Ever since Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, gave the wax tablet to mortals,
memory, writing and technology have been interconnected.
—Carolyn Guertin

Late February is tough on us Northerners. Granted, most of us aren’t searching the dark corners of root cellars for sustenance, groping for that last edible tuber. We’re not foraging fields and forest for scraps of firewood. And, yes, we bask in a few more minutes of sunlight each day.

Still, we eagerly gather around those who have recently returned from warmer climes. We’re drawn to them like moths to flame. These prodigal travelers are messengers of Spring: She’s wintering down south, but she’s not gone for good.

But tonight the gloom settles thicker than usual. There is no light from moon or stars. The lamps in the house are weak and dim. I could start a fire in the hearth, but that would mean going out to the wood pile, a task too monumental to contemplate. Any spark of energy I had is snuffed out by the nihilism of the cold.

A glimmer of an idea. Going for wood requires precious effort, but I have my laptop—and I have a song in my head. A long-forgotten song. A schmaltzy, heart-on-the-sleeve song. A song my grandparents and I used to listen to in the evenings, when my grandpa was sick with lung cancer.

Their little house would be snug and cozy. We’d be working on a puzzle, comforting ourselves by making order out of chaos. Michael Crawford would be on softly in the background, singing:

When you walk through a storm
Keep your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Songs From Stage and Screen

This record never made it into my own collection. So tonight, the golden sky at the end of my storm is Amazon.com. I fire up the laptop, eagerly scroll through Crawford’s extensive catalog, and after many pages, there’s the familiar cover to Songs From Stage and Screen.

I smile. Michael is elegant and debonair in his intimate black-and-white portrait. Yet he’s slightly rumpled, like your worldly favorite uncle on a Sunday afternoon. You want to pull up a chair next to him and indulge in tea and sympathy.

I click the link and hunt for the MP3 download. Usually, I prefer the tactile, physical experience of a CD, complete with liner notes and annoying tape over the jewel case. But I want this music now.

To my chagrin, the digital download is unavailable. And—horror of horrors—I discover that the album is out of print. Now nihilism truly takes hold.

I flounder, mute in the cold glare of the computer screen. The quiet closes in around me. I am going to walk alone.

But now something pierces the dark night of the soul, cutting through the gloom like a beacon. It’s tremulous and bright—like light refracting off a disco ball. But it’s not a light.

It’s a vibrato.

Ah-ah-hah-hah! Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.

Seriously, is there anything on earth like Barry Gibbs’ falsetto? It’s a sound so magnificent, so absurd, it wards off evil. I go to my music shelf and put my BeeGees on. I turn it up–loud. If I had any lamé, I would don it.

Whether you’re a brother
Or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive
Stayin’ alive

It’s been a while, and I can’t remember all the words. Before my rediscovery of the BeeGees—when it was just cheesy roller-rink music—Mr. K and I would have particular fun when we heard them on the piped-in Muzak at the supermarket. We were never sure of the lyrics then either.

Instead we sang,

Wiki wiki wiki wiki
Wiki wiki wiki wiki
Stayin’ alive
Stayin’ alive

Later we joked about the futility of trying to understand the New York Times’ effect on man.

Now I picture Barry and brothers—a trio of sunny Aussies with ‘70s medallions, fluffed-out hair, and bleached teeth—singing fervently about wikis. The night doesn’t seem so dark anymore. The cold, not so biting. I will go on. I can shoulder the brunt of winter a little longer.

Thanks, Barry. Thanks, Maurice. Thanks, Robin.  Thanks for the kindling.

And, Michael, sorry, you’ll have to walk to the wood pile alone.

***

Update #1: Michael’s not exiled after all. It turns out Songs From Stage and Screen is not out of print, but reissued with a different cover. In my haste, I overlooked this. Which leads me to wonder, was it really the song  I wanted, or just old friend to keep me company?

Update #2: The BeeGees can save your life–literally.  A friend just alerted me to this.

I never really understood the use of the word iconic to describe a voice. That word is a visual one for me. But here it will have to do—it has no parallel in sound. A new installment of the All Things Considered series 50 Great Voices aired on the radio yesterday. From the opening moment, I knew who they were featuring.

Iconic. Unmistakable. Inimitable. I attach all these descriptors to the late Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Nusrat, as he is affectionately known in my household, passed away in 1997. I was fortunate enough to see him perform live, shortly before he died. But my fascination with him and the music of mystic Islam began earlier, when I picked up a CD on a whim–eons ago, when one still visited the record store.

