If there’s one album that signifies the start of Fall to me, it’s ‘Here’s to Life’ by Shirley Horn. It’s not that there are any specifically Fall-themed songs, no ‘Flaming September’, ‘When October Goes’, or ‘November Rain’ but on a personal level it brings back the Fall I first went to Brandeis, and Boston. I still remember the evening I purchased that CD. I’d walked around the city before winding up at the end of Newbury Street. I passed through the revolving door of Tower Records (in the space that is now a thoroughly-depressing Best Buy) and rode the escalator up to the second floor. Back then there was no iTunes or online music purchasing, so the music store was still vital. I’d peruse the CD singles section for hours, finding old forgotten Madonna singles, or discovering new ones. (That sense of surprise and discovery is one of the things I regret most about the arrival of the Internet.)
On this particular night, I passed a stand of new music, and one of the titles being displayed – Shirley Horn’s ‘Here’s to Life’ – was getting all the accolades. A woman with some fierce, black, opera-length gloves sat gazing out from the cover, and the praise being promoted on the sticker was grand. Today we don’t have to buy music without listening to it first – at that time a new CD was a crap shoot, but something impelled me to take a chance and buy it, sound unheard.
The opening strings, and the gentle way she had with the vocals, instantly set my mind at ease when I settled into my tiny dorm bed later that night. A few cold-braving crickets chirped outside the window, which was open just a crack for the insufferable radiator that had only one temperature setting: “Hell.” My roommate was gone (as he was most of that year – for this reason alone I loved him), and I laid awake listening to the sounds of other students coming in from their revelries, and the string-laden jazzy nuances of Ms. Horn. A long-distance girlfriend, and much confusion, crossed my thoughts as ‘Where Do You Start?’ began – and the thought of having to start all over again first reared its nausea-inducing head. The music somehow made the pain exquisite – could this be what a work of art does, could this be why it might be so revered?
One day there’ll be a song or something in the air again
To catch me by surprise and you’ll be there again
A moment in what might have been…
In the solitude of that time, I learned how to be alone with myself, and all right with that. As much as I would fall for passing men, as infatuated and obsessed as I would sometimes become, I would always remember how to be alone if I had to be. And I would have to be, many times, and many nights. I remember the leaves of Harvard Square, swirling around my feet as I stood at the newsstand, browsing the magazines, hoping not to be called out for reading instead of buying them. The cafe across the street, where couples, bundled up tightly in coats and hats, sat studying and reading, content simply to be in each other’s company. I longed for the simplicity of that, the easy way people had with one another. I wondered if I would ever find it.
Over the wisdom of Ms. Horn’s occasionally raspy voice, the years of love and pain unfolded behind us. It would always be like this. I was old enough to understand, but too young to believe. I still thought there was a master key to all of it, a font of knowledge from which I had only to sip to find out the truth, the answer, the point. No one wants to realize that all the chasing and figuring out was for something that was in you all along – if I had been Dorothy I would have clocked Glinda for that almost-deadly exercise in futility.