I gave up trying to understand this years ago. Soon I hope to give up trying to excuse it. But for whatever reason it may be, when a piece of work is right – is just somehow right – it makes me cry.
Now, my definition of right is unquestionably going to be different to yours but you know when something is right, too, even if you’re cooler than I am and only rarely blub. I think it’s when I can recognise that an artist has tried to reach something new, that they have succeeded and that I have been brought along by them. Very often it can be at the end of a piece, it’ll be at the point when the artist’s journey is done. It’s happened to me with novels, films, with finely-made one-hour television episodes. There are certain Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti lines that I can’t say for sobbing. Actually sobbing.
It has happened just once with a place. New York City. My favourite place in the world. Can’t tell you why, can’t point to a feature or a fact, I just know that I stepped out onto those streets one night and I felt taller. I felt taller with a tear in my eye.
I need you to understand that this isn’t an hourly occurence and that I don’t ever cry because something is sad. It’s rare and powerful, it is vastly more raw and dambusting than just a mawkish weepie on a Sunday afternoon. Something opens me up and reaches in to get a good grasp. Usually it’s unexpected, statistically it’s most often music. The entire Suzanne Vega album Songs in Red and Gray, for instance. I can’t hear that as a set of tracks, it is one piece to me and it all works.
I bring this up because I went to a concert this week and it began with the words “From New York City… Suzanne Vega”. Nobody can tell me why I got a shiver from that, but I did and it was glorious.
But while I’m telling you that she was great and that while I felt only a shiver and slightly damp eyelids, I want to tell you of a time when all this was very bad for me.
It’s pretty bad now, admitting it to you.
But once. Just once. It wasn’t only a tear from something being right. There was just once also a sense of sadness. Maybe it was just the combination of right and sad, but it felt more. It felt like howl-with-rage misery.
And it was over a Suzanne Vega song.
Tired of Sleeping, from her 1990 album, Days of Open Hand.
It’s not like that’s a comedy record but I also wouldn’t have said that it was the darkest 3’47” of the night. Except that it was for me. I cannot convey to you how that song smashed away inside me, I certainly cannot explain why. But everything I’ve confessed about when things are right, I got that with this. Everything I’ve denied about it ever happening when things are sad, I got all that too.
Over and over, actually.
It was so bad, it hurt so very badly, that I asked my wife Angela Gallagher for help. I may be imagining this but I think she held my hand while she listened to the track. She liked it, she recognised how strong it was, but, frankly, it didn’t throw a brick through her skull as it had me.
And do you know what? From that moment on, I have been able to listen to Tired of Sleeping without being upset anywhere near as deeply.
So let this be a lesson. If something is right and something is powerful, I’m keeping it to myself.
UPDATE: There are many versions of Tired of Sleeping now but this is the skull-smashing one. The link is to a fan’s YouTube video and right this moment I’m playing it while writing to you – and so not bothering to watch whatever visuals the fella has added. No offence to him, but I’d recommend that you do the same. Here’s Tired of Sleeping