On a sun-drenched afternoon after a lunch break, I drove through Hollywood, aimlessly navigating Sunset Boulevard. I passed the Virgin Megastore, uninterested in the towering building with overpriced CDs. Distracting billboards screamed at me, advertising the latest blockbuster movies, perfumes, clothing lines and the current season of The Sopranos. It was 2002, and I was lost. But a beacon was calling me: a store I used to gravitate toward in the early ’90s, when I was uncertain and lonely living in Hollywood for the summer.
During a summer internship in ’91, I often found myself at Tower, wandering through the aisles of movies and films. Although I could rarely afford to purchase anything, I felt at home among the other audiophiles in the store. Growing up, whenever forced to step inside the mall, I headed straight to Record Town or Record Den or whatever chain store existed inside the building. Back then, the stacks of LPs held mysterious wonders I desperately wanted to discover on my own.
On this particular day, I had some cash to spend. I was depressed and feeling hopeless. Purchasing new music always seemed to cure that ailment. Struggling to cope with the prospect of deserting my filmmaking dreams, feeling the weight of parental responsibility, and frustrated over the long delays in completing King’s Highway, I was, in essence, feeling sorry for myself.
We were still new to the world of cystic fibrosis. Statistics would float through my head and terrorize me in my sleep. And what about Sophie? How would this affect her in the long run? I tried to suppress the dreadful thoughts of what might happen to Jacob, but you can only keep those fears bottled up for so long. For some damn reason, I’d decided to close off my feelings from Julie. I didn’t want to burden her with these things. I thought that even if she was feeling the same way, she didn’t need me reminding her. I would soon learn that this was a big mistake on my part. I would come to realize that “marriage as a partnership” digs deeper than I imagined.
At the same time, I felt depressed. Would I ever finish the movie? Could I ever quit the steady paying job with benefits? The benefits. The benefits. I will admit it. I was being a selfish ass at a time when my family should have been my priority. I used the movie as a diversion from my fears. I used it to flee. I wanted to hide and not have to cry. I wanted to feel “normal.”
I was a coward. And I knew it.
So on this afternoon, I returned to the place I felt like I could clear my head. I knew I would be able to wander through aisles of CDs and look at the titles of old Rod Stewart albums, or zip off on a tangent to explore which out of print Neil Young titles were available as imports. I would glance through the Journey albums I already owned, and flip through Kinks collections in hopes of finding some all-encompassing greatest hits set. After an hour, I had decided on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. On the way out, I stood in line next to a display of CDs at “The Right Price.” Among them was Jeff Buckley’s Grace.
Like many people, I was a casual fan of Buckley’s passionate single “The Last Goodbye.” His falsetto pipes were so achingly beautiful. I was saddened by his tragic drowning in 1997. After just one album, it was a cruel trick played by the gods to take him so soon. In fact, I had used “The Last Goodbye” as a mood setter during the scenes we shot of the “big breakup.” Standing there, staring at Buckley’s pained expression, I decided I would pay him back (posthumously) for the inspiration he had given me during the shoot.
I paid for my Johnny Cash and the Buckley and returned to my blue Nissan, baking in the sun. On the way back to work, I gave At Folsom Prison a listen and decided I liked it well enough. Ultimately, this turned out to be one of those “historical importance” purchases that we all have in our record collections (as in, “Dude, you don’t have London Calling? What kind of music fan are you?”) However, back in the cubicle, as I felt my soul being sucked by the fluorescent lights and my mind numbed by the constant “Hhhhhrrrrrrr” of the air conditioning vents, I placed Grace into the computer and put on some headphones. With some time to spare, I casually read through the liner notes. Besides the images of this young, confident artist and his band, the other thing that leaped out at was that Buckley had covered a Leonard Cohen song.
Matt, my long-lost brother, had been a fan of Cohen’s. Fucking Matt, man. In 2002, we’d lost touch, again. The last time I’d seen him was the previous Labor Day back in Ohio, before Jacob was born. He was drunk on wine and reeked of cigarettes and pot. We spoke under the wide open skies of a hot September night, promising to keep in touch and all of the usual bullshit you think will come true. Sitting in my cubicle, feeling low, I missed him. I missed the brotherhood we’d had. I skipped ahead to the Cohen song.
A breath, then a quiet, elegiac guitar gently guides us in. Buckley’s singing is mesmerizing. Unearthly. Just plain gorgeous. “Hallelujah” (download), I said, reading the title aloud before easing back in my chair and letting the music lift me high and away from this world. It took me away from the shit and the fears and the stupidity and the doubts and the disease. The Disease.
This young man’s voice delivered me from my sorrows and opened my ears, my eyes and my mind. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and take command!” Could I do that? Was I strong enough not to go through the motions as I felt I’d been doing? Who cares if your film sucks? Who cares if no one sees it? You want to be an artist, look right in front of you. Those children? Your marriage? They are your greatest accomplishment. They are your life’s work…your real art. Embrace them and sing to the heavens: “Hallelujah.”
Floating around the Internet are several interpretations of what Cohen meant with his song and what Buckley felt about his version of the song. Honestly, I don’t care. I will take Cohen’s prayer, combine it with Buckley’s sensual performance and call it one of those songs that helps me grapple with the spiritual turmoil I often find myself in. Many families dealing with Cf and other diseases are very religious. They reach out to their god and often feel reassurance that His will be done. I have struggled with my faith since Jacob was born. Many times I have asked, “How can any disease be inflicted on a child — and why?”
There are no answers. I don’t swallow the “God’s plan” train of thought. So where is one to turn? In this case, I know I can turn to Jeff Buckley’s angelic singing to provide me with some comfort. And, blessedly, I know I can turn to the loving arms of Julie, Sophie and Jacob.