Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
I Feel Like Wagner Tonight
On the Music We Go to in Crisis, not the Russian Contractors
And I play classical music when it rains
I play country when I am in pain
But I won't play Beethoven 'cause the mood's just not right
Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight
That’s the opening chorus from a classic country song, written by Chris Wall and later made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker and Sunny Sweeney. The narrator has just found out his wife wants a divorce, and he’s turned to his music library for comfort.
The second chorus switches slightly:
Hey, I play jazz when I am confused
I play country whenever I lose
Bird's saxophone, it just don't seem right
And I feel like Hank Williams tonight
And then the third and final chorus:
'Cause when I'm real high, I play rock and roll
I play country when I'm losin' control
I don't play Chuck Berry quite as much as I'd like
But I feel like Hank Williams tonight
I feel like Hank Williams tonight
I am going through a divorce. We are ten days into the decision to end the marriage, and I am still in what I think of as survival mode. Find a place to live. Figure out how to pay the bills. Offer whatever is fair, and then some. Try not to be overwhelmed with shame and guilt. Call a friend. Take a hike. Live one hour at a time.
This is my fifth divorce. I am, as one of my cousins put it to me, “The King of Starting Over.” Couch-surfing, finding a new place to live after a marriage crumbles, buying a cheap microwave for the eventual new place, enduring (or merely imagining) the mockery that surely accompanies a troubled man’s much-predicted latest divorce? I am a pro. I am a Green Beret in the army of the inconstant, a SEAL in the navy of the well-intentioned, a Ranger in the battalions of the men who couldn’t-quite-make-it-happen. I could write a self-help book: Doing the Next Right Thing. (After You’ve Done Still Another Great Big Wrong One!.)
For now, the King of Starting Over recommends you have music to get you through. And you need to figure out what will do the trick, whether the trick is accessing bottled emotions or soothing yourself enough to get a few fleeting hours of sleep. You need to have reliable sounds to sustain you. And in times like this, I go straight for the very old stuff.
I like country music. I like Jerry Jeff Walker and Sunny Sweeney. I like Merle and Turnpike and Emmylou and Sturgill; Johnny, Waylon, Kris, Dolly, and Billie Joe. But with apologies to Chris Wall’s great song, for a divorce I need to go back more than a few decades. I need to go the stalwarts of my earliest memories. I go to classical music.
My first memory of my father comes from when I’m about three. Daddy comes home from campus (he was a philosophy professor) puts his briefcase down just inside the doorway and makes straight for the bookshelves stuffed with his classical LPs. He picks one, puts it on the turntable, powers on the machine, drops the needle in the groove. Only then does he relax, open his arms wide, a grin on his face, and invite me into his embrace with the only nickname I will ever have from him: Huggle Buggle!
(Once, when I was about 17, I picked Daddy up at the Salinas Greyhound station. Dad got off the bus, saw me waiting, and raised his arms in triumph: “Huggle Buggle! You’re here!” It felt as if the entire depot snickered in both Spanish and English, but I’d give anything to be humiliated by him in that same fashion again.)
I don’t know what that first record was, but even as a small boy, I knew my papa’s tastes. And he knew mine. When I was in a playful mood, I begged him to put on what I called “the dragon music:” Bartok’s Dance Suite. Listen to it with the ears of a small child, and you’ll hear the dragon!
When I was in an anxious mood, which was often (papa was also a nervous fellow), I’d ask for something more comforting: Haydn, Mozart, or Handel. An anxious first-born little boy and his habitually worried father soothed themselves with sound. When we felt brave or playful, we went to modern, often atonal selections: Schoenberg, Hindemith, Khachaturian. When I felt especially sad or anxious, I asked for the baroque: Telemann, Palestrina, and, of course, Bach.
(“Bach is the greatest composer who ever lived,” said daddy. “But Glück is my favorite. ‘Best’ and ‘favorite’ are rarely the same thing if you think about it.” I do think about it, papa. A lot.)
After my own parents’ divorce, I started listening to my mother’s folk music records. Mama gave me the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Odetta, and the Kingston Trio. She had many live recordings from the Newport Folk Festivals of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. I came home from school as a boy, lay on the floor with a sleeve of Oreos and a Tab, and tried to write down the lyrics to the songs I loved best.
Folk led me to country, my friends led me to rock, and a deep curiosity has led me almost everywhere else. (When pressed, I can offer anecdotes about my season as an evangelical, raising my hands in the air and swaying ecstatically to the worship-and-praise music of such luminaries as Matt Redman and Darlene Zschech.) I have eclectic tastes, but do not pride myself on my knowledge of any of it. I can’t read music, can’t play an instrument, can’t identify pitch or tone. I can recognize ¾ time and can usually distinguish the mandolin from the dobro (or a coloratura from a mezzo), but I lack both the ear and the understanding to be either a true connoisseur or a critic. I just like hearing and feeling new things.
When I’ve been dumped, and I know I’m the one who cared more, I can go to the classic country and pop sad songs. (Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet, Vince Gill’s “Trying to Get Over You,” Richard Thompson’s “Why Must I Plead,” Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”) When you are clear that you are more sinned against than sinning, you have a whole library of songs at your disposal that you do not have in what (for me, anyway) is the more common predicament: knowing that in the end, the greatest blame falls on my shoulders. It’s a lot easier to write good songs about heartbreak than about guilt, though there are plenty of those. Hal Ketchum’s “I Miss My Mary” is a gem in that category.
But when it’s really desperate, then I go to daddy’s music.(I also go to him in prayer: in my house, the only religion left is ancestor worship, and I call on papa and all the forebears to put aside their exasperation and disappointment and guide my next ten steps. For our children’s sake.). I’ve been playing lots of familiar Vivaldi and Purcell, but also challenging myself to listen to music that I know dad loved, but I didn’t always appreciate. I can only do Wagner in limited doses, but on the same weekend that the old anti-Semite’s namesakes got themselves into a dreadful mess in Russia, I’ve been listening to Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman again. Next to the wedding march, the most famous selection from the former is “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral.” A lovely friend sent me a version by the US Marine Band, and I fell asleep to it last night. It is a sublime recording, and it builds to a conclusion so powerful it didn’t just make me weep, it made me sob.
Somehow, the Marines got something there I’ve never heard before. Or maybe, it’s daddy talking to me through the winds, the timpani, and the exultant brass.
I’m always curious to know what other people’s musical “go-tos” are in deep crisis. Who is your comfort? Where is your reassurance? Who do you feel like hearing, tonight?