I’ve invented a moment in musical history that I like to envision over and over again: It’s New York, late summer, 1969 in the penthouse of A & R Recording studios. Producer Lewis Merenstein is at the board with a couple of engineers. Van Morrison has just cut the vocal for “Into the Mystic.” The engineers can’t believe the performance they’ve just heard. It’s so amazing, they forget to tell Van it’s in the can.
A tinny voice asks from the vocal booth, “So, did you get that?”
How do you answer? Even if you know the take was recorded, how do you know if you “got that?” Is it even possible to capture “that” on magnetic tape? I mean, even listening to the recording 50 years later on high-end gear, I’m still not sure I “get that.” There’s something mystical about it.
Go ahead, listen to it right now. You can skip right to 2:22-2:52 if you want to cut to the chase.
I’m a believer in all things scientific. I’m even skeptical of my own skepticism, but those 30 seconds are magical. I have to believe that for the duration of that take the recording studio was enchanted, lifted out of our mundane world and placed in one a thousand times more vivid in every way. Using wizardry of some sort, Van Morrison initiated an alchemical process that infused his voice with all the feels in the human experience.
If you’re lucky, you’ve witnessed some magic yourself. Maybe you were only a football field away, dancing in a sea of 10,000 fans when Keith Richards played the opening chords to “Start Me Up.” Or maybe an unassuming woman hit a note in a country song at an open mic that forced you to hold back tears. I saw The Jesus Lizard singer David Yow dive 15 feet into the crowd at the precise moment the band hit a thundering note with the precision of a Swiss watch.
One of the things that makes these moments “magical” is our inability to really describe their power. And the more magical the moment we’ve witnessed, the more difficult it will be to describe how it made us feel in a way that does justice to the experience.
What is magic? Different dictionaries will give you different dictionaries. Words like “inexplicable,” “remarkable” or “surprising” get thrown around.
The musician is a magician insofar as she or he can induce an indescribable experience in the listener. Or, as James Baldwin puts it in his short story “Sonny’s Blues,” “The man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar, rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason.”
These magical musical moments don’t just make us feel a particular emotion. A song like Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” does more than make us (OK, me) cry. Sad songs don’t just make us sad; they can teach us how to be sad. They help acclimate us to our own inner emotional territory. The magic comes from the fact that the songs, like all good art, offer us access to our emotions in a more fundamental way, while eluding all attempts to describe or even fully understand the process.
And we need all the magic we can get right now.