There aren’t many things in life that are permanent. However, we insist on telling ourselves stories about how some things are or simply fail to notice the changes that undergo even the most basic and subconscious parts of our being. Case in point: the way we listen to the music and the type of music we listen to. At least for me, every broad musical period that I’m in seems larger than life and stretches both into the past and into the future. Whether it’s a stint obsessing over a specific band, genre or sound, my current affection (which is much more than an afternoon or even a week) seems to loom large in the narrative of myself. Funnily enough, these interchanging periods carry their share of perspective but it’s the things that stay the same that really strike deep. The tracks, albums and bands might be the same but they’re in fact wholly different. What has changed then, since the material obviously hasn’t? Only one part of the equation remains to be shifted: me.
And so comes the realization that even such intimate, deeply embedded parts of us such as how we experience music, shift and move with us. The more that this thought took root in me, the more I became ambiguous about it. Was this a keystone in a well of sadness or the first block in a soaring bridge of joy? Was I to wax reminiscent, taking pride in passing over my changing tastes, like so many old jewels that catch the light once again? I found that I don’t know. Which is why I’m writing this, to try and delve into the bottom of this elusive, haunting, uplifting realization. The net is too wide to cast however; the emotion in play is too subtle. To serve as my guide, a barometer or perhaps a focal point, I decided to choose a specific track. It would help if this track dealt with the subject matter itself, namely our perceptions of who we are and how these perceptions change.
That final requirement gave me my answer. “Where We Would Be” by Porcupine Tree deals with our failures to be who we want to be, with the stark space between the image of who we imagined we would be and where we ended up residing. It is one of Steven Wilson‘s most poignant tracks. More importantly, it is a track I’ve been listening to for over a decade. Thus, by examining my changing relationship with this track, it might be possible to draw some larger conclusion about how I feel towards the very nature of change, the very question of how and why I connect to music in different, dynamic and organic ways, ways which die and are born. It shouldn’t be too necessary to delve into why the track itself is powerful or good; it’s a pretty simple one and it utilizes all the basic tricks of Wilson’s trade. His vocals are the focal point, with their unique brand of sadness and nostalgia. The instruments are pleasingly modern progressive rock, indeed the entire album is one of the founding moments of the genre.
The lyrics, however, might warrant further attention under our current investigation. They clearly tell of a love lost, a yearning for a connection which once existed and now does not. This connection went deep, deep enough for the two lovers to share a future, an image of themselves. That image, though naive perhaps with artistic expression and harmony, was clearly in the center of the relationship. Now that that relationship is gone, whether by external force or internal breakup we are not told, the arrant distance between what should have been and the present state of affairs is the source of the pain, the longing and the despair that the track exudes. This brings us, perhaps, to the first time I met this track. I was young, not even sixteen, and, as part of the time old cliche, the world was open wide in front of me. I was an opinionated, privileged, well taught man and nothing stood in my way. In short, I was a dick.
I was also deeply, impossibly in love. My partner of that time seemed to be everything I had been told about first love and then some. The relationship lasted much longer than a school fling; in fact, it ended two years ago, almost 11 years after it began. But we’ll get back to that. For now, this fine, vocal, sharp boy was discovering both the wonders of love and the wonders of music. My careful upbringing among Pink Floyd, Cake, King Crimson, Henry Rollins and, over all, Nick Cave, was blossoming into a fascination with rock, metal, progressive music and more. Porcupine Tree stood at the very top, rivaled by only a few other names (Dream Theater, Iron Maiden and Blind Guardian for those interested). And from that illustrious band, Lightbulb Sun was one of my favorite albums and in that album, “Where We Would Be” ranked very high.
Truly, the best of the best. I remember vividly exactly how the track had made me feel: completely the opposite of how I just described it above. It made me feel on top of the world, as I was. It made me feel invincible, as I imagined myself to be. It made me laugh and sympathize with the imaginary protagonist, picturing myself as opposite of him. I had a love that would outlast the stars, a passion that would outlast society and a trajectory which would carry me through to my eventual goal. What that goal was was as yet unclear but I knew that grand things were ahead. And so, we reach our first point: what we take from the track often has nothing to do with how the track was written. Instead, it’s this weird, misshapen, often beautiful hybrid of who we are and what the track is and how it speaks to us. A hybrid of how much shared language we have and what is spawned from the meeting of the two not-completely-compatible lexicons.
Of course, it’s a result of who we were at the time, which is the entire point of this piece. Naturally, as the story demands, everything came apart. In my case, it wasn’t quickly: being white, well-funded and ambitious led to successes and the love stayed true. More or less. Where it counted. Or so I had told myself. And so, the vision of “Where We Would Be,” that tableau of laughing against the rain and picturing myself to be otherwise, remained. For years. It stratified, sunk deep, wound its roots around my heart and mind until this track became an essential part of who I was. When social media kicked in, I used it several times to introduce myself to people. I had decided to correlate that disregard for failure, that blatant and magnified “It will never happen to me!” cry as who I was.
