Monday, October 10, 2016

A Sad Year

Though the Fall season is only a few weeks old, for me the year has already fallen. The new year is 86 days away, but there is little that can happen in what's left of 2016 to make up for my losses.

I have often said that the worst thing about popular music is that it is so inescapable. No matter the time of your life, on whatever occasion, some otherwise forgettable pop song is sure to be there to intrude on your memory-making. And for the rest of your life, like it or not, it will always stink up your cherished remembrances. Every time that stupid song is played, it will evoke for you images and emotions with which it has no right to associate.

So, there I was late last December, listening to a local Manila radio show called Doctor Love here on my Philippine island, when the DJ played a song from 1977 that I had never heard before. It was Barry Manilow's "It's Just Another New Year's Eve," which, unbeknownst to me, became a perennial favorite for awhile. Manilow is (in)famous for some obnoxious jingles he wrote for TV commercials and for a handful of hit songs he performed in the '70s, like "Mandy" and "I Write the Songs." Like I said, the worst thing about them was that, for an unconscionable amount of time, there was no escape from them.

When I heard the song last December, during Twixtmas, that week of limbo between Christmas and New Year's Day, I thought about my sister, seven years older than me, living alone in Anchorage, Alaska. I sent her the song in time for the Big Night, hoping it would strike as deep a chord in her as it had in me.

It's a quite unconventional song for the holiday, reflective and somber rather than optimistic and cheerful, rather like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a somber acceptance of hard times during the holidays. Who can ever forget Judy Garland singing it in Meet Me in St. Louis to a distraught little sister.

Much like the song traditionally sung on New Year's Eve, "Auld Lang Syne," Manilow's song takes a look back before looking forward to the coming year:

Don't look so sad
It's not that bad, you know
It's just another night, that's all it is.
It's not the first, it's not the worst, you know.
We've come through all the rest,
We'll get through this.

Not the most memorable lyrics, but the words are ring true for many more people than we'd like to admit. The holidays are depressing precisely because we are told at every moment for weeks how happy we're supposed to be. And on New Year's Eve we're all supposed to make resolutions to change our lives - admitting, at least, that something isn't right about our lives and needs to change.

Then the chorus arrives.

It's just another New Year's Eve
Another night like all the rest
It's just another New Year's Eve
Let's make it the best.
It's just another New Year's Eve
It's just another Auld Lang Syne
But when we're through
This new year you'll see
We'll be just fine.

Somewhat faint words of encouragement, but they were deeply felt, if not very deeply thought. Within a few months into this year, however, the wheels started to come off. So far, this year has been calamitous for myself and the people I love. I had no idea when the year began, and when I shared Manilow's thoughtful but harmless song with my sister, that by now, with less than three months to go, I would be stopping here to assess the damage. Two dear people I knew, the brother and oldest daughter of my companion, have died - the latter violently murdered. And my sister was herself in the hospital - for a time in ICU - for thirty days. My great distance from home, from everything I know and that makes sense to me, makes the holidays especially hard.

Sadly, I think that the words of Manilow's song will be more apposite for the coming New Year's Eve. I saw Barry Manilow recently on a home shopping network, selling advance copies of his latest CD. I hadn't seen him in awhile and I was a little surprised by his cosmetic surgeon's additions to his face. But I also did a little reading about him and I was surprised by his being chosen by the widow of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer to set one of his last unpublished songs to music. Mercer, who died in 1976, had been an admirer of Manilow and Manilow's setting of the song, "When October Goes," matches the prevailing tone of the season, as well as the Fall of this sad year:

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by

The children running home beneath
A twilight sky
Oh for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years
I turn my head away to hide
The helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go.

Of three recordings of the song that I've heard, Manilow's, Diane Schuur's, and Nancy Wilson's, it is Wilson's that is by far the best. She captures the sad wistfulness of the words, something of what I feel at the moment.

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