Spirit in the Night
As it unfolded, my first summer out of high school seemed longer than any other I’d known. No longer returning to my high school yet still not a college student, for the first time I spent those months free from the cycle of school following summer and summer following school. For the first half of that summer, I didn’t take a job. Instead, I drove, played guitar, and listened to Bruce Springsteen constantly.
All my life, I’d sought joyful music, though I’d never consciously acknowledged that overriding characteristic in my favorite songs. One muggy night in mid-July of that summer, I found a soft-focus, black-and-white video of “Racing in the Street” performed live in 1978. The song was, and remains, my favorite of Springsteen’s—the ballad of a man who struggles through life, hoping to find redemption in the late night street races he and his friend Sonny follow across the East Coast. On the record, soon after Springsteen’s protagonist describes his wife’s descent into loneliness—sitting on her father’s porch “with the eyes of one who hates for just being born”—overdubbed guitars quietly guide the track into a slow fade. But in the Passaic, N.J., performance, as Springsteen backs into the darkness onstage, he begins wailing through his harmonica, and something entirely different takes place.
Just as the song sinks into relative darkness, the late organist Danny Federici takes up the hopeless harmonica line and transforms it into glinting supplication. Max Weinberg’s drums push the timid line to the fore with insistent rim clicks, and he soon joins his steady quarter taps with a booming bass kick, as if in agreement with the hopeful organ. The bassist follows the heartbeat bass drum pattern, and suddenly Springsteen dons his guitar and begins picking out a simple major triad. Bittan gleefully shakes down glistening octaves and declarative fifths, and Springsteen begins strumming faster, moving to the front of the stage, dropping to his knees and mouthing “yes” through disbelieving laughter. That night, I watched the clip until dawn. I remember asking myself why I would sleep when something so joyful existed. From that moment on, I’ve knowingly dedicated my listening life to the pursuit of such moments.
Two and a half years later, in the 23rd hour of an all-nighter spent trying to learn everything about the human brain—including the impossibility of consolidating long-term memory while sleep-deprived—my quest for joyful music hit bottom. At 8:30 that morning, my roommate found me in my room shivering and hitting “play” again and again on the Youtube video of Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights.” I felt my spiritual poverty like a pocket too deep. At this point, I’d more or less stopped listening to Springsteen.
For the rest of that over-long exam period, I got by on the Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit. Switching from Coldplay to Frightened Rabbit for infusions of joy, though, is equivalent to a junkie’s upgrading to purer ecstasy. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Frightened Rabbit—I do. Their best songs ride defiant and controlled builds, with pulsing drums that clatter yet cohere, complex and big production work that creates the illusion of space, and Scott Hutchison’s broken Scottsman wail to joyful statures that exhilarate and cut more than the average Coldplay song. Even the lyrics offer a special pleasure—they are so blatant that you can’t help but notice that this man actually intends to ward off loneliness, materialism, exes’ new lovers, and all the rest of it with his swaggering shouts and cracked bellows.
The song that ended that phase was “Not Miserable,” a track that climaxes around backing singers calling, “I am!” while Hutchinson moans “not miserable” in response. I began to feel exhausted after listening to Frightened Rabbit, and I realized that its music is that of sugar highs—of the rush that brings the fall. They know precisely when the drums will kick in with the most force and efficiently overwhelm the listener with major key overdubs and background chants.
Now, I’m listening to Bruce again. The yaraghs of Van Morrison, the cries of the Temptations, the bubbling pianos of South African jazz, and the soaring everythings of U2 warm my speakers once more. And when I listen to Frightened Rabbit, it’s with appreciation for a perfected craft, not the same febrile reach for the “replay” button. I hope, in this column, to write in service of joyful music of all sorts—to sketch an anatomy of the moments on which such music is built, but most importantly to reflect as a night spent enthralled with a sound shapes yet another year of listening.
—Columnist Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at email@example.com.