It is a cliche to say that music touches the soul, but what can I do? It does. Most of the time, though, we know why it does. I am a huge fan of Beethoven. To me, Beethoven is proof of the divine: no mere chance could have Beethoven composing The Ninth Symphony even though he was deaf. To create something so uplifting and so majestic out of nothing is an act of God. To my atheist friends, I can say that even if you can’t believe in big “G” God, you have to at least recognize that Beethoven was god, or at least had the qualities that we attribute to God – the creation of beauty and wonder from nothing. When I hear Beethoven’s music, I know why I am moved: I am listening to God.

Sometimes, though, we are moved by music and we don’t know why. We know we love the music, we know it is special to us, we know we are moved by it, but the reason eludes us.

There is a band called “The Waterboys,” which really is the vehicle of a remarkable musician named Mike Scott. He is a couple of years older than I am. In 1988, he wrote and recorded a song called “And a Bang on the Ear.” It is in the style of an Irish ballad, and it is a remarkable piece of music.

I remember the first time I heard it. It was in the mid aughts and I had just parked at a grocery store when it started to play on the radio. I thought “what the hell is this?” It just grabbed me, and I was compelled to listen through to the end. And then I had to continue to listen to the station until the announcer told me what I had just listened to. I had never heard of the Waterboys. I was surprised that it was released in 1988, almost twenty years before. How could I have missed this? I bought the CD the next day. Over the years, the my love for the song grew with each listening, and it always affected me deeply.

In the song, Scott sings about women he loved, and what happened with each. He ends each woman’s story with: “I send her my love, and a bang on the ear.” There is some question as to what Scott meant by “a bang on the ear:” does it mean a kiss on the ear? Or a cuff upside the head? The song works both ways to me, but I prefer to think of it as an affectionate cuff upside the head, like “get out of here, you!” In this context, I interpreted the last line as “I love you, but… what the hell?” I think the “What the hell” was directed at himself as much as the girl in question.

Because of that line, “a bang on the ear,” the lyrics seemed facetious to me, just a recounting of women he had known, and not that serious a song even though it is a beautiful song. It seemed like a kind of joke: here’s another lady I had trouble with – I give her a kiss and a bang upside the head. The song is even reminiscent of the Julio Iglesias/Willie Nelson song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” one of the corniest songs ever written, or “88 Lines about 44 Women,” by The Nails. How can this particular song affect me so deeply? I didn’t know until recently.

Let’s break down the lyrics. The first stanza is about a girl he knew in school:

Lindsay was my first love
she was in my class
I would have loved to take her out
but I was too shy to ask
The fullness of my feeling
was never made clear
but I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

This was not just unrequited love – it was clueless love. He felt for this girl, but never could muster up the nerve to ask her out. How many times as this happened in our lives? It almost happened with the girl who eventually became my wife. I saw Jenny months before I was introduced, and if it wasn’t for a friend introducing us, we never would have gotten together.

The second stanza was a girl he was with when he was in a band:

Nora was my girl
when I first was in a group
I can still see her to this day
stirring chicken soup
Now she’s living in Australia
working as an auctioneer
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

This girl got away, no reason given. I always wondered about the line “stirring chicken soup.” Why that image?

The third stanza is about a short-term, passionate relationship – passionate more on his part than hers:

Deborah broke my heart
and I the willing fool
I fell for her one summer
on the road to Liverpool
I thought it was forever
but it was over within the year
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

The fourth stanza is about a tumultuous relationship where they both tried, and ultimately failed:

The home I made with Bella
became a house of pain
We weathered it together
bound by a ball and chain
It started up in Fife
It ended up in tears
I send her my love
and a bang on the ear

The fifth stanza is about a brief and emotionally violent affaire:

Krista was a rover
from Canada she hailed
We crossed swords in San Francisco
We both lived to tell the tale
I don’t know now where she is
Oh, but if I had her here!
I’d give her my love
and a bang on the ear

And finally, true love:

So my woman of the hearth fire
harbour of my soul
I watch you lightly sleeping
I sense the dream that does unfold
You to me are treasure
You to me are dear
I’ll give you my love
and a bang on the ear

I loved these lyrics. They reached into my soul. I would find myself weepy listening to it, and I didn’t know why. Why would a song about a series of love affaires wreck me like this? Oh, but it did. Every single time.

I took a long day trip out of town recently. These days you no longer need CD’s: all my music is on my phone. So, I spun up some tunes as I drove through the forest. The trip was strictly a pure out-and-back to get some business done in Tacoma, but Tacoma is a good five hours from home, so I had a lot of time in the car to listen to music. When I left in the morning, I realized that this was the first time I drove across the mountains since the night before my wife passed away, so I was in a melancholy mood for much of the drive. I listened to a number of songs and then I played this one. I guess I was in the right frame of mind, because this time when I listened to it, it finally hit me why the song touched me so deeply: It is not a song about lost loves. It is a song about life.

