From the Ocean to the Square
419 · 6 February 03
Big Country: Rarities III
In the picture on the back cover, a satellite hangs over a silent Earth. We go into space because to not do so would be suicide. We will use this planet up; we will need to get off it; to be ready to get off when we will have to, we will need to have started trying long ago. Our long ago is now. We go into space because we believe our lives are not futile. We do things that we know might cost our lives, because we know some things are worth that much.
When the Challenger slipped past this life, while trying to get off the Earth, it was neither a disaster nor a tragedy. Seven people cannot be a disaster, not when the planet can twitch and bring down cities. Nor can any death we've trained for be tragic. It will cost countless lives to save our kind of animal, by the time we are saved. The price of our survival is, eventually and inevitably, all of our lives. Survival is exactly the process of dying. Noble survival is dying well. Those seven people knew their lives might be the next seven paid. Investigation and blame and correction are real and necessary, but spaceships are going to blow up. They push our capabilities past the real limits of our control. We fly until we crash; that is how we do most things, at every order of magnitude. Every shuttle crew that took off after Challenger knew, a thousand times more vividly than before but exactly as surely, that they might die in seconds.
Columbia came apart in the sky over Texas, minutes from home. Every crew after this will know, as they knew already, that they are never safe. Not over Texas, not over Florida, not driving away with their families, not awake or asleep. We are not safe. Every time our hearts contract, we risk everything. Why else would we bother?
In the picture on the front cover, there are four of them. Stuart is the one on the far right, half-turned away from the other three. He is dead now. In the picture he looks impossibly young. In the earliest pictures in the booklet, they are all kids. They grew up. Stuart came apart.
This disc contains songwriting demos, some for songs that were later finished and released, some not. A few of them already appeared as single b-sides, most didn't. I haven't entirely supported Track's campaign to keep putting out Big Country records oblivious to their demise, and this one seems particularly dubious. Aren't there boxes and boxes of tapes like this? Yes, in fact, in the notes Bruce says there are. Is the right response to finding them really to package them up and sell them fourteen at a time?
In the picture on my screen, behind these windows, she is smiling. It was taken a few hours ago, a few miles away. In a little bit it will switch to the one she just sent me from farther. She's wearing a hat, and a different shirt, but otherwise she looks like she looked when I saw her this morning. At the moment, various windows cover up about half of her face, but I can see the corner of her smile, and the hood of her sweater, and a tiny cut on one of her fingers. In some ways, she looks exactly like she looked when I met her, ten years ago. But we are ten years older, and maybe that's important. I am in love with her.
I read too much about Columbia, that day. Or, rather, I kept reading the same four facts over and over again, each time thinking of different things they could mean to me. Dying so close to the end of a mission, so close to declaring victory, however rationally I can think of it as a kind of triumph, remains heartbreaking on every practical level. I felt sad. I felt culpable, like if I believe seven more sacrifices could be necessary and justifiable, I should have been up there myself. But I wasn't, and I'm not ever likely to be. We all have to find roles, and most of us won't ever be astronauts.
I stopped reading and went to see a movie about a man who loses everything.
A few of these were b-sides, so I've heard them before. A few are demos for songs I heard later on albums, in other forms. But put together, they are a new record. I don't know what Stuart thought he was killing when he killed himself, but the music survives. The music, in fact, has never died any better than this. When Big Country were at their best, their finished work was timeless. The Crossing and Steeltown were the encapsulated sound of clenched jaws, and I still think Peace in Our Time is almost unbearably beautiful. But they could wreck their own songs, too, when they were in the wrong mood. Studio sessions could turn into costume parties, and nobody in the band ever really looked comfortable in masks. In these versions, they are wearing their own clothes.
I remember sitting in meetings with her. Her laugh could change the room, and I tried to make it happen even before I noticed what it was doing to me.
