There are a few musicians who have become so central to my experience of life that I remember with vivid detail the first time I heard their music. I remember hearing U2’s Joshua Tree sometime around 1988 in my cousin’s bedroom. I was only 9 or 10 years old, in awe at being allowed into his “grown-up” space, and the song “Where the Streets Have No Name” came on, cementing itself in my little mind.
Then there was the sleepover at my friend Dustin’s house in 1992, when we played Monopoly long into the night, bleary-eyed and feeling so old (we weren’t yet 16), listening to Tom Petty’s album, Into the Great Wide Open, a CD that would become the soundtrack for my last two years of high school.
Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue
But perhaps even more dear to me than both of those is a song I heard my sophomore year in college, when I wandered into a café on campus and found my friend Joshua playing the piano and singing along with a girl whose name I cannot remember. The lyrics and tune they sang cracked my heart open. I listened, barely breathing.
I thought I’d go up Poughkeepsie
Look out o’er the Hudson
And I’d throw my body down on the river
And I’d know no more sorrow
I would fly like the sparrow
And I’d ride on the backs of the angels tonight
The song was “Poughkeepsie.” The album was Good Dog Bad Dog. The band was Over the Rhine.
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Their music has followed me through my life, from college to marriage with Maile to having six children and living in this little row house on James Street. We listened to them in Florida in the heat of our early years of wedded bliss, and we listened to them in England when the days were dark and long. We played their music when a business went belly-up and we played their music in celebration of books published. My daughter played “Poughkeepsie” for me at my 40th birthday party. When I self-published my first novel, The Day the Angels Fell, they even said it would be okay if I printed a verse as a dedication in the front of the book.
Then, when we drove frantically to the midwife for the birth of our youngest, and all the time Maile was bearing this small child into the world, we listened to Over the Rhine’s song “Born”:
I was born to laugh
I learned to laugh through my tears
I was born to love
I’m gonna learn to love without fear
That was Maile, laughing through tears, when PoppyLynne emerged and we named her after my recently deceased aunt, Linda.
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So I suppose it’s no surprise that yesterday, on the fifth day of Christmas, 2020, we would spend a few hours with Karen and Linford, our beautiful friends Over the Rhine who have no idea who we are, listening to their beautiful voices fill up the air inside our home. All eight of us crammed into the living room, some on couches, some on the floor, one under the tree cuddling the dog, and we listened to their Christmas 2020 performance, and I was back in all these years, all these times, all these places.
And it looks like we just might make it through December.
Thanks, Karen and Linford, for being there with us through so many hard years, so many births, so many dark nights, so much laughter, so much light. When my friend Josh introduced me to your music, it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received; giving our children a love for your music is, I think, a beautiful thing to hand down.
Keep writing, and we’ll keep listening.
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If you’d like to catch Over the Rhine’s Christmas performance (and help support some wonderful artists who haven’t been able to hit the road and make a living the way they always have) you can still watch this performance online for whatever donation you’re able to make – suggested donation is $50).
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If you’d like to catch the most recent episode of our podcast, The Stories Between Us, in which we try to set good intentions for the coming year, you can check that out HERE. If you’re already a listener, leave a review over at Apple podcasts! Or help support the podcast over at our Patreon page for only $5 / month!
Here’s to hope and light and creating something new and beautiful in 2021.