When the Right Music Finds You at the Right Time

My 25-year journey with an album I just heard for the first time

Photo: MirageC / Getty Images

We are the beneficiaries of a secular miracle. Right now, beneath our fingertips, we have access to more music than we could ever possibly listen to. And like most miracles, we take it entirely for granted. Of course we can listen to any music we like, anytime we like, at little or no cost. Was it not always thus?

Amid all this abundance, you’d think music would be devalued, a currency wiped out by its omnipresence. But music can surprise us with the ways in which something for everyone can also prove itself to be for us alone, the ways in which a mass medium can still be intensely personal. Case in point: my 25-year journey with an album I heard for the first time last month.

Walking on down the road / Looking for a friendly handout /Somebody ease my soul.

I know I’m dating myself when I say that I spent much of 1995 in Tower Records, a hulking enclosure along Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles, on a street clogged with UCLA undergraduates. Inside, the store felt like a portal to another world. On the bottom floor were CDs from the latest MTV heartthrobs, the Beatles reissues, the T-shirts and pins; on the mezzanine, jazz and international music; on the upper floor, endless rows of rock and hip-hop albums, all there for the taking, along with $14.99. I would spend weekend mornings scouring the back pages of Spin magazine, where I could peruse album reviews by the likes of Colson Whitehead, and then I’d snake my way through the UCLA campus until I reached Westwood Village.

I would easily while away much of a day within Tower Records and the other record stores within a close walk, endlessly calculating and recalculating to determine what I could afford to purchase. In that pre-Napster, pre-Spotify moment, music was a precious commodity. If you didn’t have the money or a friend with groaning shelves of albums, and if the public library didn’t have what you wanted, there was no dependable way to hear anything.

Your words hung high in the rafters / And settled down like rain.

One Tower trip that spring, I came bearing the name of the new Jayhawks album called Tomorrow the Green Grass. I had never heard any of the band’s music until their effervescent single “Blue” played on the radio, and after reading a review in Spin, I was convinced. It was a warm amalgamation of power pop and roots rock, like Big Star if they had moved from Memphis to Nashville. I went home with the album that day.

Left by chance / Broke down by your words.

I may as well keep dating myself by saying that one of my favorite means of whiling away the time as an adolescent was to browse the cardboard inserts of the BMG music club that were omnipresent in magazines of the 1990s. (I was an extremely popular teenager.) I would scan the list of albums available for purchase with a BMG membership and try to imagine the impossible bounty just beyond my reach. I could have all these albums for just one cent? (In actuality, it was more like $12, but I am not bitter anymore.) The entire point of becoming an adult, of hopefully one day earning an income, was to be able to buy every album there ever was, to be in possession of an impossible cornucopia of recorded music.

One album I always paused over was the Jayhawks’ 1992 roots-rock collection, Hollywood Town Hall. It came out just before I had truly fallen in love with music, and like a lot of the albums that predated me paddling my canoe into the moving stream of the arts, this one had remained beyond my reach. I loved Tomorrow the Green Grass, but realistically I knew I would likely never buy a copy of Hollywood Town Hall. But wouldn’t it be nice to think so?

Now all the old widows / Carry love poems by their side.

When I was in college, Napster struck the landscape of music like a nuclear blast. Suddenly, with enough patience and ingenuity, just about every piece of music ever recorded could be downloaded to your computer. My adolescent dream of having an impossibly large library of music was suddenly a reality, and I spent an unfathomably vast amount of time downloading Caetano Veloso Beatles covers and Nas B-sides. It felt, for a brief moment, as if the laws of gravity had been temporarily revoked. I never downloaded Hollywood Town Hall, although I did come across an MP3 of its lead single, “Waiting for the Sun.”

A few years later, Spotify made its way to the United States, and my adolescent dream of endless music was suddenly, with some caveats, a reality. I no longer had to be a multimillionaire to have every album I ever wanted. Music became magically omnipresent and also somewhat devalued. How much did you have to care about something when it flowed like water from a tap?

Two angels, one bad end / This lifetime’s easy / Way back home there’s a funeral.

For years, Hollywood Town Hall languished in a mass playlist I’d put together of albums I wanted to check out someday, a gathering of possible classics and highly recommended gems that I occasionally dipped my toe in. A song from the album would occasionally pop up and play from start to finish without really registering for me.

And then, the other week, I was in the mood for some country music. I don’t drink, but it had been a long week full of secondhand reports about the pandemic-fueled struggles of friends and family members, and I was looking for some crying-in-my-beer music.

Take me down to the waters of Warm River / I’ll ask you now / To trust in my love.

For no particular reason I could point to, I cued up Hollywood Town Hall, almost 30 years after I had first hoped to. And with the first chords of “Waiting for the Sun,” I discovered that this album I had been meaning to listen to for literally decades was just the thing I needed that day.

It was sweet and sour, with guitars that were dense and chiming, like if the Byrds had pored over the chord changes on their Cheap Trick albums. And when the voices of Mark Olson and Gary Louris intertwined for the choruses of songs like “Two Angels,” I felt transported. The songs about funerals and healing waters and walking down lonely roads felt like they had been written for precisely this moment of horror and grief and relief, of compressed sadness and hope. In the past few weeks, I’ve submerged myself in this album’s healing waters more times than I can count, immensely grateful for its existence.

For some of you, this album will be my gift to you. For others, some other album will be your Hollywood Town Hall. But what else other than music can feel like a personalized gift from the gods, inscribed to us by fate and delivered on the precise day it is most needed?

Forty years of sudden death / The daylight’s still not over yet.

There is little magic left in the world. We are all too savvy to be caught up in the moment, to find transport. But music can still worm its way into the deepest crevices of our being, can still surprise us with the ways in which it was anticipating our feelings, standing patiently in the place we had only just arrived. Music was always lying in wait, ready for the moment when it finds you.

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.

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