As I came out of the movie, there was a young woman lying in the hallway of the theater, her companion leaning over fairly casually, talking to her. I'd been watching Philip Seymour Hoffman sprawl in assorted stupors for two hours, so it didn't immediately register for me that I was back out in the world where lying on the ground isn't so routine. And then, for a moment, I thought she'd simply gotten so bored with the movie that she'd opted to nap in the hall until her boyfriend finished watching and they could go eat. But I could hear him talking as I walked past them, and it didn't sound right. "Are you guys OK?", I asked, in that way we've been trained to do in cold cities, constructing offers so that they are easy to refuse. "We're fine", he said quickly. It wasn't very convincing. She was breathing, and moving a little, but not saying anything. I was walking away in slow motion. He helped her up, and they got about two steps before she collapsed again. "Can somebody help?" he said. Panic takes over so quickly. I went back. I carry a cell phone. I dialed 911.
"Ages of a Man" sounds like it's at the wrong speed (and that wouldn't be the first time). "Hardly a Mountain" spasms and writhes. "What About Peace" blusters and churns, and apparently just about all of Stuart's first lyric drafts involved nuclear-arms build-up. But "Time for Leaving" is magical, Bruce's guitar chiming brightly, Mark splashing through his cymbals in exactly the way they convinced him not to for the album, Tony cheerfully showing off. The album treatment makes sense in its context, but this demo is incredible, everything alit and infused.
I've had a crush on her for at least seven of those ten years, and we could argue about the other three. I started writing songs again after visiting her once, and the first song was about her town. We were both in other relationships, and then she wasn't but I was, and then I wasn't but she was. We have become friends, and that has almost always been enough. Almost. I lost track of the distance once, at a party where she was happy and I was not, and ended up making a sad photo-journal instead of telling her the truth. And then suddenly she was single again. When a person is renewedly single, taking them out for comforting Vietnamese noodle soup is good. If you've been secretly harboring a crush on them for years, though, keep secretly harboring it for a while. Don't tell them about it two days after their breakup. That's a really terrible idea.
So I stayed there with them. The woman was very disoriented, but clearly not dying, which was fortunate, since beyond some dimly remembered high-school CPR I have no appreciable first-aid skills. I also can't stop wars, can't keep spacecraft together, and rarely follow my own advice on emotional matters. But sitting in a movie-theater hallway with two confused and scared people who were trying to figure out what had just happened to one of them, I could at least deal with the police and the ambulance dispatcher for them, so they could concentrate on each other. The woman seemed to have fainted, which could ultimately be anything from harmless to terminal. For a few minutes, though, what they needed was a patient person with a cell phone who knew what street the theater is on, and I was the closest one. Sometimes you get to choose the responsibilities you take on, sometimes you don't. This one was my turn.
It felt so good to help. After a day of dwelling on faraway pain, and second- and third- and n-guessing a new relationship, it was a vast mercy to be able to put everything aside and concentrate on one simple task that had to be done right in front of me. And then the EMTs arrived, and I filled them in with what I knew, and my part was over. I handed the safekeeping of the universe to the next guardian, and walked home through the first traces of falling snow.
I couldn't save Stuart Adamson, either. I'd have called 911 for him, if I'd been there, but nobody was there, and that's where his story ended. This album reminds me why it mattered. This album is his story. Big Country were an utterly humane and human band, and this album they didn't really even make may be the best available representation of their humanity. "You Lose Your Dreams" seethes and twitches. Even the songs you don't know here have bits that were later cannibalized for other things. A wordless chorus howl in "I Am a Small Republic" may explain where "Eiledon" came from. "In Your Homeland" is as succinct a showcase of Stuart and Bruce's guitar interplay as anything they ever polished and refined. I've defended Peace in Our Time's deliberate overproduction for a decade and a half, but the versions of three of those songs here hint at how wrong I may have been. And the sparky "Mary" wasn't a b-side at all, and would have been one of their best. It remains tempting to project Stuart's suicide back onto his life, but this album reminds me not to. Nobody ever made music that was more alive than Big Country's, and arguably Big Country never sounded more alive than they do here, on precisely the recordings they didn't think would live forever.
