Dancing ‘til the end of music


When I was in my late teens, I listened to the second side of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, pretty much every day for three weeks in a forest about an hour north of Montreal. I was living in a tent with other Jewish wannabe hippies at Camp Bnai Brith, and the camp leaders allowed us to have a turn table outside our tent, where we could spin our vinyls at will.

It’s hard to imagine living my life without the second side of Abbey Road.

On my way to visit my son at Camp Ramah the other day, I played it in my car, a few times over. Every note is like an old friend. You have to hear the whole side to get the full effect. The songs flow in and out of each other. Happy and silly mixes with deep and lyrical. There’s always a delightful surprise around the corner. No matter how often I hear it, it’s like opening a whole bunch of amazing Chanukah gifts in one sitting.

If you ever told me I would never hear Abbey Road again, I think I would sit shivah.

I feel that way about a lot of music– I can’t imagine my life without this or that piece of music. As much as I love art in all forms, music gets me like nothing else. I’m not sure I can even explain it. Maybe that’s why music reaches me so deeply—because I can’t explain it. If I could, then I would control it, own it, understand it, file it away.

There is no “controlling” music. When I hear music I love, all I can do is surrender. Hearing the band Beirut play “Nantes” makes me forget the Middle East or when I have to pick up my kids. An old Elton John ballad like “Sixty Years On” makes me count the seconds until John sings “Margarita plays guitar, plays it just for me.” 

Great songs offer delights within delights. The instrumental opening of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones increases the pulse to dangerous levels. Carlos Santana’s guitar on “Samaba Pa Ti” sounds like a voice crying. Lyrics can also offer deep pleasure. When I hear the singer-poet Leonard Cohen sing, “Dance me ‘til the end of love,” I’m in awe that someone could string those words together: Aren’t you supposed to dance with someone, and until the end of time?

A Chassidic niggun around a Shabbat table— chanting with no words—can send my soul spinning as much as a blues song from B.B. King. One of my favorite albums is an old CD of a Sephardic chazzan singing Askenazic melodies with a Sephardic twist. It’s so unifying that if enough people played it simultaneously, the Messiah might show up.

When I met Michael Jackson at his ranch many years ago, and we started talking about melodies, he asked me what my favorite melody was. I couldn’t lie. I told him it was a Sephardic melody we sing only during the High Holidays, to commemorate the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. I sang it to him. Whoever wrote that melody a few centuries ago in Morocco is probably related to Paul McCartney.

Music has such a hold on me that I have found it extremely difficult to boycott Roger Waters, the world’s most vocal promoter of boycotts against Israel. I hate his anti-Israel stance, but I’m crazy about his band, Pink Floyd. I grew up on “Dark Side of the Moon.” When I hear the opening of “Wish you were here,” I’m transported to some other planet where everyone is a poet. What can a diehard Zionist do in front of such sublime perfection? Maybe my quiet revenge is that every time I hear Hatikva, I can’t imagine a more beautiful national anthem.

Music doesn’t only own souls, it owns time. It owns memories. I hear “La Vida Loca” from Coldplay and I’m now in the summer of 2011 picking up my daughter Eva from surf camp and taking her for frozen yogurt at Penguins. I hear “Ma Cherie Amore” from Stevie Wonder and I’m in the summer of 1973 in a blue Rambler driving down to the Jersey shore with my family, with my father telling us how much he loves the song.

It’s true that some music plays better at certain times. You won’t impress anyone by playing a dark, moody Leonard Cohen song on a sunny spring afternoon. That stuff plays better under the stars, just like the greatest moonlight song ever written, “Moondance,” by Van Morrison. For some odd reason, I used to blast that song when I would drive alone at night with my oldest daughter Tova when she was an infant. We would open the windows and make loud sounds. What was I thinking? Music makes you do weird things.

I’ve had some passionate love affairs with certain singers, John Lennon among them. I remember where I was the day he was shot in December 1980. I was getting coffee in the kitchen of an advertising agency in Montreal where I was working. One memory I have is how the head of the company, an older gentleman, was baffled by the incredibly intense reaction from his employees. No one could talk about anything else. We were walking around, shell-shocked. John Lennon and his music owned us.

It’s a sign of how single-minded I could get when it comes to music that, in grieving Lennon’s passing, I couldn’t help thinking: How many “Hey Judes” and “Instant Karmas” and “Imagines” are now buried with him?

Music often intrudes in my professional life, as when I speak and write about the challenge of attracting the new generation to the ancient Jewish tradition. Well, guess what I have found can make all the difference in enhancing the Jewish experience? That’s right, music. Melodies. Chanting. Communal singing. Whether it’s the old-school charm of a magnificent cantor or the Woodstock vibe of a spiritual community, it’s music, as Don McLean told us in “American Pie,” that can save our mortal souls.

I better stop now, before I get too carried away explaining my love for music. Because I really can’t.

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