The HMV store in Harvard Square was a haven for music. Upon entering, you passed busy check-out lines and walked through a hum of noise and commerce. You skirted the ephemera of the moment: promotional displays and cardboard cut-outs of the latest top-40 stars. Slowly, you made your way through the crowds in the Pop, Rock-and-Roll, Easy Listening, and Broadway aisles, until you got to the back of the store. There, in a quiet corner, was a door. Behind it was a room. Not just a room—a world. And not just one world, but many. You passed through that door not knowing where you would arrive. Kenya? Thailand? Argentina? Norway?

For me, one particular Saturday afternoon, it happened to be Pakistan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Devotional and Love Songs was playing over the sound system. I had just started getting into the poetry of Rumi and was drawn to anything with the exotic whiff of Sufism, so this recording was particularly au courant. But there was nothing exotic or what I once thought of as “mystic” in my first experience of those sounds. The music had a physical, even visceral, joy with its sloppy hand-claps, the buoyant ringing pongs of the tabla, Nusrat’s stirring call, and his Party’s group response. It sounded like a spontaneous, down-home, backyard jam. It grabbed me by the collar and dragged me all the way to the check-out counter.

(Nusrat later released Night Song, a collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brook. This record also holds a place of honor in my music collection, and it’s this music that wafts of complicated, exotic, “Oriental” spice.)

That initial foot-stomping response was all but forgotten a few months later when I saw Nusrat and Party at Symphony Hall in Boston–perhaps because of what I witnessed as I arrived for the concert. Near the venue’s side entrance, there was Nusrat, being helped out of a mini-van and hobbling to the door. He was morbidly obese and needed assistance walking. Seeing this great musician in a moment of vulnerability felt like stumbling upon a god in the midst of dressing.

photo by Gentlemanldn

I was still trying to get over the emotional dissonance of the mini-van scene when Nusrat took the stage. Here, he seemed comfortable. He sat on the carpet like a happy Buddha, his crossed legs making a base for his rotund chest and belly. His Party (a ragtag of younger brothers, nephews, and cousins) settled around him in a semi-circle. The lights dimmed. Nusrat’s face was serene. Someone initiated a drone on the harmonium and Nusrat opened his mouth to sing. As the notes rose, so did his hand. It hovered around his head like a fluttering bird. The Party clapped along and sang their group response. I sank back into my chair, ready to get lost in the mysticism of the music.

The people around me had other ideas. They leaped to their feet and began to participate. They clapped and sang along with the Party. I looked at them indignant. I disapproved. I seethed. I didn’t come to hear them. Where was their concert etiquette?

More people joined in the raucous display. A processional line formed and snaked through the aisles of the restrained and elegant home of the BSO. Men whirled. Women waved bright scarves in a blur of color. Spectators on the balconies stomped in unison to the beat of the tabla. Nusrat was entranced by the music, while the Party sweated to keep up with his heightening pace. I remained seated, inert, bewildered by the unfolding scene.

The Hall began to shake. I watched the chandelier rattle above my head and thought the ceiling was going to collapse. So did a little man in a suit, who came onstage to tell Nusrat to tone it down. But the music was a runaway train. It propelled onward—ever faster and with more fervored pitch.

Then, the uniforms arrived. There were protests from the audience as the Boston Police lined the perimeter of the Hall, but Nusrat kept singing. The cops held back at the edges, wary of taking the tail of the tiger. They simply watched, as bewildered as I was. In the middle of a song, the little man returned to stage, now with three officials. He bent low to speak in the singer’s ear, breaking his trance and disrupting the music. There was a collective gasp as Nusrat was “helped” to his feet and escorted off stage. As he was leaving, he seemed to tell us that everything was all right; the faraway look in his eyes was betrayed by a small mischievous wink. Or was that my imagination?

I can’t recall if this incident made the local news back in 1995. Post-9/11, it would certainly be a headline: PAKISTANI SINGER’S CONCERT SHUT DOWN BY BOSTON POLICE.

Yesterday, I was reminded of that night. I found myself wishing I’d had the presence of mind, of body, of spirit, to have shaken the chandelier at Symphony Hall, too.  We tend to think of mysticism as a pristine and silent affair of the soul. But such moments of spiritual rapture can also happen in public, with the full participation of tingling hands, hoarse voice, and a sweat-drenched body. My younger self knew this for a moment at the record store, then forgot it: Some music simply requires you to move, even if—especially if—it is made for, and with, the divine. (Eddie Izzard hits this particular nail on the head in his bit on the Anglican Church and singing in Dressed to Kill.)

So yesterday, when I heard the opening of Devotional and Love Songs on the radio, I sang “Allah Hoo” right along with Nusrat and Party. I slapped the steering wheel in time with the tabla. I danced in my seat, even while stuck in traffic on a mundane late winter afternoon.