IN SEARCH OF MISSING MUSIC
April 26th, 2020
Words by Lily Goldberg · Illustrations by Lucy Comer
Sirens and newsreels have overwhelmed our soundscape recently, meaning chance encounters with music harder to come by
It’s true, we still have music. We have livestreamed festivals and online album drops and teach-yourself-guitar Zoom tutorials. Pasta-fed Italian tenors bellow “Volare” from their balconies and tone-deaf celebrities transpose “Imagine” from key to shining key. And the parodies keep multiplying: “One Day More (in Quarantine),” “Hello (From the Inside),” and “Coronavirus Rhapsody,” to mention a few. I recall an older man at a concert saying, “There’s no substitute for live music!” just before headbanging so vigorously I feared he might concuss himself before the song ended. I agreed then, though now I’ve learned to do without concerts. It’s missing the chance encounters that keeps me up at night.
Subway drummers, bikers with speakers strapped to their handlebars, cars blasting dancehall as they swerve wildly onto the highway: New York, the city that never sleeps, also never shuts up. Music seeks you out as soon as you step outside and has a way of finding you in transit. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a residential neighborhood quieter than the rest of the city but still exponentially louder than your average small town. On Sundays, a local knife sharpener would drive around in a little truck, clanging a bell to alert potential customers of his presence. My apartment was above a music studio and on certain afternoons glissandos would waft up through the floorboards and hang suspended in the sunlight. Now, ambulances have replaced the arpeggios, and without cars on the roads or kids playing basketball in the park, an eerie silence has settled in, punctuated only by the sound of sirens.
Three streets over from the apartment I grew up in, there is a little bar sunken below street level called The West End Lounge. I found myself opening its door one night late last August, despite being a year out from twenty-one, despite being alone, despite my phone being dead. I’d been on my way home for the night from hanging out with some high school friends, though it was only eleven-thirty. After spending most of my summer in the rural town where I attended college, a town where signs of life are rare after seven in the evening, eleven-thirty felt like the middle of the night. But time hardly mattered; I had heard piano music through an open doorway and my heart routed me towards its source.
The summer had passed me by on my college campus in Massachusetts, where I learned the fundamentals of acting in a theatre program, though I never intended to become an actress. Funded through our college theatre department, the program paid well and gave me something to do every day. Though Massachusetts was certainly lovely, I had spent the summers before that traversing New York’s filthy and ecstatic avenues, and I felt a sense of withdrawal from the city’s energy. At the end of the day in rural Massachusetts, you’re treated to all the splendors of the natural world: the dragonflies mating, the river water cooling on your back as the sun sets, the crickets singing you to sleep. These are the unthinkable beauties that tuck you into bed and turn out the lights by nightfall. On the other hand, New York is a nocturnal mischief-maker, the bad girl from high school sneaking you out of the house and promising you a kaleidoscope of disgusting midnight wonders. Downtown, a sequined girl totters over a trash can while a fellow clubgoer holds her hair back. On Broadway, a man appears to eat kibble out of a paper bag. And on West End Avenue at eleven-thirty, the night before I left again for school in Massachusetts, the faintest suggestion of a pop ballad from a dive bar reeled me all the way in.
The West End Lounge is best described as a gay bar still in the closet. The main area is bare-bones, and I have rarely seen more than three or four patrons ordering drinks or watching a football game on the wall-mounted TVs. But in the back room, The West End hosts recurring events like “So You Think You Can Belt?” and “Bound for Broadway,” as well as weekly drag shows Tuesday through Thursday. I arrived on a Wednesday, just in time for the last number of the night: “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn, performed slow and sultry by resident queen Lagoona Bloo. I didn’t know her name then, nor did I know anyone else’s in the room. But the thing about showing up to a Wednesday night drag show at your local dive bar is that no one cares who you are, where you’ve been, or why you’ll suddenly recall Lagoona’s crooning eight months later while you wait to return to the city you love.
There was nothing particularly unforgettable about Lagoona’s performance. Her number had an end-of-the-evening melancholy to it, though I couldn't say whether that was true feeling or campy melodrama. Perhaps I remember it vividly now, months later, because her song was entrusted only to me for safekeeping. It did not belong to my friends, to whom I’d said goodnight, or to my phone, which had died. The song stuck with me because it had no place else to go. I left the bar after the song ended, but I thought about it for the rest of the night and in the months that followed.
The West End Lounge is closed now, and Lagoona has taken off her makeup. In isolation, I’ve found that unexpected music has a harder time singling us out. Tuning into a livestream concert or listening to an album is an active choice, and turning the volume down on either can also be decided on with the quick click of a cursor. What I truly miss are the sounds I can’t turn on or off, fragments that crescendo as I walk closer and fade as I continue on my way. After a bad day at school, I could walk past the old men in lawn chairs on the sidewalk who blared bachata from aging boomboxes, and feel a little better. Sunny days brought guitarists to Riverside Park, who’d play the blues for the birds and squirrels. After a cheap haircut in a local barber shop I went to once, an old Spanish favorite of my barber’s came on the radio, and he impulsively snatched me up from the barber’s chair and spun me around the room as locks of hair trailed in our wake. These moments remind me that life’s surprises do not have to be as large and terrifying as a pandemic upending life as we know it. They can be small, sweet, carried on the breeze or through a subway car.
I guess music in isolation is still possible if you have musical neighbors, a personal John Cusack who will show up outside your window donning a boombox and an N95 mask, or just one ear open to the world. When I was in high school, I sometimes used to watch the family living in the apartment directly across from my bedroom window. The father would take his infant son out to their balcony and play him short musical phrases on the harmonica. One day, just to see how he’d react, I decided to grab my own harmonica (relatively unplayed since it had been gifted to me) and echo back the notes my neighbor played. Filled with glee, I watched as his face registered what he’d heard. He was so alarmed that he summoned his wife from inside the apartment and demonstrated the trick again. I matched his melody a second time. They began to laugh.
It’s been years since that day I saw them out on that balcony, but I still wonder what the man and his wife and their son thought they were hearing, whether they believed my echo was a ghost or God or our buildings playing an architectural duet. It’s likely that that toddler will now be completing first or second grade via video chat, that he will ask his father why the ambulances are blaring in New York day and night. Maybe his father will have an answer, or maybe he will simply take his son out to the balcony when the sirens abate and play the harmonica out into the silent streets. And however the world chooses to answer, whether with a mischievous echo like mine or the chirping of newborn robins, I hope they will be able to make out these words in its reply: there is still some good to be found here.
Lily Goldberg is a writer from New York City (and sometimes Williamstown, Massachusetts). Her interests include criticism, kitsch, camp and cults, and you can follow her on Instagram at @lilgnyc
Lucy Comer is an illustrator based in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on stories of longing, intimacy, and heartache. She loves creating portraits, sequential illustrations, and zines. More work can be found on Instagram @loosey.comber