I don’t understand musical anthropology, at least not in the way musical anthropologists explain it. I don’t know if the songs I like demonstrate the kind of person I am or if my personality dictates the music I listen to. I don’t know why I always have a melody in my head or why significant moments in my life have a memorable song-trigger.
But I do know what music is capable of. I’m intimately familiar with music’s power to inspire, motivate, distract, engage, define. Most of all, to heal.
The narrative of my own musical lineage, the family tree of my particular tastes, still grows in intricate, intertwining branches and swelling crescendos in bold, arpeggiated chords toward what I hope will someday be a magnificent finale.
At least that’s how the overblown metaphor sounds in my head.
Growing up in Toronto gave me opportunities that allowed music into my life. It also provided a broad music infrastructure that I was a tiny part of from my teens into my thirties. Still, despite recent efforts to brand it ‘Music City’, there has always been something noticeably absent from the partnership of music and Toronto; some mystical, mythical fabulousness that should unite the city and the song.
Perhaps it’s evident in Toronto’s musical lore, or lack of it. There are a few famous stories that circulate the city’s music scene: the night in 1977 when the Rolling Stones played the El Mocambo; the Alice Cooper “riot” of 1980; the final stop on The Who’s “farewell tour”, 1982. Besides these, there are some scattered stories about Rush, Ronnie Hawkins, Barenaked Ladies and some other bands barely known outside of Canada.
It wasn’t until I visited London—that’s the one in England, not Toronto’s little brother two hours to its west—for the first time that I realized what I found missing from Toronto.
It started as soon as I got off the plane and the pulsing bass notes of “Heathrow” by Level 42 wormed its way into my head. Along the Piccadilly line I passed through Hammersmith where I remembered watching Kate Bush and Tears For Fears videos that had been recorded at the famous Odeon (now the Apollo); to me it was an exotic, emblematic destination. When I got to Victoria Station, The Who’s “Welcome” (“Bring every single person from Victoria Station”) welcomed me. On the train ride south I passed the iconic Battersea power station that’s featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album. On the walk from the train station to my destination it was “Down to London” by Joe Jackson.
I’d encountered five musical references and I had only been in London for an hour and a half. The streets were flooded with testimonials.
I don’t know any songs about Toronto.
* * *
It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with London. I was also falling in love with a woman who lived in London. Deborah and I had known each other for twenty years, but it wasn’t until she’d moved away and planted roots in London that we started up a romance. As close friends, our new passion for each other was not disturbed by those awkward months of getting to know one another. If there is such a thing as a comfortable long-distance relationship, this was it.
I went to London not simply to see Deborah, but also to explore possibilities. My wife had died two years earlier, when my son was six-months-old. The worst was behind me, I’d acknowledged—mourning had been my new job and I’d performed it with all the dedication of a careerist—but I wasn’t sure what I would do next. I’d become accustomed to being a single dad but my future, as I’d come to expect it, had died along with my wife.
Deborah came along at the perfect time and the fact that she lived almost four thousand miles away meant that the possibilities I sought were greater in scope and number. She understood why the music never stopped playing in my head; she was there when I first sang in public with my band; we’d shared stages together through high school. She even seemed to get a kick out of my constant citations of London songs.
Most importantly, even though I hadn’t been myself since my wife died, Deborah didn’t see me as damaged goods.
“Sometimes the music shelters me,” I told her.
“There is comfort in a familiar melody. When there’s a song in my head I can hide inside it. Even sad songs can give me solace.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “It’s more than just a distraction, isn’t it? It’s stabilizing.”
She smiled a loving smile. She got me.
“A few months ago,” I said, “I was in my living room listening to the Beatles and ‘Across the Universe’ came on. When John Lennon sang, ‘Nothing’s gonna change my world’, the words passed through me as if I’d written them. And then I started singing along with John. And I started bawling because all I could think of was how my world had already changed. But instead of feeling sad, I cried because I heard these as hopeful words. Everybody’s world changes. But I recognized that losing my wife wouldn’t have to change me beyond recognition. And if I was going to change then I would be the one to choose what changes I made.”
“So what changes do you want to make?” she asked.
