How to listen like a slow learner

for Tim

Make your selection with care, but don’t be too precious about it. Better yet, simply reach deep into that musty old crate and pull the first album you can grab.

Pour yourself a glass of wine, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths. Bury your phone in some other place. Make yourself available only for this one thing and this one thing only.

Take some time with the cover. Does the artwork trigger something? Remember that mystical skyscape? Or that pouty half-illuminated face? That band standing at the crossroads? Yah, that album was everywhere. Even in the attic bedrooms and basement dens of kids who weren’t cool enough to get it like you did.

And you did, you got it, just like it got you. That sound, those beats, those words and even the graphic design on the cover was created solely with you in mind. You, the impressionable young sponge were the intended audience. You were who the artists made this album for. You completed the cycle. And it was you whose life was forever changed. And not in a small way. It held you, spoke to you. Taught you how to dress and style your hair, how to walk, how to hold your head and move through a crowd. How to talk back. Consoled you when your heart was aching. Awakened a longing for a past that hadn’t happened yet.

Are you brave enough to take the next step? Good. Now, slide the disk out of the sleeve. Middle finger in hole, thumb at the curved edge, tilt to see if it needs to be cleaned. It will. Do your best.

Place the record on the turntable. Pole in hole. You got it. Lift the arm. Let it drop. For a moment there’s a hush, a breath, a sigh. Then…


Not just with your ears, but your bones, your guts, the insides of your elbows, the tiny hairs at the back of your neck.


Until that moment of first crackle and pop, you had forgotten, or thought you did, but you didn’t forget. Your body remembers deep inside where the memories live undisturbed until reawakened. All that aching hunger. The sadness. The joy. The rage.

Then there’s that other feeling, hard to place. What’s it called? It’s like…but… ooh. then it changes and changes again. Maybe the Germans have a word for it. (Never mind. That feeling has no words, because if there were words you wouldn’t need the music.)

Resist the urge to fold laundry, exercise, or otherwise multitask. Maybe sway a bit, tap a foot. You can dance if you want to. Maybe even sing along badly. Resist also the urge to call to your partner of many years from the other room to come join you. If you do, prepare for the heartbreak when they refuse. Not everybody gets it.

Sometimes when killing time online, I find myself in the deep recesses of Zillow. The saddest are the posts where it’s obvious someone of a certain age is getting rid of the family home, the ones with the wood panelling and the carpeting in the basement, the colonial wallpaper in the kitchen and drop ceilings.  I can almost hear the lost soundtrack. Albums played over and over on cheap record players with built in speakers. Easy to imagine the lives lived in these houses. If I could bear to dig deeper, I would imagine unlived lives, the unrequited loves, unattainable coolness, roads not taken lurking in in the grooves, hidden in some dusty stack, rejected, forgotten, donated to Goodwill.

CAUTION: To listen slowly is to invite the ghosts in. It’s okay. You’re relatively safe with music ghosts. Most of the ghosts are friendly. Open the doors and welcome them in, they’re not vampires. Trust them. Those goosebumps won’t steer you wrong. Lost in the music is where you know you belong.

A second word of warning: Listen long enough, deep enough, no doubt a tune will stick with you, play itself over and over long after the tone arm is back in its cradle. At some point you might want to rid yourself of such a tune, but don’t be so fast.

Listen. That wormie in your ear is trying to tell you something.


Related: In Praising of “Listening Through” (Every Album By Your Favorite Artist) Kevin Smokler