Lindsay wasn’t just the girl we were too shy to ask out. It was all the times I didn’t even ask. All the lost opportunities I had that I just never pursued, that if I had just asked, who knows what would have happened? Opportunity knocks, but sometimes you are too scared or clueless to answer. Oh, that happened to me many times.

Nora wasn’t just the perfect girl I let slip away. I realized the reference to chicken soup was that this woman would have been his life’s companion, who would have provided for him as he would have provided for her. She was more than an infatuation; this was true. Lost opportunity! Neglect! She is all the promising jobs and opportunities I started, but didn’t finish. The people I knew and loved who I should have spent more time with. People I should have appreciated more, and who are living a life maybe less fulfilling because of my neglect. People who are now gone from my life – gone to Australia, or gone from the Earth.

Deborah, who broke his heart, was all my infatuations with people and situations that just weren’t “in to me.” She was all the stupid things that I fell for, I, the willing fool. This was the religion I thought would save the world, which only broke my heart. This was the failed partnership that was built on fantasy and ended in betrayal. This was my love affaires with corporations who had no heart. The promising job that ended up almost ruining my career and my life. How many times have we put our heart and soul into something ultimately heartless? The times we thought something was there, but it turned out to be nothing at all?

Bella was every struggle I ever had trying to make things work that were never going to work. The struggle of fighting a chronic illness that always wins, in the end. The pain of seeing friends and family die after giving it all they had. Good friendships that fell apart due to the strain of our circumstances. The heart was there, the struggle real, but the cause was lost. The pain of that is unendurable, and yet we somehow find a way to endure.

And Krista is all the deep but too-brief friendships I have had. Friends who were so close, we could cross swords in our passion for the cause, live to tell the tale, and still be friends in the end. The battle is won, the project succeeds, and we share the glory of victory. And then, the fight over, we drift apart: Layoffs happen, jobs end, new opportunities knock, or new towns beckon.  Our little band dissolves, and we move on. I have way too many good friends I will never see again.

And I was blessed to have my “woman of the hearth fire.” My late wife, who was and is everything to me. And my son, whom I love beyond anything. And my true friends, new and old, who are true as gold.

The above revelations hit me all at once like a freight train hits a snowbank. All of these regrets and lost opportunities and lost people and blessings just streamed through me. My life passed before me, with the full significance of each and every event laid before me, raw and unfiltered. On the I-5 somewhere between Portland and Tacoma, I drove on, weeping in full-throttle, tears streaming as these realities poured through me. It was as close to a nervous breakdown as I have ever had, and yet it wasn’t a breakdown – it was a breakthrough.

One of the phrases used in certain business circles is “in a former life,” meaning a former job. “I was the Los Angeles rep for XYZ company in a former life.” Our lives are made up of lives. We go to grade school, and that’s one life. Then middle school, high school, college, summer jobs, each its own life. If you change schools, the new school is a new life. Each job or career is a life. Our church, our circle of friends, each place we live. Each change of circumstance is a sort of death and rebirth: the former situation is gone, and a new one starts. Sometimes the people we knew in the former life can stay with us, but most fade away, despite resolutions to stay in touch. Add to that the lives we could have had but didn’t. We missed the Olympic team, or our application to Harvard was rejected. Our life is the collection of all these lives.

 

I felt grateful for all of them. This song somehow reached into me and pulled all this out, and I felt devastated that they were gone forever, but grateful I had these experiences and knew these people. We don’t always notice the end of these lives. We just move on as if nothing has happened, or, if we know things are changing, we are in denial that everything will change. What was brought so forcefully to me is that I had to acknowledge that these lives and opportunities were over, never to return. The good side of that was that I could look at them and think “we did good,” or “I was an idiot,” or “I really miss that person.” I didn’t put them behind me, they became me, but settled, not unsettled. It was worth the weeping to see this clearly.

There was no way Mike Scott had any of this in mind when he wrote “And a Bang on the Ear.” But art, good art, rings true, and the artist puts their art out to the world, and the world runs with it. There’s a scene in the movie “Five Easy Pieces” where the character played by Jack Nicholson plays a classical piano piece by Chopin. When he finished playing, the woman he played it for said “I felt moved.” Nicholson laughs, and says it was the easiest thing he could think of, and that he had no inner feeling while he played it. She says “well, I must have supplied it.” We supply the art to art sometimes. We will see things the artist may not have had in mind. So it is with this song. Scott was writing about women, but in such a way that I was able to expand it to life without even sensing it for years. Remarkable. I’m glad he wrote it.

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Yet another traveler on Spaceship Earth. I blog about humanity, life, life hacks, and technology. I earn my living advising companies on how to treat their customers better.

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