As mentioned in my prior blog post, I was given an assignment by Steve Almond, who led a session at Grub Street's The Muse and the Marketplace conference, to choose a song with deep emotional importance to me, and write about the event that imbued the song with such meaning for me. So here's my story - but first, here's the song:
The year was 1988. I was 25 years old. Just starting out in my adult life, but I was in a holding pattern, and soon I crashed and burned. It started the year before, when I let myself get fired from my first job out of college. For two years I'd been doing PR in house for a producer of computer industry trade shows. The first year or so, I had a manager whom I despised. She was evil and liked nothing better than to dress down one of her charges in full view of other departments. By the time she left, my morale was rock bottom. Her replacement, however, thought I had potential and not only treated me with respect but also gave me more responsibility and put me in a position where the higher-ups in the company recognized my successes.
So in short, I was feeling pretty loyal to this guy. Then the company decided to branch out into the housewares industry, where the national association had decided to cut back from two trade shows a year to only one. My company hired away their show manager and decided to hold a competing event. The industry didn't look too kindly on a for-profit company with no housewares industry experience elbowing into their space. Therein lay a PR challenge. My manager and I took the lead in building relations and by the time our show was ready to launch, the industry was excited to see what we could do.
Then, literally the day before we were to leave for Chicago (where the industry is based), we heard that my manager had been given notice and was not being permitted to work the show. Instead, I would be supervised by the Conference department head, a man I hated. This was a complete shock to me and aside from the loyalty I felt to my manager, I also felt that I was being put in a position to fail because I would have to deal with the "Where's Keith?" questions. I was pretty bullshit about this and my manager did nothing to pacify me. I and a person in the department even more junior than myself decided to refuse to go to the show. My manager appreciated this display of solidarity. And we all were summarily fired.
I later learned that my manager had in fact been given notice several weeks before and had been told that he would not be going to Chicago. He kept this information from me, which I saw as a betrayal because he had an opportunity to quell my anger and save my job. As a result, I shortly thereafter decided to have nothing further to do with him, and didn't even see his name again for about a dozen years, until the day I opened up the newspaper to find my mother's death notice and was surprised to find his on the same page.
So strike one was losing my job. I decided then I wanted to get out of the computer industry. I thought I'd like to work in health care. Over the next several months, I had a number of interviews at hospitals but always lost out to someone who had some prior health care experience. I did a couple of freelance gigs, leveraging my trade show experience and contact for a PR firm and an exhibiting company, but overall I was unemployed for 10 months. It was during this time that I sank into deep credit card debt and have never been particularly solvent since.
Fast forward a few months. It's Thanksgiving Day. I'm throwing around a football with some friends. I leap to make a catch and land awkwardly on the leg of a friend sprawled on the ground. My ankle hurts like hell, but I eventually get dressed and go to my folks' house for Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal, I go to my girlfriends' parents' house for dessert. My ankle is still killing me but I make it through the evening. Eventually, I tell my girlfriend what happened and she asks to look at it. My ankle is swollen and deep purple. She takes me to the hospital. I've torn ligaments and have to wear a cast and use crutches. Strike 2.
Fast forward 2.5 months later. It's my 25th birthday. My parents and girlfriend take me out for dinner. I'm feeling miserable because I'm still out of work, my ankle is still tender, and my friends have told me they're not around. We go back to my folks' house and SURPRISE! It's a surprise birthday party for me. That's nice, though I was actually hoping to have some alone time with my girlfriend. But whatever, I'm happier than I was earlier that day.
Now, my best friend's birthday is two days after mine, so we had a tradition of going out drinking on the day in between, which was February 13. The next day, of course, was Valentine's Day. On February 13, my friend and I went out drinking Scorpion Bowls. My girlfriend also went out that night. A guy asked her out. She told him she had a boyfriend, but inside, as she told me later, she wished it wasn't so. The next night we celebrated Valentine's Day. A few days later, she told me what happened on February 13 and that she wanted to date other people.
Mind you, we had been dating off and on (but mostly on) for four years at this point, and though she was three years younger than me and still just a senior in college, I was thinking that we would be getting engaged before too long. I had no thought at all about not spending the rest of my life with her. She apparently thought differently. And I can understand that, given she soon would be graduating college and spreading her wings, whereas I had been unemployed for about as long as it takes to carry a baby to term. Still, it was strike three.
I was horribly depressed and despondent. I went to a therapist because I was still interviewing and needed to be able to exude self-confidence, which I had absolutely none of at that time. I've never felt as much pain as I did then. I was desperately searching for a release, a way to express all the hurt I felt inside. I reached for music, because that's simply what music does for me. I recalled how several years before I had deliberately sought out a song that would make me cry, because a girl had broken up with me but I hadn't broken down at all about it. I eventually found it in Dan Fogelberg's "Same Old Lang Syne" ("Just for a moment I was back in school/And felt that old familiar pain" is what did it).
So I went through my record collection and began auditioning tunes. It didn't take long to find my catharsis in Robbie Robertson's lyrics and, especially, Rick Danko's voice crying out those lyrics. The whole performance touched me to the core to such an extent that I listened to that song no fewer than 20 times a day for several weeks.
The lyrics are raw, honest, and real:
It makes no diff'rence where I turn
I can't get over you and the flame still burns
It makes no diff'rence, night or day
The shadow never seems to fade away
It makes no diff'rence how far I go
Like a scar the hurt will always show
It makes no diff'rence who I meet
They're just a face in the crowd on a dead-end street
And then, at the end of the song, the dagger in the heart. I would scream-sing this part with a dark blue anger until I was hoarse:
Well, I love you so much
And it's all I can do
Just to keep myself from telling you
That I never felt so alone before
This was the lowest part of my life, which means there was no place to go but up. Not long after, I met the woman who would become my wife. And not long after she and I started dating, I got a job. And the fact that my wife and I are now divorcing after nearly 17 years of marriage only means that a certain cycle is coming around again, and I'm already thinking of the songs that will inhabit that emotional wound (George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" are top contenders).
But for that one bleak time period, The Band's "It Makes No Difference" was indeed the difference between sanity and depression, between hope and despair, and, quite possibly, between life and death.