I’ve always been attracted to the melancholy—in art, in music, in life. I’m on a desert island, and I can have one of two movies: The Big Lebowski or Schindler’s List. For me, it’s Schindler’s List all the way.
Though I’d say that I am happier and more contented with life than many–if not most–of the people I know, I think I’ve gotten there through suffering. I know what’s important to me–and what’s not; there’s no second-guessing.
Yes, melancholy is as much a part of me as my name, my heritage, my DNA. It’s a constant companion, and has been for as long as I can remember. The first time I heard the term “sweet melancholy,” I sighed–literally sighed–realizing that I wasn’t alone. You see, unlike straightforward sorrow, melancholy is tinged with sweetness. It’s distinct from sadness or misery in that it contains a component of wistfulness that is just baby steps away from happiness, but not the shiny-happy superficial happiness so many of us covet.
Soren Kierkegaard appreciated melancholy and perhaps described it best: My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known,” he said, “What wonder, then, that I love her in return.”
Still, this proclivity for melancholy is probably not a trait I’d have chosen, but it’s one I’m stuck with, and one I long ago learned not just to accept, but to embrace.
From the time I was a little girl, I found that the happy-go-lucky aspects of life, and some of the joyful activities and events that other kids seemed to like—like the circus—just didn’t do it for me. I always preferred a little angst with my entertainment. Sure, I liked to play with my friends, but I clearly remember sometimes preferring the company of the sage old ladies on my block to that of the girls my age.
There they’d be, Debbie, Linda, Marianne, and the other eight- and nine-year-olds on my block, roller-skating or jumping rope or playing tag in the street. And there I’d be, sometimes playing with them, but often sitting with Minnnie, Sarah, Bessie, Mrs. Liebowitz, and the other 75-year-olds, sipping tea and listening to them reminisce about the dance halls of their youths and their long-dead husbands, my eyes filling with tears as I nodded along and patted their hands in empathy, the youngest member—by six decades—of this inner-city kaffeeklatsch.
Kids are intuitive, and, even as a toddler, I sensed that there had been sadness in my family, and that there would be more. And that early intuition that inadvertently caused me to gravitate toward sad songs, also propelled me into the music industry, in which I would build my career, and drew me to the musicians themselves, particularly the vagabond mystics, pan-handling guttersnipes, and bohemian troubadours who populated Greenwich Village–and European villages centuries earlier.
Why was it that I was drawn to melancholy sounds–from the plaintive wails of a lost puppy to the mournful distant whistle of an evening train–and sad songs and melodies–from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” to Phil Ochs’ “There But For Fortune” to the Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” to Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John?”
At five, I was both excited and a little frightened by the opening notes of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which I found at once beautiful and menacing, and Cream’s “White Room,” which made me think the bogeyman was around the corner. At seven, I’d run upstairs and clutch onto my mother whenever my older brother played Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” At eight, it was the guitar riff in T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” that weirded me out, and at 10, it was Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” that made me want to know all about New York City and prompted me to ask my very old-fashioned mother what “giving head” meant.
I envied the kids who were happy to go to the circus, who were able to just enjoy the trapeze artists and the cotton candy, who were not worried about whether the clowns missed their parents or whether the elephants were sad because they had to stand alone for hours in trailers. At the same time, I knew there was more to life–and I knew there was something behind the scenes, behind the curtain–just like on Let’s Make a Deal. One day, I would know what was behind that curtain, and maybe, I’d even be there behind that curtain, with those musicians and artists to whom I was so drawn.
The fact that I was an A-student carried a lot of weight when I was caught sneaking Buried Alive, Myra Friedman’s biography of Janis Joplin, out of the library when I was in fourth grade, sandwiching it between my math and religion textbooks, poring over the sordid details of Pearl’s lonely childhood and her heroin death, wishing that I could have helped her. I was somehow able to filter out the stuff I didn’t know about–and didn’t want to know about–and to see this girl named Janis as the wounded, lonely soul she was. All she wanted was someone to love her, and love is what eluded her. Of course, my having that book didn’t go over big with Sister Rosemary, who “tsk-tsked” and expressed shock and concern at my choice of an admirable person to write about. My mother told Sister Rosemary that she was proud of me for having compassion because, after all, wasn’t that what Jesus taught?
There is a term for this attraction to the melancholy–not only to sad songs, but to things like empty pools, abandoned buildings, dead malls, underground writing and art. It’s not a condition. It’s not a mental illness. It’s an aesthetic, a way of looking at the world, a way of filtering information, a way of creating and understanding art and literature and music. It permeates music, including rock and roll, blues, jazz, and folk; countless works of art and literature; and many situations in everyday life. It’s called nostalgie de la boue.
The French phrase—which is, interestingly, rarely used in France—has a lot of nuances. Literally, it translates as “nostalgia for the mud” or “longing for the gutter.” Figuratively, it can mean anything from “the romanticizing of primitive souls” to “an attraction to what is crude or unworthy” to “ascribing higher spiritual values to people and cultures ‘lower’ than oneself.” Nostalgie de la boue is the aesthetic of the Beat Generation. It’s Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. It’s at the core of punk. It’s Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. It’s Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Tod Browning’s Freaks. It’s Muddy Waters and Miles Davis. It’s the Roaring Twenties and film noir. It’s life, real life, stripped down and laid bare.