Heart / Idylls and Rambles

Too Painful to Listen

. 4 min read . Written by Russell Smith
Too Painful to Listen

Let me state flatly that I know nothing about music in an intellectual or technical sense. I don’t play an instrument and never have. I can’t read music. I don’t know the difference between a soprano, tenor, bass, and so on. I find opera dull and boring.

But music strikes me emotionally, deeply. When I encounter a new song I like, I obsessively listen again and again. All day. For the past three weeks, I’ve listened to Orville Peck’s “Any Turn,” Junior Brown’s “Surf Medley,” and Dave Alvin’s and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Downey to Lubbock” and little else.

My playlist “Current Faves” simply grows – once I love a song, I rarely give it up.

On most days, I silently repeat lyrics throughout much of the day. They come to me like echoes in a wide canyon. I hear them and they come again and again. They cannot stop, or I cannot let them go. I can never tell which it is.

I hear those lyrics. I feel them. I can feel my pulse quicken as I hear the lines I love.

You should have been an angel, it would have suited you

My heart will always burst with intensity and profound love when I hear those lines by The Stone Roses.

As I look down the list of my “Current Faves” I see a few songs I do love – yet I can almost never listen to them. They are too indelibly linked in my mind to pain or hurt. I cannot subject my mind and soul to them.

A few years after college, a dear friend died young and tragically. He adored “Life is a Highway” by Tom Cochrane. My friend loved driving and the song became a sort of anthem for him. He felt it profoundly inside him, and we his friends knew his entire connection to the song. And I love the song too – both for the song itself and for my friend’s identification with it.

Since he died, I can no longer hear the song. If it comes on the radio or my playlist, I skip it. I simply can’t bear to feel the crushing disappointment that I can hear the song – and my friend can’t. I can’t bear to feel cheated out of all the times I didn’t get to have with him. He never met my wife. He never met my daughters. I long to see him at my wedding; for he and I to take our children fishing; to discuss writing again. It overwhelms me; how can emptiness crush me? But it does. I never feel its squeeze more than hearing Life is a Highway. I simply cannot listen.

Songs I can’t listen to don’t always involve loss. As I hear the Eagles’s “Seven Bridges Road,” the beauty of my wife’s love aches in my heart. It is too much beauty; it is too real. It is too intense, like Krishna revealing his full divine self to Arjuna in the beautiful eleventh book of the Bhagavad Gita. I am a mortal, a broken one; I feel as if one person has given me too much love, too much of herself; too much of her preciousness. How can someone join with me fully to take this life together, to go down this seven bridges road with me fully? I feel cherished pain, an ache with love I long for and live for. I cannot hear the magical, musical reminder of my wife’s sacrifice to me, for me. It is divine, and it is too much for my flawed, human soul to be reminded of often. My heart breaks at the feeling of my wife’s healing of it.

Last – my girls. I never thought I would have a wife, much less kids. As a friend reminds me about having children, all the cliches are true. The joy, the frustration, the worry. Chris Hillman’s song “Wildflowers” instantly brings my girls to heart. And again, I cannot hear it. I cannot bear it. My eyes well up at

You belong somewhere you feel free

They are still kids; they are still free. And yet life calls, inexorably, and steals their freedom day by day. Already at 10 and 8, I see it evaporating from their lives, drawn silently and invisibly into the storm clouds of adulthood. I weep for that loss.

Selfishly, I cringe at Hillman’s line

Run away, find you a lover

In the ways of humanity, one day they will. And I feel it will bring a kind of joy and a kind of breaking. No longer will my wife and I play the central roles in their lives – an important role, probably and hopefully. But the central role? No, and nevermore. And I feel that pain of having to share love, attention and time with another. I ache in the knowledge of its comings and dread its arrival. I understand the flow of life, and I appreciate it. Can’t I have one more day with our little girls, only the four of us? Please?

My heart pounds as I write this reflection. Aching reminds us of our humanity – our weakness and limitations, joys and elations, minutes and days. I do not miss my lack of knowledge about music. I feel the emotion – for me, I have enough. And I feel, well…. I feel human that I cannot listen to all songs I love, even as my soul yearns for them. Their vibrations crash upon me like too-heavy ocean waves. They threaten to take me under, and drag me beneath their tonnage.

Right now, I hear the first notes of one of these songs sound in my ears.



Images created by Olivia Lund.