And you don't even exactly get to choose the people to whom your life is connected. I felt lucky to escape from my personal-ad experience with one new friend and no obvious collateral damage. I never believed that casting through strangers looking for soulmates had a prayer, really, and I'm going to give myself just enough benefit of the doubt to stipulate that I failed because it's a bad method, not because I sabotaged it. I wasn't looking for a new girlfriend when I switched jobs ten years ago and met the people at my new one. Seven years ago, when I missed my first chance to ask her out, I probably wasn't ready. Three years ago, when I missed another, I might still not have been ready. Maybe I'm not ready now. Falling helplessly in love, once you've decided all consequences are viable, is a terrifying proposition. It has been seven years since I dove into a relationship without a ripcord in one hand. This time, my hands are empty. I met her ten years ago. It has been less than a month since we first saw each other with this new possibility between us. What can two people learn about each other in only a month?
A lot. Time vanishes when I am with her, and reappears altered after we part. I have learned many small things, and this one large one: I am willing, however irrational this seems, to hope that this is the beginning of the rest of my life. It should be harder, but it keeps being effortless. I am now willing to hope that she and I will do the rest of this together. My heart thinks we can start any moment. My heart thinks we are ready.
Knowing will take longer, of course. We are both real people, and if every relationship requires a submissive personality, then we will have to look into hiring a third person to supply it. We have interests that threaten to twine into one, and interests that are still peering at each other quizzically. It is complicated to put two overfull lives together, and it takes time to be sure you want to. Maybe, in the end, we won't be right for each other. Maybe one of us will finally settle on yes, the other on no. But what would it avail to focus on constraints? Either way, it will change my life. It has already changed my life. This will be a great love, or a great heartbreak, but either way it will be great.
Eventually, they will figure out what destroyed Columbia. Like every other setback, it will slow our progress but not stop it. The space program will continue. Anybody who thinks seven or fourteen deaths mean that we must give up on our species' future had better be prepared to argue for the complete abolition of every other mode of mechanized transport, all of which kill more people while producing less durable benefit. After a few days, some other horrible thing will distract the news. If we are still stupid enough creatures to fight a war anywhere on this planet, many sevens of people will die. If we are not, earthquakes and mudslides will get them.
But this is not what I am thinking about as I walk home from the theater, through the snow. The woman was curled up in a fetal position on her knees at one point, her tension pulling her shirt up her back, and I couldn't help but notice that she was wearing a thong. From the conversation between the two of them, I'm guessing that they hadn't been going out long. Maybe a month? I imagine them in separate apartments, getting ready for this evening, wondering how it's going to end and contemplating the possibilities. They watched the Columbia news, and went to see a bleak movie, and then had this traumatic, mysterious experience in a corridor. I hope they found a way for it all to mean something. I hope the EMTs let her go home. I hope they went home together. I hope they both discovered that they were ready, even more than for what the thong intimates, to let another person's well-being become integral to their own. Spacecrafts will fail, hearts will get broken. That can't stop us. The glories to which we aspire are worth far more than their highest prices. We defy death not by evading it, but by living a moment so fully that its transience becomes moot. We are on Columbia when they cut the engines and cross their fingers, not when the shields go. We are cheering from the ground as it passes over New Mexico, and everything is still fine. We are the lovers and children who will guard those souls' memories on earth, and the astronauts who will take them back into the stars on the next trip.
Here on Earth, we sometimes think we make things so that a part of us will be immortal. This is wrong. We make things so that they can be set free of us, so we should never be surprised that some of the best ones come from sudden inspiration. A poem. A photograph. A glass platypus in a tiny bottle. A song recorded in a house in the woods.
Living a moment fully is not my best talent. I extrapolate, interpolate, catalog, collect. I filter moments through my hopes, at least, and probably can't stop that. But she is helping. "Let go of love", she wrote me, in a lullaby, "It is already inside you, traveling". She wrote me a lullaby. I don't quite remember whether I fell the rest of the way in love with her in the middle of the lullaby, or waited until the end. Maybe this will not have been the beginning of the rest of our lives, but maybe it will. I can't exactly dwell in the moment right now, because I'm sitting at my computer in the middle of the night and she is two hundred miles away, asleep. Or, then again, perhaps I can. If I hold very still, after all, I can feel her hand trembling on my heart. And in the pictures, she is smiling. Whatever happens, at this moment I believe everything could.