* * *
Deborah lived in a one-bedroom flat on a quiet road south of the Thames, so while she was at work one day I went north of the river for a solo walking tour, and I took the London songbook with me. From London Bridge Station (Big Audio Dynamite) I took the Northern Line while Squeeze sang 853-5937 (“She’s in Mill Hill, I’m in Bermondsey, it’s the end of the earth on the Northern Line.”). Arriving in Highgate mid-morning, the silver rain fell lightly as Paul McCartney sang “London Town”. I saw Hampstead Heath (“Mother Goose” by Jethro Tull), Parliament Hill and Highgate Cemetery. Somewhere in Camden Town I saw a billboard advertising Central Saint Martin’s College of Arts and Design (“Common People”, Pulp). As my walk continued I was besieged by other songs that name-dropped London: “Oliver’s Army” and “Man Out of Time” by Elvis Costello; “London Calling” by the Clash; “Portobello Belle” by Dire Straits; “Who Are You?” by The Who; “Home For a Rest” by Spirit of the West; and every Elton John song from the Captain Fantastic… album. And those were just the ones that were on the tip of my tongue.
Even before I’d set foot in the UK, these songs brought London alive for me. Once I was there, the melodies, playing like a Great British juke box, allowed London to merge with the part of my life that came before. Songs that had guided me ethereally toward my buoyant-but-limited music career were now firmly rooted in place. I remember where I was the first time I heard “The Battle of Epping Forest” by Genesis and suddenly I not only knew exactly where Epping Forest was but how to get there too.
My suffocating life as a single dad in Toronto was being serenaded to sleep.
The last stop on my walking tour was Abbey Road Studio. The entire neighbourhood hummed in palpable waves that emanated from inside the little white building. While lurking in front of the wall and gate surrounding 3 Abbey Road, St. John’s Wood, London, England, I felt small—as small as I’d felt since I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or looked out at the Pacific from atop the rocky California coast; small like an afterthought, like a mere suggestion of mist; small as in experiencing significant moments like they’d happened to me rather than having achieved them. That kind of small.
I spent only a few minutes there in front of the studio, as other visitors took turns crossing the street at the world’s most famous crosswalk while their mates took photos. Legions of Beatles fan—nay, music fans—had left their names and personal comments—“Come Together”, “Beatles 4Ever”, “Let it Be”, “Imagine Peace”, “Loretta was here”—on the studio wall and across the road on the likewise famous street sign.
I could barely bring myself to look directly at the two-story, whitewashed Georgian townhouse that wouldn’t have looked out of place as a rural doctor’s office. It was as if my gaze might somehow drain away some of the mystical power held within its walls. I imagined the people who had spent countless hours inside creating, with great effort and inspiration, the music that would change history: Fats Waller, Pink Floyd, Glenn Miller, Kate Bush, Yehudi Menuhin, Stevie Wonder, Queen. Mostly I pictured the Beatles and producer George Martin recording the music that would trickle down to form the peak at the top of my personal musical pyramid. And all the songs I loved linked, like a musical road map, across the universe to this tiny spot on a tree-lined London street.
I got back on the tube and went south of the river again to Clapham Common (“Up the Junction” by Squeeze) to play soccer with some of Deborah’s friends I’d recently met. It was early evening, and the misty rain had been burned off by a rare April sun. I stood on the common looking up into the cloudless blue and inhaled. I felt big again. This was where I wanted to be. This was where my son and I would start our new lives. Only I could change my world.
* * *
I moved to London, married Deborah—who adopted our son—and we built a new life. I’ve never been back to Abbey Road, nor have I played much music outside of the house, but that has never mattered because the music never stops in my head. The Beatles still get played—on the MP3 player—and our son knows each member of the group by name; it’s always John, Paul, George and Ringo, in that order. Wherever he ends up, their songs will become a part of his own musical family tree someday.
The final leg in my headlong journey toward my new life could never have happened in Toronto. If I’d stayed I, like the familiar songs, would have become tired and stagnant. I would have remained as insular as Toronto itself. I would have ached for the kind of discoveries I made with Deborah in London and I never would have discovered what my life lacked.
To find happiness, I had to follow the trail of comforting melodies.