A Very Jordan Ginsberg Website

Tonight, The Skies Will Open For You

[This first appeared September 4, 2009, on What Gets Heard?]

Maybe the important thing is not happiness, but peace—not to feel joy, but calm, comfort. Maybe when we’re overwhelmed, the mission should be to simplify rather than to cheer up. Maybe it doesn’t really matter, at any given point, whether we’re happy or sad.

I just moved from a fairly central and bustling part of the city to a quiet neighborhood several miles north. I used to be thirty seconds away from coffee and Gatorade and breakfast, and now I walk ten minutes just to catch a bus. This was not by design. The move was strictly out of financial necessity. It was not an easy decision, but it was an important one—and a depressing one. It was depressing because the very necessity of it made me realize the structure of my life, the schedule by which I must currently abide, is so prohibitive of my ideal that it almost makes free will seem like a joke. But then I started walking around my new neighborhood in the wee hours, and even though it’s only a few miles up the way, the sky seems bigger. There are cottage-decibel crickets and midnight birdsongs and cool, breathable air and, yes, that great and imposing celestial blackness. I’ve never known a better way to imbue myself with sadness than to stare at the night sky, and I mean that in the best possible way. I cannot bring myself to feel even slightly significant when I place myself within the context of a wholly indifferent planet and universe, and that, too, is a good thing. Not indifference like the Free Market model, but indifference like the way you feel when you find yourself in the ocean, and you realize all you can see is water—no humans, no mountains—and you realize you are at its mercy, and that your only choice is to yield to nature. It’s a profound and consuming sadness, but life is also probably never simpler than in those moments. You roll around in the grass with your dog and it occurs to you that if you’re both lucky, he might live another ten years. You wake up next to your girlfriend with the sun in your eyes and you realize that, for whatever reason, all the love in the world won’t keep you together forever. These are the things you remember, not because they make you happy, but because they don’t.

Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway is probably the saddest album I truly love. It is, on one level, an album about a bunch of boxers who died young, long before their respective times, but really, it’s about the ways in which we deal with pain—painful memories, pain we caused, literal physical pain. The first song, “Glenn Tipton,” opens with a series of scattershot childhood recollections:

Cassius Clay was hated more than Sonny Liston
Some like KK Downing more than Glenn Tipton
Some like Jim Nabors, some Bobby Vinton
I like them all

Kozelek’s acoustic finger-picking dances in the background while he muses on the similarities between himself and a father he may or may not have known, and remembers a long-dead coffee shop owner named Eleanor, and laments the first girl he ever loved who broke his heart. (The latter earns the title of his “first victim.”) This is all vapor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of a song. These are the changes that haunt you, but that you can’t let yourself forget, either.

“Carry Me, Ohio” is a murderer—a love song in which a man out of love pleads for the woman he’s disappointed (and maybe even destroyed) to, somehow, be taken care of. (Which is to say, it’s not that he doesn’t love her, but that he can’t love her back.) “Salvador Sanchez” comes out of the gate fuzzy and goes through the aforementioned litany of dead boxers, gifted fighters, all of whom “fell by leather,” each and every one a tale of promise and life wasted, and yet who, when considered together, form a sort of fraternity that would be enviable if not for the initiation rites.

The centerpiece, though, is “Duk Koo Kim,” each of whose fourteen minutes weave and swirl and break and crash in a mirror of the fourteen rounds it took for the American Ray Mancini to kill the South Korean boxer for whom the song is named. Kim had a tough time making weight for the fight, but managed nonetheless to control Mancini for several rounds, opening up some brutal wounds before delirium set in and Mancini started working him over. Mancini finally dropped him in the fourteenth round and Kim almost immediately fell into a coma, dying four days later. A few months later, Kim’s mother killed herself. Less than a year later, so did the referee, who many thought a failure for not stopping the fight sooner. The song, of course, is not explicitly about the fight and its aftermath, but it still manages to encompass what one would imagine to be the emotions of all involved, the guilt and hopelessness and longing for the dead and gone. And still, after some sort of lifetime in which every sticking memory is an assassin, the song ends with the pastoral:

Birds gather ’round my window
Fly with everything I love about the day
Flowers, blue and gold and orange
Rise with everything I love about the day

Walk with me down these strange streets
How have we come to be here
So kind are all these people
How have we come to know them

You live with sadness. Sometimes you earn it and sometimes you’re saddled with it, but it’s the life you build around it that determines whether or not it’s a punishment. The album ends with “Pancho Villa,” an acoustic reprise of “Salvador Sanchez,” just to remind you one last time that there’s an eternity to be a ghost to others, but there’s only so much time to have the good fortune to look back sweetly on the ones that you have known.

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