Angels Flight

Many cultures have birth ceremonies in which certain words are whispered into the infant’s ear, with the intention of sealing the child’s lifelong covenant with that culture. I believe something similar happens to writers, although the voice in question is of a more cosmic or ineffable provenance. Something gets hold of you long before you have the words to express it, and the journey of life becomes to express and communicate that longing. At its root, this is a calling; with some nurturing, it may be seen as a vocation; and for the (arguably) lucky few, it will become a proper career.

Now, I don’t believe that the great privilege of making a living at one’s craft bears any relationship to one’s skill, devotion, or credibility. So many factors allow this person over that to have the opportunity, financial means, creative temperament, business acumen, physical stamina, social skills, risk tolerance, or dumb luck. (Or sociopathy, in some cases.) After all, the mere fact of being alive is itself an accident of two strangers being in the same place at the same time. How could we assign more significance to something as ephemeral as a career?

The ego, of course, has ideas. And if there is a parallel task to nurturing the gentle and generative inner voice, it is to drive out her self-sabotaging brother, who never saw an idea he didn’t want to take credit for. That little shit is perpetually five years old, trying to make up for his diminutive size by filling the room with noise and chaos. He will bray derisively when you insist that your work matters at any age and for any audience. (And our culture will, unfortunately, mostly agree with him.)

I confess that my own inner siblings have not had a wonderful time of it. There were long stretches of time when my ego suffocated my voice right out of existence. I put a lot of space junk into orbit trying to reach her over the years, even when communication with the ground station seemed all but lost. But we press on, don’t we? We fill our lives with this or that. We develop amazing fuckable bodies, or we go to Burning Man and take lots of fun drugs, or we subsume ourselves in jobs or relationships that take away from us little by little by little. And maybe those things are satisfying in the moment, at least if we don’t think about it too hard.

But, at a certain point, you have to wake up. You have to unearth that one microscopic filament that glints in the sun, if only it could be touched by it. And when you find it, you have to build an indestructible greenhouse in the most unreachable part of your soul until it’s big enough to take root again. And in the meantime, you have to scrape the callouses off those grown-over receptors, make them soft and tender and yielding again.

At first, it’s a Karen Silkwood wire-brush shower of the soul. It’s abrasive, it hurts like hell, and it makes you scream. But knowing that you’ve forgotten how to feel is worse. And the ego, that sniveling little middle-manager, is waiting with his laser pointer on the “___ Days Since Creative Activity” sign in the breakroom of your mind. The hanging numbers collect in a pile on the ground, as if to say he’s given up keeping track.

Fire him.

Last March, I wrote an instrumental that felt like something I’d wanted to write for a long time. It took another year and change before I could even attempt to write words for it. Along the way, I picked up stray bits. A vocal melody here, a counterpoint there. It asked to be called “Angels Flight,” but I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what the story would be.

Until, one random evening down the rabbit holes of the Internet, I discovered a shitty YouTube rip of a hopelessly obscure 1965 late-period LA film noir. It was called “Angels Flight.”

As the story of the song took shape around the film, it took another six weeks to finish the lyrics. Lots of lying on the floor, staring into the void. And watching that shitty YouTube movie on a loop. Over and over. Marinating, marinating.

In the nick of time for this month’s Faulty Machine Recordings Service release, “Angels Flight” is finally done. Mark One, anyway. There will be real backing singers where there is now temporarily a vocoder. And a gorgeous trumpet solo. And someone to play the piano part properly, with nuance and sensitivity, above and beyond my refined henpecking.

But, for now, a song. A long song – nearly seven minutes – and packed almost continuously with verses, pre-choruses and choruses, a tumble of words. And if I haven’t quite nailed the breath control or the phrasing I want in the vocal yet, it’s a fucking achievement. A legit breakthrough. I’m not out of the greenhouse yet, but this is a beautiful bloom.

Wherever you are with yourself in this moment, friends, it’s just a moment. Live through it. The next moment will be something else. Nurture yourself away from all this froth and fury. Every last part of your external life – from your closest loved ones to your worst public humiliation – is only dust by comparison.

Here’s a song.

ANGELS FLIGHT

Another blackout night
Crookedly humming a song
With only the Braille of the wall
To lead me back home
I saw a face in the air
Silvery, like on a screen
And when you passed by in the dark
I swore it was her that I’d seen

(Spectre of night, figment of light, angel, fly)
(Figment of light, spectre of night, angel, fly)

Ooh, in my unlucky drama
The morning light lands on me like a mortar, and I’m
Waking up dizzy and crumpled in this same old suit

(Drinking the lines away from this page)
I can’t hear music, it’s just static and news
(Blink it’s a bottle, blink it’s a cage)
I dreamt in black and white
And woke up black and blue
(Bartender at the corner café)
He poured a bargain
I had no strength to refuse
(Says I should write the novel someday)
Of these fallen houses
And the angels passing through

(Spectre of night, figment of light, angel, fly)

In the morning Times
My fingers picked up the scent
Were you avenging a crime?
Were you taken without your consent?
Then I heard a tune
Faint like an echo
From an empty car
You were singing “To the top we’ll go!”

(Spectre of night, figment of light, angel, fly)
(Figment of light, spectre of night, angel, fly)

Ooh, in your unlucky drama
Dive-bar dancing on Third with those ambulance eyes
You try to look deadly, but they think it’s cute
‘Til they see how their fantasy dies

(“Please, can you get me out of this place?”)
You blow out one flame and another starts anew
(How many nights you’ve had to erase)
But it always leaves this haunted residue
(Too many paintings, all with his face)
He’s a lens you see everything through
(Memory’s the devil giving you chase)
Now I understand just what you had to do

Then a debutante dream spins into your head
From the muscle relaxant that helps you last through the night
And you cry when you stumble and say, “This was not my intention”
But tonight on the Angels Flight, it’s a one-way ride

(Spectre of night, figment of light, angel, fly)
(Figment of light, spectre of night, angel, fly)

Pray Saint Sinai, pray Saint Olivet
One lifts you up, one holds you down
And the Angel overseers of this vanishing town
Turn away and don’t make a sound

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