There are songs that hurt

Photo by YUNXI SHI on Unsplash

There are songs that hurt. They hurt a lot.

And I’m not sure what it means that they do, or what I’m to do about it, if anything.

One of these songs, however, I have managed to re-filter through my adult self and come to love on my own terms. Now, it is one of my favorite songs. It no longer devastates me, though it always makes me wistful.

That song is Killing Me Softly, by Roberta Flack. I have the distinct memory of being a very young child in the loft of a snow cabin in the Lake Tahoe region of California. I could see my parents in the living room down below, in front of the fire. My siblings and I were upstairs. Everyone was asleep but me. I listened to the song and watched my parents in the living room below and felt something terribly complex.

It was a rare moment of peace in my family. My parents were momentarily calm, grounded. They were murmuring, not fighting. That day, my father had built us an ice house. I can still smell the snow, and see my father wearing a black Russian hat and holding a shovel. I remember my wet, red snowsuit, my mittens, and my aching fingers.

We were happy. I wasn’t frightened.

The lyrics caught my attention too. They were odd. Strumming my fate with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song… They scared me.

There are other songs I haven’t metabolized as well.

One is the theme song from M*A*S*H. The song devastates me. Good grief, the title of the song is Suicide is Painless. I had no idea. Based on the comments under the recording on YouTube, many people struggle with piercing nostalgia when they hear this song. One commenter said it made her sad because she remembers staying up late to watch the TV with her grandmother. Another said he knew “it was time to take our asses to bed when we heard that show come on.”

My little brother and I used to creep out of our bedrooms and meet on the carpet outside our parents’ bedroom to very quietly watch the show through the open door. It was the mid-late 70s. When I hear the song, I’m filled with coziness to be doing this illicit thing with my brother. We’re afraid of getting caught. I also feel the pain of love. I was madly in love with Alan Alda, the show’s main star. Searingly, achingly in love. He was sweet and kind, funny and composed, wry and dear. And he had floppy, salt-and-pepper hair.

The last, and most painful, is the great Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music. I’m playing it now, and it hurts, but I’m not wrecked. Maybe, just maybe, I’m healing.

The song is about a woman named Desirée who reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life. One stanza particularly cuts me:

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career

My mother was a famous journalist who lost everything due to addiction. She “lost her timing,” or at least, lost her battle… scratch that. It was never a battle. And therein lies the rub with my mother. There is no record of her understanding she was an addict or trying to stop drinking. Not until she was less than three weeks from death due to cirrhosis, did she think it might behoove her to stop swilling vodka straight.

When I hear this song, I see my mother sitting on the tweedy blue loveseat in our living room, perpendicular to the fireplace. The song comes on the stereo from the bookshelf near the chess table. My mother puts down the newspaper she was forever reading and says, wistfully, “I love this song.”

It catches my attention. It’s one of the few things my mother ever shared with me. She was emotionally remote and drunk most of the time, so the episode stands out. I felt I had been gifted with something precious. And indeed I had. For a brief moment, a connection existed between us. I treasure it still.


Christopher Robin, Michael Burg, MD recommended I submit this to your new publication SongStories. Please consider it!

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