It’s 3:21 in the morning and I have found the balm of Gilead.
I get these little stints of sadness that wash over me sometimes. Stuff I can’t forget. Stuff I can’t change. The kind of sad that keeps you up all night and presses everything real close. I’ve got an eggshell heart; thin enough to see daylight through. I’ve learned how to nurse it in my own little way.
On real bad nights like this one I stay up all night long watching videos online. Usually music videos; live performances. Sometimes I watch videos about the places I’ve been; tours or home videos or news interviews. I strain my mind to remember what Alabama smells like. I watch feel-good military homecoming videos because I’m tired of feeling ashamed.
When it gets like this I’m not trying to work through my baggage or process my feelings. I’m trying to survive. I know how bad this thing gets, I’ve been there before. I’ve seen the inside of a suicide ward and I’ve seen what I look like holding on by a thread. I haven’t found a way to stop the bad memories or calm the bad dreams, but I’ve figured out how to keep on feeling something long enough to come out the other side. If I remind myself that I’m living then somehow I know how to stay alive.
This particular night I stumbled across this grainy video of Blaze Foley singing “If I Could Only Fly” at a backyard wedding and it hit me like nothing else has ever hit me; like true love or mama’s living room or the gospel.
Obscurity was kind of the whole Blaze Foley thing. Every record he tried to release was doomed to some catastrophe and only a handful of live recordings exist of him. Everything about him has been turned into some mythology or another. He was a member of Townes Van Zandt’s close circle of friends. He was a drunk and essentially homeless for much of his life. He wore duct tape on his boots and jacket to make fun of the popular country artists of the time and their rhinestone suits.
Blaze looks kinda worn out in this video. His cowboy hat seems a little too big and his arms look a little too small. He’s singing his heart out, but everybody else at the wedding is laughing and talking over him like he’s background noise. At some point toward the end some drunk lady starts trying to harmonize with him from the crowd.
None of that ruins anything though. Maybe if you’re telling the truth it don’t matter who is listening.
Against this backdrop of distraction he’s singing; “I almost felt you touching me just now, wish I knew which way to turn and go. I feel so good, then I feel so bad. I wonder what I’m gonna do” and you can tell he means it. I don’t know if it’s his sincerity or just the mood I’m in but it sank right into me and settled down somewhere. Pain is contagious but there’s some kind of healing in the solidarity of it.
This might all come off a little too sentimental. A lot of different folks are trying to make art mean all kinds of things but I think it’s most important that art is real. The way I see it, it’s all about the truth and where it meets you. We’re all looking at this world behind our own delusions. Art gives us the chance to put on somebody else’s eyes and plug into somebody else’s heart.
It seems a little strange for a youtube video to be my favorite piece of art, but it is. I must’ve watched that thing a couple of hundred times now. I’m drawn obsessively to it; a handful of moments in the lives of a circle of people I’ll never meet. It’s the mystery of the whole thing. I can’t tell you what he’s feeling when he’s singing that song or who it’s about. I can’t tell you who was at that wedding or where it was. I can’t even fully explain why it’s dug itself into my brain for all these years.
I do know that I found it in a time of desperation and it comforted me. I’m still walking around with those same thin little heart-walls and the same heavy memories because there’s no magic fix to mental illness or pain. I do know that there’s an authenticity and sincerity in the way that he sings that I still don’t understand.
Even now, I’m trying to tap into that truthfulness, hoping this all means something. I’m learning how to tell my story, piece by piece. Most days I don’t even really care who all is listening. When you’re really telling the truth maybe it doesn’t matter who is listening.