AND THE SONG SAID DON’T BE LONELY: Palimpsests, Intertextuality, and “Strange Magic”

The first blog I ever kept was about the relationship between reading and music. It was called A Book: a Playlist, and I would make a mix-tape in response to each book I read and write about it. The process made sense to me: I often respond to books with an inarticulable feeling, sensation, or—as the fifteen-year-old stoner in me would describe it—vibe, which felt easier to communicate in music rather than words. It always seemed like a more immediate reaction, as if “these songs sound like the way that the book made me feel” was more genuine than a written review.

I still aim to soundtrack my life, too. I obsess about listening to the right song at any given moment: a song that heightens my emotional state, crystallises how I feel, and rounds an experience into something fuller that I can feel wholly. I once offered to drive a friend home after dinner, but when we got to my car I just sat in the driver’s seat, labouring over what music we should listen to on the ten-minute drive to her house. I scrolled through the music on my phone for a while, indecisive. I hadn’t even put the keys into the ignition.

“Can’t we just go,” my friend said. “It isn’t that important.” She was busying herself, looking at her phone. Both of our screens shone bright white lights. The car was filled, lucid with it. I had parked in a dark side street with no streetlamp. We’d been sitting there for maybe five minutes.
“No it is though,” I said. I apologised but wasn’t really sorry. “Just give me one second.”

Finding that perfect song that expresses how you feel isn’t a fruitless venture. I often get it right. Staring out of a bus window turns from mundane to poetic if I listen to “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul and Mary. Sitting in my bedroom in the early morning feels important when I listen to Galaxie 500’s cover of “Ceremony”. Dancing to “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Heads at a house party becomes cinematic, like I’m living the most beautiful years of my life, and the more that time passes the closer those years are to being gone.

In a post on her blog Style Rookie, writer and editor Tavi Gevinson describes these moments as “strange magic”: moments that are “aesthetically cohesive and perfect and synesthetic.” They seem inexplicably important and transcendent. In the same post, Gevinson questions, “what validates an emotion/event/observation, makes me feel like it really happened and I really lived it.” I feel that maybe, for me, moments of “strange magic” are part of the answer. I look for these moments in writing as well: lines that resonate with me somewhere in my stomach. It’s feeling of roundness, completion, and the recognition of something that I really feel. A low rumble that makes me larger than what I am.

Memory conflates experiences, bringing separate moments closer and closer together until you could’ve sworn that they happened at the exact same time. This happens to me with reading. When I read Miranda July’s short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You I had just discovered Yo La Tengo’s album And Everything Was Turned Inside Out. I’d put that record on as I read—turning the page and flipping over the record in seemingly the same motion. In many ways And Everything Was Turned Inside Out is a very quiet album: the vocals are often whisper soft, the guitars acoustic, and the drums mostly played with brushes and muted sticks. It matches the naivety of the stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You well. Now when I think of No One Belongs Here More Than You, the gentle but arresting voice in July’s stories is also that of Yo La Tengo’s vocalist Ira Kaplan. I mix the titles of songs and stories up: “The Crying of Lot G” could be a July story, “I Kiss a Door” could be a Yo La Tengo song. Once I leafed through my copy of No One Belongs Here More Than You looking for a line—“and the song said don’t be lonely, it makes me lonely”—only to realise that it was a lyric from a Yo La Tengo song, “Last Days of Disco”.

My favourite story from the July collection is “Something That Needs Nothing”. In it, a teenage narrator leaves the suburbs for a cockroach-filled apartment in Portland with her friend Pip. The narrator is in love with Pip, but their relationship is platonic: her feelings are unrequited. Pip abandons the narrator for someone else, and the narrator takes up a job at a peep show to make rent. Later, Pip sees the narrator in her work clothes—a cut t-shirt, high-ridden shorts, a wig—and their love blossoms. They sleep together—in the non-platonic sense—for eight consecutive nights, the narrator with her wig on the entire time. “I believed it made all of this possible,” she says, “and I was right.” Eventually, the narrator takes the wig off—her scalp is dry and hot and she is feverish—and Pip abandons her again. She sits at her job, waiting for a sign of what to do next.

I, like July’s narrator, am making a terrible habit of developing crushes on friends. I’ll get close to someone, close enough that the friendship is established and comfortable, and realise I’d like that friend to be something more. I want the parameters changed as soon as they’ve been set. I’ll always feel like it is too late to say anything though, that the admission of a want for more than a friendship will mean the loss of it. I’m that bad combination of shy and self-conscious that renders all of my social interactions measured and laborious. Making friends is hard, but more-than-friends is a divide I’ve never really been able to cross. That recognition, that realisation of a friend that I’d like to be more, isn’t too far from a moment of “strange magic.” It’s that low rumble, a gut-wrench and a click into place, and my whole body starts to whir with the energy of affection. Any interactions from then on are even more measured, more particular and thought through. Then, the sharing of interests between friends becomes something else. I give myself to people through showing them the things I love: I’ll lend them books and films and send them links to songs and in these acts I’ll offer myself to them, hoping they find the same things to love in these texts that I did. Hoping that eventually they’ll find something to like in me.

