I spent that night at the hospital. Ziggy went back to the hotel after midnight but I stayed through till morning, as I often did. There was a bed I could sleep in but I didn’t sleep so much as nap at points when she appeared to be out cold.
Sometimes she didn’t sleep, though, despite the opiates and her fatigue from fighting the disease. She would say to me sometimes, “Hey, sit with me.” And a few times–at least twice–she even told me, “I’m glad that you’re here.”
That night she said, “Why isn’t there a radio in this hospital?”
“Every room has a TV, which I can’t stand, but there’s no radio. Why is that?”
“Um, maybe you could ask for one?”
“Well, I’m sure that I could.” She was sitting up, with just the side lamp by the bed on. The room’s main overhead lights were off. “But that is not the point. Music has been proven to be healthy for sick people.”
“Um, has it?”
“Oh, sure. The therapeutic effects are well known. Not just to distract people from their pain, either, but real improvement in their conditions.”
“Did Ruth tell you this?” Ruth had visited some time that week.
“The point is it would be beneficial to all patients to have music. It seems strange that they don’t.”
“Would you like me to bring you a radio?”
“I mean, I suppose they can’t pipe the music in, since people like all different kinds and it would probably have the opposite effect if they were forced to listen to songs they hated. I mean, of course, that would be like something from a prisoner of war camp.”
I hoped this conversation wasn’t about to turn gory. “I’ll bring you a clock radio next time I come from the hotel, how’s that for an idea?”
She hesitated a moment, toying with the edge of the blanket in her lap. “How about you sing me a song?”
Oh. That was why the long buildup. She’d just wanted to ask me that all along, I think. “Um, okay.” I tried to think of one I actually knew the words to. I couldn’t think of how a single one of my own songs went. They weren’t really good for singing by themselves, anyway, most of them. “I’m trying to think of a good one.”
“I’ve been wanting to hear you sing ever since you told me about your vocal coach.” She cleared her own throat reflexively. “She sounds like quite a woman.”
“Yeah, she’s a trip.” I had to clear my own throat then. Power of suggestion. “I haven’t been doing my exercises, though. There’s a break between my chest voice and my throat and I’m supposed to be doing exercises to build up the weak part so I can sing my full range at low volume.”
“Well, you should probably keep it down,” she said, in a gently joking voice. “After all, we are in a hospital.”
We both laughed a little at that. I mean, it was a weak joke–stating the obvious as if we didn’t know it–but combined with the idea that we shouldn’t be too noisy meant inevitable laughter. She took a kind of prideful glee in the fact that she could make me laugh, I think?
It beat having her make me cry, anyway. “Okay, how about this.” When in doubt go back to the classics. One of the first songs I learned and that I played obsessively when I was 12-13, trying to perfect it. “Here Comes the Sun.” Of course I can’t reproduce the lyrics here because of copyright reasons, but you may have heard it. After all, we are in the English-speaking world.
“Here Comes the Sun” is almost like a folk song in a lot of ways, both in the way the chords resolve and in the simplicity and sparseness of the lyrics. It doesn’t really have a lot to it, but you can kind of repeat it endlessly. And you can kind of make up verses on the fly, because the only part that varies from verse to verse is one line. It’s really got nothing to it without the instrumental parts, but I sang it like you’d sing a lullaby or a nursery rhyme and she smiled.
“Sing me a longer one,” she said next.
“A longer one? You sure you want ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’?”
“Ha. Only if you can do the Phil Rizzuto part.” She gave me a wicked stage wink, then added more seriously. “Why not one of your songs?”
“We should have Ziggy for that.” I wondered if I could sing a Nomad song for her, but given how many of them were about Remo being heartbroken over her, maybe that wasn’t a good idea.
“Ziggy is sweet.”
“As chocolate mousse, yeah.” I remembered there was still five pounds of it in the fridge, unless someone else had eaten it. “He and I didn’t always get along so well, but we seem to have figured it out.”
“That’s good. Do you want the same things?”
“I think so? I guess that helps a lot. When we started we had a lot of passion but not a lot of–”
“–affection or real care for each other. I think the jury is still out on whether we have common sense now or not.”
“I’m thinking.” I needed another one of those radio songs that we (me, Remo, Digger, my sisters, but never Claire herself) sang along to all the time when we were kids. Something that was burned permanently into my memory bank.
I started “Bohemian Rhapsody” before I had time to really think about it. As soon as I was halfway through the first line, all kinds of things were clicking in my brain, about the song structure and what I was going to do when I got to the operatic sections, and where I was in the scale, and all that. I don’t usually see a song’s entire structure while I’m in the middle of performing them. It’s kind of like you can’t see the whole rollercoaster while you’re on the track; you can only see what’s immediately ahead of you.
But if you were a rollercoaster designer, maybe you’d be able to retain a picture in your mind of what it looked like from the line where you could take in all the swoops and shapes, right? That’s what it felt like to me when I was conducting or when I was leading the band instead of just performing: I could see the whole structure, not just the couple of feet of track right ahead. And when I dragged the whole band with me into an improvisation, I was laying new track as we went along, trusting that we’d reconnect with the main track at some point as long as they stayed with me. (There was another layer, too, where I could see the whole show, like seeing the entire theme-park layout.)
When everything was going well, that awareness of the shape of things went on autopilot. It would get to where I didn’t really feel like I was working that hard to keep track. My consciousness was mostly in the moment, in the car on the track, making it go up and down the rises and falls.
But here I was singing a song I hadn’t sung in years, though I’d heard it several times since Freddie’s death, to an improbable audience in improbable circumstances. My brain was so wrapped up in trying to see the structure of the song on the one hand, and trying to keep it soft and expressive on the other hand, that there was no real space left for me to think about the actual meaning of the song.
Which was good, since of course it’s a song that leaves a lot of people wondering what the fuck it’s about in the first place. Freddie Mercury never apparently gave a definitive answer about it, and even claimed that it was nonsense rhyming words (which is what I would say if people asked me incessatly about a song’s meaning for years on end…. and a tactic I’d eventually turn to, but that’s later). If you asked me to take a guess, though, about what Freddie’s subconscious was simmering when he wrote it, I’d say it’s about a guy with anxiety about coming out to his mother, and fearing that once he does, he’s dead to her.
It’s funny. I hear stories these days about kids coming out–in 21st century America–kids with woke, supportive parents–and you know what? Even with that, it’s still hard for them sometimes. There’s still anxiety. There’s still fear of rejection, of disappointment, of creating a rift. So just imagine trying to come out to your Farsi immigrant parents in England in the 1970s.
I wasn’t thinking about that, though. At most I was thinking it was a song sung by a son to a mother about Deep Stuff. Maybe that’s all that mattered.
And maybe I could have sung any song in a minor key and had the same result. We were both crying by the time I stopped singing. She had hold of one of my hands and she pressed it to her cheek, and she said, softly, “Oh, you terrible, miserable child. Making me cry like this.”
“Yeah, I’m awful, aren’t I,” I joked, reaching for a tissue for her with my free hand. Then getting one for myself.
“The. Worst.” She let go of me to blow her nose and then looked at me seriously. “Why were you so hard to love as a child and yet now it’s so easy?”
Way to take my breath away, Mom.
I wasn’t about to give a serious answer to that question, even if she meant it seriously. I mean, if I had to guess I’d say it was easier to love me when she accepted me for who I was? And maybe when she wasn’t fighting with my father all the time and comparing me to him constantly? And maybe, like Court had said, when she was older and gained more emotional maturity herself? And so on? Or maybe because now I was doing what she wanted?
So I just said, “Same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Years of practice.”