Sometimes, for an instant or longer, when the music was just exactly right, it was possible to lose one’s self in the press of great punk rock. Whole seconds might pass in the pulsing crowd, strangers coiled and bruising on all sides, dank smells and powerful sounds overwhelming the constant chatter of consciousness. Overwhelming every single impulse, save the moment.
Occasionally the words mattered, a refrain serving as the centering chant; sometimes the physicality of the music itself swept every other thing to the side. Regardless, we were there together (or so it seemed), bound by tendrils of fury and joy and an imagined unity of purpose.
This is not the same as being part of a mob. It does not last as long, and is not an unthinking, amoral, unfeeling abandonment of self. But it is a moment of spectacular unity and freedom, and it is evanescent.
And one day, like most young love, it slips away altogether and cannot be recaptured.
One evening you linger on the couch and spin memories, staying out of the night. Some time later you discover you’d really rather stay home, that too few of the strangers in the crowd are familiar, that the more private companionship of marriage and family, or the exhaustion of merely making a living, or an aging back and knees — or all of them — have sated your desire (or capacity) to be swept away in the froth of the crowd.
And that the crowd itself has changed.
Ah, but getting older is not the same as giving up, no matter what they say on TV.
For many, music becomes simply a set of markers to be manipulated by canny advertisers. The rest of us gather in peculiar communities such as this, for our lives still demand expression, and the habits of our quest will be put to sleep no more easily than a hungry child.
And so we are drawn to explore the simpler yet complex power and, yes, the sheer transcendence of great songwriting, though we now listen in the stolen privacy of midnight headphones or solitary drives, and the songs that touch us now may not so easily be shared.
Every once in a while, if we are very lucky, this is what we will hear:
sit and think
– “I Drink”
It is the rare kind of song which produces, in the words of its co-author, Mary Gauthier, a physical reaction to the truth. If there is time, you may pull to the side of the road and cry, or stare blankly into the night sky. We have all lost friends, by now.
In 1982, Mary Gauthier hopped on her motorcycle and rode from Baton Rouge to New Orleans (it takes about an hour and a half if you observe the speed limit), where she saw the Clash and, she thinks, probably, Iggy Pop on the Riverboat President.
“It was so freaking loud,” she says, and then leans back into the corner of a dark leather couch and lets her piercing blue eyes go quiet. Takes a long moment to reflect. “I was part of that thing back then,” she continues, almost tenderly, “the black T-shirt angry kid thing. We were drunk and stoned, on the highway, on a motorcycle, and I was doing my Kerouac thing.”
The dark leather couch is in Harlan Howard’s office, a large, neat room filled with tastefully masculine furniture, the walls covered with photographs of friends, only the tidiness of his great desk reminding an observer that Nashville’s preeminent songwriter died on March 3, 2002.
The road has taken Mary Gauthier many places, none less likely than this room. Adopted into an unhappy Thibodaux, Louisiana, family, she left home early and has so far explored life as, among other things, a drunk, a philosophy student, a house painter, a drug addict, a Boston restaurateur, a sober person, an aspiring songwriter and a well-traveled singer. Today she sparkles with life, lives in Nashville, and writes for Harlan Howard Songs. At 42, seven years after finishing her first song, she will make her major-label debut with Mercy Now, due from Lost Highway on February 15.