Now comes the falling apart. Two years ago, she left. No other details required, nor any other will be given since this is not the point. I was a mess, a wreck, a ship without a keel and other such tired out cliches. I fell hard into music; this was when I first joined the blog, burning the endless, sleepless nights into content, posts and schedules. I listened to more albums between the end of 2013 and all of 2014 than I had in all my life up until that point. Mostly, I re-embraced sad music, which had been there all my life: Anathema. Katatonia. Porcupine Tree. I came back to Lightbulb Sun the most, since it had always been one of my favorites. Therefore, obviously, I came back to “Where We Would Be.” I played that track incessantly, often skipping the pretense that I cared about the rest of the album and listening to it directly. Over and over, Wilson’s voice tore into the air of my solitary house, a grand affair provided by my family, much too large for me, especially in my grief.
Suddenly, this track, which for me had been filled with joie de vivre and shouted defiance, had become an intimate, quiet affair. I stopped playing it to others, convinced (whether truthfully or not) that I could no longer explain what I found in it or why it mattered to me so much. It had become a knife, an admonition; a joke at the expense of myself, told by both the past version of me and the current one. Honestly, it was told by my future version as well, a far off figure which had become dark and unclear. I was truly lost and “Where We Would Be” was my cattail whip, my array of hooks digging into my back, drawing blood. If you haven’t suffered from depression this might be hard to understand but causing yourself pain is a large part of it and a large part of how you escape from it. The track had been transformed, alchemically altered by the new substance that had been introduced into it.
The track was obviously the same but the other side of the equation had shifted. What resulted was a completely different animal, a completely different use for the track. In tandem, the image of the track presented outwards was also changed: it became something different “objectively”, for people around me and not just for me. It was “that track”, that track that if you heard playing you knew that I was in a bad place. I wore it with pride, re-opening my wounds with careful strokes whenever the pain had grown so distant. Thus should end our tale, with the hero dejected, reduced, by his own devices of course, to a much humbler place, his rightful location as a mortal who had dared the gods with his hubris.
But, you see, the horror and beauty of life is that it doesn’t stop like a story does. No, life goes on and everything passes which, in some way, is also the point of this piece. Eventually, I shook off my depression and the ocher cloud that had surrounded me, occluding my vision and my heart. Slowly, I began to reconnect with a lot of my past loves in music: Blind Guardian, with their epic escapism, Iron Maiden, with their historical core and others began to fill my halls once again, ringing with old-new sounds. But Lightbulb Sun and specifically “Where We Would Be”, remained. If you’ve been following closely, the rest will not surprise you: the track had changed again. In my stumbling return to form, in the shambling walk that slowly grew more upright and self-secure, the track was once again a constant companion.
However, it seems as if, this time, a deeper process had taken place. Instead of just changing by itself, the nature of the change itself, changed. This time, instead of a mirror image, a binary opposite to what it had been, the track presented itself altered in much more subtle, interesting ways. To be sure, the painful aspect remained and, indeed, remains: it still serves as a reminder of how far I have fallen. But now, it also promises. It also reminds me of who I was and tells me that that person is still in there; that the drive and power that had existed were not, after all, destroyed by what had happened.
Not only that, I was better. I was better for the testing, for the sand and acid that had eaten at my edifice. I was not a building shattered but a building re-wrought, re-forged in the fires of what we call life. To listen today to “Where We Would Be” is a complex experience pointing, perhaps, to the fact that I have matured. To the fact that I am older and, like the song itself, transformed not by what I am and what I contain, but by the joining of what I am and that around me. “Objectively”, the track had once again morphed: I use it to advertise myself again but with a much more guarded approach, a much more careful and reserved confession of the roots it had struck in me. And they are very much there: by changing with me, by growing alongside me, it has become so much a part of me that calling it “a part” seems trite, simplistic and out of place. It is not so much a question now of whether it will continue to grow with me or how it will continue to do. It’s more of a question of whether I would be able to continue existing without it. Of whether it is anymore different from myself, something external rather than a facet, albeit it a complicated one, of who I am.
Nor is it alone and that’s perhaps how I want to close this. Not many others like it exist but they are out there; tracks which have breathed, died and were reborn with me and now mean something not completely different but also not the same than what they once did. True companions that don’t give you all you need blindly but who also don’t withdraw their best parts when you require them. In short, teachers. And for that, and many other reasons, music is amazing.
“Tied – tied to a time
When we knew that the sun would shine
And you were all smiles
And we could just talk for a while…
Of where we would be when the future comes
And how you would paint while I wrote my songs
If I could find you
And tell you about my life
Or maybe just write
And remind you of when we would dream…
Of where we would be when the future comes
And how you would paint while I wrote my songs
Strange how you never become
The person you see when you’re young”