The sex-and-music ecstasy connection
Maybe Meg was just obsessed with first times.
Like the first time she heard Tom Petty’s song, “Learning to Fly.” She’d probably heard it sometime before, in a memory long forgotten, but the first time she really heard it was on a dusty afternoon on the way back from Las Vegas, driving under a cloudless desert sky. She and a friend from college had gone, taking Sammy’s caramel-gold convertible on a boredom-killing road trip. But Meg found herself unable to keep up with Sammy’s drinking binge; by weekend’s sunset, it was she who had the resources to do the driving. Not that she’d really minded. There was something sort of melancholy and romantic about driving through the desert, chasing sunset. Meg herself had always been sort of melancholy and romantic too — or wistful, at least, to be such a person — until she realized that having such desires probably made her the thing she was longing to be.
So she was driving through the desert, while Sammy slumbered clumsily in the back seat, when Tom Petty came on the radio. It was one of those perfectly ecstatic moments where a song was everything you hadn’t known you were feeling till you heard it. That was true serendipity, she thought — not finding the person you were destined for, but hearing a song that described you, at just that moment when the aptness was neither memory nor prediction, but the present: you.
She had concluded, then that sex was really nothing compared to music. Music had that magical power to overtake you, out of the blue, and lift you away from yourself into a brief, pure moment where everything was just the music and the feeling and your body, in a seamless trinity of ecstasy. Unlike sex, she’d never found a way to make that happen; it always just came upon you, magically, without warning of any kind.
Once it had been “Hey Jude” by the Beatles — but she could listen to the song a thousand times hence without ever again having the same experience like that one time — and it hadn’t even been the first time she heard the song. It was just the first time her emotions and “Hey Jude” had been resonant. For seven minutes of sightless swaying, that was musical ecstasy.
For she could never experience ecstasy with her eyes open. After all, it was all about that kind of dependence; still trying to see just got in the way. The whole of her body was only really taken away when her ears took over everything.
She’d had lots of ecstasy songs over the years — and even after that one, perfect time, there’d be many hearings later that still infused with the moment of resonance. It was like having leftovers many days in a row — only, not the kind of leftovers that progressively improve because the intimacy of the spices has increased. The kind of leftovers one brings home from a Mexican restaurant and slowly finishes from frugality. Much of the flavor’s still there, but the lettuce wilts away to slime with each reheating, and the sour cream becomes a milky, vanishing gravy.
But the memory of the moment when the plate had touched, and the food was on her palate always sent her back for more. And so she’d usually have to track the CD down, in order to satisfy her aural cravings. And yet … having the CD, the song at her command, was like trying to make a phantom lover return — by masturbation — after he’d come to you unprompted in the first place. Indeed she found there were some songs — like “Smooth,” by Rob Thomas and Santana — that were never the same from the CD player as when magically brought by the radio or the DJ or the Muzak.
That was how it was with music. She’d concluded to herself, once, there was something supernatural about it — about the radio especially. There was something about the way a sequence of Nirvana and Talking Heads and Billy Idol could all be so perfect in that nine-and-a-half-minute drive to somewhere. Maybe the drive only took eight minutes. But the set was so magical and self-affirming that you found yourself sitting in the car the last 90 seconds, just to suck every drop of marrow out of the life-bone the DJ had thrown you.
Yeah, that was ecstasy. Meg didn’t think she’d ever find a man who could give that to her regularly —unless he was maybe a DJ. But even that would be awfully a lot of pressure — expecting someone to constantly give you the soundtrack to your insides. And maybe you didn’t even want to know what was playing, always. Maybe it something horrific, like she imagined Ozzy Osbourne to be — and you’d be really appalled to discover he was actually inside you; that he’d even made music from your insides for all to hear. Even if the Righteous Brothers and “Unchained Melody” didn’t really constitute your ecstasy, and in fact clashed horrifically with the song going on inside you, sometimes it was the only way to contain all that blackness and melancholy and bile — hearing happy, cheesy love songs on the outside.
Most of the time, though, Meg was sufficiently comfortable with her doldrums to hear something between the Brothers and ole Ozzy on the radio. And she was OK with the fact that sometimes even music was just white noise to her. After all, the extraordinary thing about ecstasy was its rarity, and the fact that it only chose to possess you now and then.
Essays on Art and Democracy
(features the rap “Sex and Music”)