Let it be. Let the songs alone be the bonds that connect and free us. And magically, mysteriously, they do.
So when Ray LaMontagne—who raspily, sorrowfully serenaded you through many dim and blurry dawns, babies and bottles in your limp and weary arms, sleep like an opiate in your groggy head—is standing there before you, just a few feet away, you look into his face . . . and move on. What could possibly be said, conveyed, what could possibly express the fullness of those times when he sang in your living room while you and your wife juggled babies around the clock? Yet tonight, when he’s up there on the stage and the songs and the words and strains and plaintive cry are so familiar and so reminiscent of those baby days, you cannot help but turn to watch your wife gazing there also, her lips lightly moving, mouthing the words, so that tears well in your eyes and feeling swells in your chest, your heart, and you think what a wonderful thing is music, perhaps the greatest achievement of the human race.
You did not expect to stick around after Ray LaMontagne had finished his set, had made live what you’d heard through a hand-me-down speaker system in a small house with the volume tempered for newborn ears. You knew little about the rock group to follow, had listened once to a CD of their stuff that a friend had burned for you. But another beer and the crowd and the moment kept you here, made you want to stay just a little bit longer, to savor the time and to watch the kids, the frolicsome parade of college-age and 20-something revelers, as the sky darkened and the stars came out, and the crowd buzzed in anticipation and the lights exploded and the band broke into the glare, loud guitars ripping, and the place erupted. So here you are, up on your feet, too, caught up again in the electric currents of rock music rolling over the multitudes with gale force rejoicing.
Songs roll out, one into the next, the opening chords welcomed with cheers from the well-initiated fans who enthusiastically join in on the choruses. You catch only phrasings of lyrics, but there is little social commentary here, no anger, no hostile posturing or fist-shaking rebellion. Just the generational pathos of relationships and place, suburban angst and self-identity. The band is having fun; everyone is happy; it’s good to be carefree and alive and young, and swimming in the jubilant sea of loud guitars and driving melodies and the raucous power of sound and stage and a mass of bodies hurled together for a couple of hours of uninhibited celebration. The spirit’s infectious and it feels good to let go.
Just in front of you are four young women—all-American, girl-next-door types, dressed as if they’ve just come from the local mall on a Saturday afternoon. Three of them are clearly fans. They sing all the lyrics, and they dance and sway and swing their arms and hands overhead in a kind of choreographed synchronization, occasionally singing loudly to each other face-to-face—hand-fist microphone between their lips. They’re really having fun together, close friends on a joy-ride. The fourth remains oddly, singularly motionless, hands tucked into her khaki-pants pockets, a slight lean forward as if she’s trying to better hear or fathom the meaning of the words. She has short-cropped hair and wire-rim glasses. Your wife notices you watching her, you exchange glances, offer each other a shrug. Who knows. Doesn’t matter. The brunette right in front of you can really dance. The live music is so much better than the CD you heard.
To your left are five adolescent girls, maybe 12 or 13. They, too, know the words, know the routine, practiced—you guess—at Friday night sleep-overs and all-girl birthday parties. They dance and sing and shake their shiny hair, clearly enjoying this night’s party on the threshold of growing up, getting an up-close sneak preview of the exciting world of their older sisters, teen idols and precocious schoolmates—oblivious, for now, of the lone father still standing chaperone a few feet away.
Most all the others, though, are entwined couples and frisky herds of young people, neophyte men and women relishing the communal banquet of sex and song, beer and tribal convocation. As you take it all in, you are carried away to other places, other times, to other tribal festivals and fairs. You did not make it to Woodstock, but as a high school senior you went alone to the midnight showing of the movie, sat in the second row of the theater, slung your legs over the seat-back in front of you, and immersed yourself in it all.
The music defined that—your—generation; it became the throbbing, soaring, scorching soundtrack for a revolution, a liberation, a rebellion, a war. In many ways and many forms—from folk songs to Motown, from hard-driving rock to splintery, wailing, psychedelic blues—the music drove the impulse for change, captured the Aquarian Zeitgeist, provided the anthems for those vague and always out-of-reach ideals of peace and love. Janis Joplin. Bob Dylan. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And you—you who came of age as a child of that societal sub-tribe—you’ve never quite outgrown the cheerful innocence and naivete of those hopeful, tumultuous times.
You haven’t stopped listening either. From a weekend blues jam on Beale Street in Memphis to a country rock hootenanny in a grassy field outside of Baton Rouge, from Waylon Jennings at a nightclub in Shreveport to Greg Brown at The Ark in Ann Arbor, to Pearl Jam in Chicago or Vusi Mahlasela at Notre Dame and a sampling of shows at assorted venues in between, you’ve marveled at music’s ability to bring us all together, breaking down the barriers, wrapping us all into its embrace, its flow, its swing. Maybe that’s just some leftover notion from your younger days, but back then you really thought the music we all shared and enjoyed, danced to and sang, could and would dissolve the boundaries between us, black and white, rich and poor, young and old, this and that. Music longs to be shared, begs to be given away.
Maybe that’s what hits you tonight—the sense that this isn’t really your tribe, your cohort, your age-group, your band. But it doesn’t matter. You’ve been pulled in, too. You are on your feet, clapping, grinning, moving to music you’re hearing, really, for the very first time right now, and yet you are not alone, isolated or on your own, a seat apart. Maybe at first. Maybe at first watching, observing, witnessing—at first, in the beginning. But not now, and that’s what hits you. Here you are, immersed in it all, wrapped into the music, the feel and the flow, with thousands of people, others, strangers—but all one, all unified, synchronized, transported, uplifted, driven by the music, the guitars, the pounding drumbeat and the joyous, full-throttle performance of the band on the stage. Efflorescence. Transformation. Transcendence.
