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In the sudden stillness, learning how to listen again

Jeff Miers

There’s an infamous story that has the brilliant but deeply troubled late comedian Richard Pryor setting himself on fire while drinking rum and freebasing cocaine. He then ran down the street ablaze, until subdued by police, who supposedly asked Pryor why he was running. “I can’t stop,” Pryor is said to have responded. “If I stop, I’ll die.”

It’s a macabre image, but it popped into my head as I ruminated on all the changes that have come along with these last six weeks of quarantine and social distancing. All of a sudden, like so many others, I stopped. And until that point, I hadn’t realized that I had been running – for a long time.

An unexpected side benefit of this enforced cessation of running has been a certain clarity that comes with relative stillness. There’s a great Jackson Browne lyric that has been rattling around my head that sums up, albeit with a certain amount of abstraction, the core of this feeling: “Gather your deeds and your possessions/Whatever certainty you've known/Forget your heroes, you don't really need those last few lessons/Stand in the open/The next voice you hear will be your own.”

I love this imagery, for it suggests that, when the noise of the daily hustle and bustle that was previously our reality is turned down, what we hear in its place is a true, unfettered signal. It’s something purer, more thoughtful and more resonant.

In that stillness, I’ve been able to hear music more clearly than I have in ages.

This might sound odd, considering I’m always listening to music, unless sleeping, and even then, there’s a chance I fell asleep with my headphones on and Brian Eno’s ambient works on loop. I’m always listening, but over the past several weeks, I’ve been hearing again, the way I heard when I was a kid, being exposed to so much wondrous music for the first time.

A friend turned me on to a piece by Los Angeles Times staff writer Randall Roberts, published in early March, that forcefully makes the case for a return to immersive listening. Why? “Musicians spend years making their albums. They struggle over syllables, melodies, bridges and rhythms with the same intensity with which you compare notes on the ‘Forensic Files’ reboot, loot corpses in ‘Fortnite’ or pound cabernet during pandemics.”

It’s only fair, in Roberts’ view, that we focus our full attention on these works that have been crafted so lovingly and with such intense attention to detail and nuance. “There was a time,” he continues, “when listeners treated the mere existence of recorded sound as a miracle. A wonder, a kind of time travel.”

Implicit in the scenario is the suggestion that we concentrate our distraction-free attention on an album or a recording that is worth such an investment. That would seem to rule out a lot of cookie cutter modern pop music, which is more about temporary distraction, a quick sugar fix, not a meal. It’s meant to thrill you temporarily, not encourage a period of ruminative reflection. This requires a subjective decision on the listener’s part. A casual glance at the Spotify Top 50 does not encourage in me a desire to dim the lights, ditch the phone and break out the headphones for a few hours of immersive listening. But it might in others.

The other night, I watched “Beastie Boys Story,” the new documentary on the radically inventive trio. It reminded me how much I loved them, and so, for the first time in years, I dug out “Check Your Head” and “Paul’s Boutique,” and I truly immersed myself in their insanely detailed and hypercreative majesty. Stevie Wonder’s “The Secret Life of Plants” received the same treatment, and again, that sense of awe and gratitude made itself known. Prince’s “Around the World In A Day,” Be Bop Deluxe’s “Futurama,” Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love,” Bill Nelson’s “On A Blue Wing,” Mercury Rev’s “Deserter’s Songs,” David Sylvian’s “Gone To Earth” … I heard them all as if hearing them for the first time. And as Roberts wrote, I felt that “wonder, a kind of time travel.”

With the future of the live music industry unwritten and unclear at present, something interesting and unintended is occurring – a return to the album as our primary means of communion with an artist. If we can’t gather together for a gig, we can at least travel around the world by closing our eyes and putting our headphones on.

And if we really pay attention, we might be witness to something beautiful being reborn.

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