Years ago, back in my days as a smoker, I'd finish each day with one last cigarette, sitting out on the porch (several porches, actually, and even a stack of phonebooks during my stint living in Phoenix) with some music floating around my head as I just sort of let everything draw to a close.
And what closed out each day as much as the cigarette was that one last song I'd pick out to go along, something to wrap it all up with a listening experience as focused and meaningful as possible. It was never haphazard; I almost never selected a song on a whim. I was deliberate and decisive about selecting the accompanying song. Usually I’d stick with one for days, or even weeks, on end. Sometimes I’d mix it up back and forth between a couple for quite a while. Sometimes it was two songs that just made glory back to back. But they were always songs that could be counted on to keep giving a lot on each successive listen.
The songs naturally tended to be somber tunes, ones that could really say something about life and the world, more poetic songs that offered space for a whole bunch of thoughts. But there had to be nuance and passion in the music, there had to something there to firmly set the song in my head, where it could spring forth as needed, or as it saw fit.
Those are moments I miss now, more than four years removed from cigarettes. I miss that last cigarette and song so much because frankly, there's just no functional replacement. Putting on a song and sitting there for five minutes doesn't come close to matching the sort of reflectiveness and routine, the downright ritual nature of it.
I had, and have, no better way of summing up the day in my head, of trying to tie a loop around whatever's going on, of carefully and purposefully putting a bookmark right where I'm stopping, ready to pick it up again the next day.
That sort of ritual will tie certain songs to you forever. Those last cigarette songs of mine are the the ones in which the song and a period of time are the most closely interwoven for me. Those songs evoke memories that aren't memories, that are something more, less concrete than a single incident or happening, but sitting far deeper in my being. Those songs evoke things that I can't really tie to specific senses, but instead bring a complex mesh of feelings and people and eras.
Over the course of so many close, repeat listenings, any good song will reveal more and more and more about itself. I would bore deeper into the lyrics time and time again, drawing out associations between the songs and my life, discovering insights as that external singer's words developed a cohesion with something internal.
And sure, any sort of favorite song, or any music tied directly to a time or place or person in anyone's life has such a strong personal reaction.
But for me, as often as any other sort of listening or musical experience, what hits my core are those songs that closed out my day, with one last smoke.
Wilco & Billy Bragg - California Stars (live on Letterman)
Willie Nelson - My Own Peculiar Way
Bright Eyes - One Foot In Front Of The Other
Joel Plaskett - True Patriot Love (acoustic, Q104)
Townes Van Zandt - To Live Is To Fly
Soul Coughing - True Dreams Of Wichita
The Replacements - Here Comes A Regular
Billy Bragg - The Short Answer (Peel Sessions)