So you close your eyes, you remove all stimuli but sound. You stand there and feel the music, letting it into your ears, your pores, your chest. You feel it wash over you, like opening yourself to the rain, standing in the rain, face uplifted, eyes shut, rainwater washing down over you, a deluge. And it does. The music and the noise and the cheering of the crowd flow like a mad-river current over your body, infiltrate all of you—face and chest, outstretched arms and swaying hips. It sweeps you away, carries you on, sails you easily, unconsciously downstream . . . until—eventually—you feel yourself again, the observant, self-conscious self. And you become aware that—for who knows how long—you were riding that current of song, stolen away, rafting along upon the flowing waters of musical motion, the spirit of musical creation, expression, genius, communal celebration of human ecstacy, the natural, rapturous delight of almighty music.
When you come to, you know, too, you are not alone feeling this way. Most everyone here does, although the one in front of you—the one with close-cropped hair, wire-rim glasses and khaki pants—still stands motionless and apparently unmoved yet curiously intent upon the tribal proceedings. Even the father-chaperone of the rocking ingenues is clapping his hands over his head, pulled unself-consciously into the mystical body of music. You smile and your wife smiles back at you. Your 2-year-old triplets are very far away and very close, and, you think, have some very fun and wonderful times ahead of them.
The band delivers. They give themselves over to the crowd, pour it out, empty themselves. Then, exhausted, they towel themselves off, say a few words, take a deep breath . . . then deliver again—a four-song encore on this hot August night while the crowd cheers on, always wanting more. You know this night and this time and this place are not so unique as to be profound, momentous or historical. Only those here will know or care or remember. It’s only one show one Saturday night in America.
All over the world people are dancing to music, to the singing; they move, rejoice, react the way people do and have done for unknown millennia, from one continent to the next, in those thousand manifestations—from reggae to Italian opera, from symphonic harmonies to throbbing hip-hop, from the full-throated release of gospel to the powerful elegance of an Austrian waltz, from the melodious plunking of Delta blues to the resplendent crescendoes of classical magic, from Maria Callas to the Wu-Tang Clan—that inspire, soothe, placate and help us endure all the trials and tragedies life can present. It’s a basic human thing, a primal expression and an elemental art form we share with all God’s creatures on this earth. The making of music.
Wouldn’t it be nice—you think, absorbing it all—if music could become the antidote for division and destruction, strife and pain, anger and retribution, if it could lead us all into the sharing of our common humanity? Just get everyone together to listen. One giant music festival the world over. Maybe just stop for a minute, put the planet on pause and follow the music into a new tomorrow. Ah, you have really gotten carried away now. Pretty soon you’ll be posting the words to John Lennon’s “Imagine” on your office door, putting a peace sign on the back of your Subaru.
Then it’s over. The house lights go up, the roadies hustle out onto the stage to break down the set, the crowd begins filing out. There’s a gentle murmur and some quiet laughter among the revelers as they filter past you and your wife, sitting for awhile to take it easy before heading to the parking lot. The silence now seems loud; it’s the aftermath, the still-point, the vacuum created when the music, the noise, has drifted, dissipated into the heavens. You feel tired and peaceful, a little bit emptied, your senses surprisingly sharp.
You and your wife soon join the others slowly exiting, moving through the gates, along the sidewalk to cross the bridge across the White River to the parking lot. The full moon is low now in the western sky, scrolling west, maybe up over Iowa by now. Nebraska? Who knows. But people all over the world are looking at this same moon from a billion vantage points right at this very moment. Your wife’s hand is in yours. There’s a gentle gaggle of teenagers just up ahead, boys and girls together. Some are paired off, talking in hushed and private tones. Others jockey within the pack; there’s some laughter and teasing back and forth, as a few boys joust for attention and rank.
Some—maybe eight or so—carry lavender glow sticks, those fluorescent batons of light that appear as colossal purple lightning bugs bobbing and weaving up ahead. Then your eye spies one sailing like a flare through the nighttime sky, performing a shooting-star arc as it falls softly into the river. Then another. And then you see the target. Everyone stops. Out in the river is a concrete buttress left behind after a span of bridge was removed. The teens are heaving their glow sticks in hopes of planting one on the shadowy monolith standing mid-river some 50 feet away. Some rods land and bounce but tumble into the blackened river. Some never make it; they sail into the brink. A few land successfully, find rest, glow like eels in the night. Others continue to soar in the air, rising rapidly, peaking, losing their momentum, then—gravity-bound—dropping heedlessly below.
When all are thrown, the little mob of high-schoolers moves on, and you and your wife hang back, letting them regain their distance. You watch the glow sticks, mainly the ones swimming in the water, drifting downstream, dipping and bending aimlessly in the gentle current. You stand there for a moment, feel the breeze, look at the few stars in the summery sky whose gossamer clouds reflect the lunar radiance. You watch until the driftwood glow sticks are nearly out of sight. And you figure, when their light is dim to disappearing, that it’s time to move on. Can’t stand here all night. Places to go, people and things to take care of.
But what a night it’s been. A pleasant surprise, a refuge and escape, a communal celebration that had you so engaged, so immersed in the moment, so carried away that you got to forget. For hours you did not think of Iraq or Afghanistan, the politics of anger and arrogance, the trouble with America, the poverty and hopelessness of sub-Saharan Africa. You did not puzzle over the misdirections of the world’s religions or fret over global warming or even, really, think much about yourself. Instead, for a bunch of hours one hot August night in the middle of Indiana, you got to ride on the wind, to join a party that sang only of fun and friends, innocence and coming together, to swim in the music of deliverance, respite and balm—to bask in a little bit of hope in a world full of trouble.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.