We often discuss texts as intertextual: referencing each other, existing in relational networks created by both author and reader. But “strange magic” feels like something more than this. Recently I’ve been drawn to the image of the palimpsest, a script on which text has been erased and rewritten. Palimpsests are an act of rewriting, but one in which soft traces of what was previously written remain. In the foreword to Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, Gerald Prince argues that all literary texts are palimpsestic in “the ways they reread and rewrite one another, the ‘perpetual transfusion or transtextual perfusion’ of literature.” Texts can exist together in ways stronger than mere reference or relation. Intertextual links can be so strong that, like a palimpsest, they can seemingly be erased and rewritten. In memory, at least, No One Belongs Here More Than You is a palimpsest. It no longer exists without Yo La Tengo. “Strange magic” has rewritten it: made it different, new.

“Strange magic” and palimpsests aren’t that easy to reconcile, though. Palimpsests mean that nothing is stable, texts and discourses shift, and meaning is slippery and ephemeral. Moments of “strange magic”, however, are more solid and comprehendible, a conflation that transcends intelligible experience and memory. Still, I can’t help but think of them working in tandem.
One of my favourite Yo La Tengo songs is “Our Way to Fall”, but I don’t listen to it as often as I used to. I liked it best when I was in the early stages of a crush, those excruciating days when time gives way to your imagination. You think of nothing but that person declaring their affection for you, while you feign indifference each time you actually see them. She was one of those friends that I’d wished was more: light-limbed and fine-featured, she’d grip my arm when she laughed. She once told me that I had good taste in music, and after then I relentlessly sent her songs I loved. I’d listen to “Our Way to Fall” in my headphones, anywhere and almost continuously, and in that song felt those early crush feelings, that capacity for something exciting. Months later, after that crush had dissolved into nothing greater than a bashful admission of “I like you,” I saw Yo La Tengo live. They performed “Our Way to Fall” and I stood rigid with the realisation that I’d never find those early crush feelings in that song again. I mourned the loss of that magic more than the missed opportunity of the relationship itself. That “strange magic” was the palimpsest: the feelings that song had elicited were erased and rewritten.

Is it naive that the fact that two people experience the same thing differently still affects me? That I want to talk about it and write about it? That I could hear that song, hear Ira Kaplan sing “I remember walking up to you, I remember my face turned red, and I remember staring at my feet” and have it remind me of her, and that she could hear that song and feel nothing? That a lack of any universal experience doesn’t upset me, but makes me excited to be a person who is alive?

In “Something That Needs Nothing”, when the narrator and Pip first have sex, the narrator says “so this was what it was like to not be me.” The moments that we think need validation through music and books are often moments that we don’t feel are our own, moments that—as Gevinson writes—we haven’t “really lived.” We seek to validate these alien moments to make them more relevant: to make them more our own. In his book How Music Works, David Byrne argues that we use portable music devices to soundtrack our lives, to make them seem cinematic. “Energetic, dreamy, or ominous and dark: everyone has their own private movie going on in their heads,” he writes, “and no two are the same.” In this, Byrne seems to argue that we use music to actively assert our mood. That listening to Peter, Paul and Mary on the bus is me trying to feel a poetic solitude. That I put on “This Must Be the Place” at house parties because I know exactly how it will make me feel. What does this mean, then, for when we want to feel not ourselves? This act of listening to music to soundtrack a life that is foreign from your own is an act of validation. It isn’t dissimilar to the narrator of “Something That Needs Nothing” having sex in a wig.

When I remember telling that friend that I liked her, I think of it as both brave and out of character. It’s a big event in my otherwise non-existent romantic life, something I did that gave me the very same glimpse of being someone else that the narrator in “Something That Needs Nothing” experiences. When I said “I want you to know that I like you, like like you” I was briefly someone more confident, more self-assured. Braver. But really, the act itself wasn’t brave at all. It was in a dimly lit bar, a pokey inner city spot that felt cramped with any more than twenty people. I’d deejayed there once, stressing over what music I’d play for weeks, but when the time came no one really took any notice. I can’t remember what music they were playing that night I was there with my friend. It’s all Yo La Tengo to me now. I was drunk and my admission was quick, me mumbling into a glass of ice and scotch whiskey and water. I said I had to go as soon as I had told her. My hands were cold and grimy with sweat. I was breathing quickly and sharply. She said I should stay but I still left, drunk and nervous, tittering. She followed me outside and kissed my cheek: I remember smiling churlishly. I still walked away though, walked away saying nothing. But somehow that song, that palimpsest, “Our Way to Fall”, makes me remember the whole night as brave. It puts a sheen over the lived reality. It makes it “strange magic.”


James Butler is a Brisbane-based writer, bookseller, and co-founder and fiction editor of Scum Magazine. He’s currently writing an honours thesis on representations of the body in postmodern film.

Above image from Miranda July’s Instagram account.

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