Earlier this month, I got to spend a few days in Washington DC, where my wife was attending a work-related conference. It was great -- for me, anyway. I got to fool around around the city all day while she was busy, then meet up with her at night for dinner and lounging around in her company-subsidized room at the Hyatt. Hooray for corporate perks! (Whatever's left of them in our newly-leveled economy, that is.)
I'm a big fan of DC and was excited to be there again for the first time in many years. Apart from the amazing museums, as well as the historical significance that's just strewn about the place, our nation's capital is probably the closest thing my generation has to a Haight-Ashbury. Suffice it to say, if your teens and twenties were spent anything like mine were, it's likely that you still remember the mailing address for Dischord Records, and maybe even have the Ignition or Kingface insignias tattooed on the back of your calf. To put it mildly, Washington DC was my Ground Zero for music and culture throughout a good portion of my youth, and despite the fact that my love for aggro post-hardcore is now seriously on the decline, newer aspects of the city's heritage have easily assumed the role of cultural centerpieces in my imagination. (See George Pelecanos novels, Rahm Emanuel, etc.) With these details in mind, I will now explain how I made a total ass of myself in the aftermath of this otherwise enjoyable jaunt down Route 95...
The final hours of my stay were spent on a museum dash which could be fairly described as "athletic". On the agenda were visits to the National Gallery, Air and Space Museum, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Museum of Natural History. Nearly anyone would agree that's a lot of culture to soak up in one day, so I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty for taking a mid-afternoon break in a small park somewhere along Jefferson Drive. There I found a tiny outdoor ice-skating rink situated next to a cafe, where the lunchtime crowd had dwindled to a relative trickle. I ordered a coffee and took a seat outside near what appeared to be a modest, live music performance space. Nothing was happening there -- it was a chilly weekday, after all. But the cafe was piping music though a P.A. system which could be heard across the whole seating area and rink, which I was now in plain view of. Most of the ice skaters appeared to be middle-school kids, probably there on a class trip from somewhere in suburban Maryland or Virginia, and I now turned my attention to them as I sipped my too-hot coffee and rested my museum-weary feet.
Through outdoor speakers, a female soul singer wailed a sad ballad against Hammond organ and increasingly gray skies. I was in a strange city, reflecting on the many years that had passed since my last visit, but somehow feeling all grown up and hopeful for the future to be watching kids ice skate while some unknown singer crooned this incredibly heartrending song in the background. It had only been a few weeks prior that the entire world had set its attention on this very patch of Earth for the inauguration of Barack Obama, and I couldn't help but acknowledge the residual energy still permeating the National Mall. In a swelling moment of Holden Caulfield-like dorkyness, I took out my digital camera and recorded a short video, so I'd have something to remember the moment by.
Days later, back in the decidedly less introspective environs of New York City, I came across the video while transferring pictures to my laptop. I'd forgotten all about it, and I lit up when I recalled the details that had moved me to shoot it in the first place. I was especially taken with one kid who struggled to remain upright on his skates, and I grinned as I watched him pull himself along the railing and into the frame of my camera. More importantly, in the background, there was that song! I could barely make it out, but yes, there was no mistaking it... the video had definitely captured a portion of the chorus. Frantically, I listened back to it over and over again in the hope of identifying a lyric I could search Google for. With luck, I'd be downloading the actual song in moments! This is what I heard:
(Something... something...) and I'll be thinking about you...
Great. In an era when hackneyed turns of phrase and cheesy sentiments are a near-constant nuisance, the one lyric I get to work with is "I'll be thinking about you". Clearly, I would have my work cut out for me.
Undaunted, I punched the lyrical snippet into Google, where the initial hits were easily dismissed on the basis of gender, since it had been a female vocalist I'd heard. That meant Puddle of Mudd, Radiohead, and Air Supply were all out. On a more bone-chilling note, I was forced to briefly entertain the notion that it had been Mariah Carey, as she is both female and has a song containing this utterly tepid lyric which had somehow captivated me. But a quick visit to Amazon's MP3 preview page eased those concerns, since her take on I've-been-thinking-about-you was an expectedly sucky dance number, and I was in search of a thoughtful and melodious ballad. Britney Spears and Whitney Houston also turned up in my query, but mercifully, were also dismissed as incorrect. Who could it be? Would I ever find out? I began to consider defeat as a possible outcome, but acquiesced to thoughts of the song being merely part of a fleeting moment, and one not meant to ever be recaptured. Perhaps it had been a recording of the cafe countergirl's band, who I now imagined gigging four nights a week around the Beltway to disinterested after-work crowds. My mind's eye conjured accordingly depressed business people, rudely cackling orders for overpriced drinks to the near drowning out of the sad and soulful chanteuse. In this hastily authored fantasy, I pictured her performing the number while perched on a tall barstool, with a lone spotlight cast across her face. The song's hypnotic narrative is cautiously unfurled, and only at its conculsion are the agonizing details of the singer's mortally wounded soul completely understood. Yes, my friends—Recalling that moment, in that park, while watching those kids, and while under the spell of crippling emotional gooeyness, the song was really that good. And apparently, I was never going to find out who sang it.
Or so I thought. In a crowning moment of thoughtless bravado, I searched again for the lyrics, but with an alternate spelling of "thinking" (I used thinkin' this time), and that tiny adjustment summoned results which were as different as they were troubling. "Oh no", I thought. The song couldn't be... that. Not... her. Not the darling of simpering MP3 bloggers. Not that overhyped practitioner of adult-contempo pop wrapped up in a hipster-approved exterior. Not another example of everything I'd spent my creative life rallying against. She couldn't possibly have duped me like this. Not yet. Not while I'd been watching people ice skate in the same town that Fugazi came from.
Or could she have? The notion sent waves of panic undulating through my innards, and I felt like I no longer understood who I was. It was like my own meticulously-crafted aesthetic had been suddenly yanked out from under me, and in a moment of panic, I'd grabbed foolishly in the darkness for something to replace it with. Surely I'd mentioned this artist in one of my haughty spiels about the kind of people who think shopping at Whole Foods is a form of civil disobedience. And that crowd was all over her CDs! Wasn't I right to believe that vaulting such mediocrity to intergalactic superstardom was, y'know... bad?
I had to know. I headed back to the Amazon page where MP3s could be previewed without purchase, and the awful truth was revealed.
The song was by Norah Jones.
And I'd liked it.
Here's the video I shot at the skating rink, and here's the actual video for the song. (Both are YouTube links.) If you need me for anything, I'll be in a dark cave, re-thinking my entire life while crushing lit cigarettes into my forearm.