Repost: Down Around St. James Infirmary

The heart breaks and breaks, and lives by breaking. — Stanley Kunitz


There is a sneaking suspicion in the deepest of my neurons that home is who you hang your thoughts on. Every day I seek a frame of reference, a frame of happening on whom to hang mine. But when I’m not strong enough to believe there might be someone who could bear the mind I bare, I mean on the nights when I shuffle home just wrung the hell out, the bluesmen are the ones who’re there.

The blues are a compulsive suspension of disbelief. You don’t listen to the blues; you drag yourself on hands and knees into their embrace and hold onto them as tightly and for as long as you can. When your ribcage goes numb from the metronomic smack of that impulse to get gone, you find yourself curled up with their unrelenting lack like a drunk coming to on the cold tile floor, and wrestling the music into something that makes life gloriously livable once again. The blues are what you do with not being enough.

It starts with a lopsided beat that speaks to the way nothing quite syncs up in your head. Uneven fits of instrumentation run flush and level together. The harmonica caterwauls, the bluesman drags his voice through the mud, and together they scrape away the residue of outrage you feel toward the conveniences that have atrophied your will, and your own consequent insufficiency. Their hoarse runs pack every angry misgiving into that chasm between how things are and how they ought to be, compress the doubt you’ve hatefully cultivated into a pining for more and more and more until you cry uncle.

The bridge hits. You’d better sit down now.

You wrench your heartbeat into a matching arrhythmia to keep time with the crooked soul of syncopation, and when the piano wraps itself round the bass and the drums spot weld them together, when the beat hits that sweet spot– you know that spot– it uncoils over your shoulders in a convulsive roll. Before you can recover, the guitar keens, the horns and brass begin to wail these flattened chords that knock every stubborn burr off the spliced and soldered fragments of your heart, and the friction from it breaks you down into a shaky, feverish shell.

The weary rest between one beat and the next is enough to tell you that you cannot be for the ones you love, because they are not for you. You are all for yourselves, even while you resolutely seek something, someone, to be for. Despite your best efforts, here you are as home as you’ll ever be.

But the inclement mercy of the blues is that you become okay with not being okay. A calm stems from the music’s disquiet, a euphoric release is borne on the musician’s rundown of letdowns. disconnected revelers congregate around the music that celebrates their malcontent and lionizes their fallibility.

So hold on to those blues until your body is one big white-knuckled fist, and yell for more, always more. Hold on til they learn not to let you go.

The most dangerous thing I know is that beats cling to rests, and rests to beats.

Big Jay McNeely, Olympic Auditorium, 1953

Big Jay McNeely, Olympic Auditorium, 1953


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