Singing “Everyone’s Lonely” with My Korean Immigrant Mother
At this past Louisville Waterfront Wednesday concert (sponsored by WFPK, a Louisville Free Public Media radio station on 6/26/2019 ), I experienced several firsts.
A first: My wife performed live with a Rock band!
This happened, as these things go, because she happened upon the right group of people—joined Louisville Civic Orchestra as 2nd violinist a year ago—who happened to have the right connection: the conductor, Jason Hart Raff, who happened to meet the lead singer of Jukebox the Ghost, Ben Thornewill, at a children’s party where they shared their childhood dream of putting together an orchestra and a rock band. That serendipitous spark took two years of conversation and hard work—as these things go—to become an evening delighting the packed Louisvillian crowd.
A first: People screaming for a conductor’s baton.
Half way into the song “Somebody” Jason threw his second baton to the crowd when he had relocated his first and favorite that had slipped from his fingers when he was conducting while jumping to the driving beat as any good rock loving audience would. He threw the baton with the charisma of a rock star and everyone scrambled for it as if Slash of Guns n Roses had thrown his guitar. Who knows? Maybe a girl caught that baton and the fever of conducting strings and winds—because Jason makes it look so freakin’ cool!—has been passed on and you will hear this story from her perspective 15 years later?
A first: my mother, who moved down from New York a week ago, was next to me at the front of the stage raising the roof, singing “Everybody’s Lonely.”
I would believe that my mother climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro before believing she would be rocking next to me. She is a Korean immigrant who 39 years ago left all the friendships she had invested in for 34 years in Korea, for a different future for her children. She understands English, but she laughs and cries watching Korean drama. She hums hymns when doing dishes and never heard of Coldplay or Maroon 5. And she has arthritis. But there she was dancing next to beer chuggers. She herself wasn’t drinking so I can’t credit the alcohol. Certainly, she wanted to wave to her daughter-in-law on stage. But it was also the music of Jukebox the Ghost, a sound that crossed boundaries of age and culture, though it’s a very particular American pop.
Their sound is a blend of Maroon 5 and Coldplay, but brighter with flairs of Broadway 90s musical like Rent. The brightness of their sound comes partly from the piano centric sound and the way Ben smashes out notes on the piano with joy, and his high-pitched, slight nasal but ballasted by a growl voice. But their sound of un-self-conscious joy is mainly spread by their lyrics that is humorous and playful. Ben isn’t as serious as Adam Levine who thinks himself a sex god and Chris Martin who thinks music can bring world peace. Adam Levine is too full of himself and Chris thinks he is a prophet. Ben is a guy who is fun and funny because he is not afraid to be humorous which makes him an honest song writer. Humor is an attitude of honesty; it’s courageous to tell things as it is. Sustained seriousness is possible only by distorting experiences to make them fit your version/vision of the world. Humor is letting the unexpected and contradictions have their say because you don’t have a self-image to keep intact. Wedding days shouldn’t be rainy, but when it does you can edit it out of the day or out of the video; or you can sing in the rain.
Take their hit, “Everybody’s lonely.” It is a meta-song, a pop song about the writing of pop songs. “Why’s every song about love or drinking too much?” Why are songs promising the stars and then trying to make despair look cool? Why are they always about love consummated or love unrequited? But here is an indisputable fact, whether you are high or low, in love or out of love, we are always lonely for we are ultimately alone. “We are all so much together,” says Albert Schweitzer—a polymath, theologian, organist, writer, philosopher and so on—“but we are all dying of loneliness.” We try to forget our aloneness by drunkenness of intimacy or the drunkenness of alcohol. But we all sober up the day after.
But here is a song that makes everyone say what they are afraid to say by turning it into a catchy hook line of a pop song. There’s my mother and hundred other people singing “Everybody’s lonely!” Is this “a piece of art/A Jackson Pollock/Some piece of gossip?” It’s hard to “tell them all apart” if we are honest about the self-serving posture of seriousness of the art world. Art museums’ galleries can be put together through gossip, a curator flattered by an artist, and a rock concert by the Ohio River can be an experience of a fundamental truth of human existence.
Even in the most perfect loving relationship, you are lonely. And no drunkenness of alcohol or work will ever make you forget, you are lonely. To make that truth into a catchy tune is not to make light of it, but to bring light to it. Not only is the lyric humorous, but singing together about being lonely itself is humorous: that we are all singing we are lonely, which makes us feel less lonely, as if we are all in it together, but we really are not. Our loneliness is shared but the details of our loneliness are particular.
After the concert, we folded our chairs, rolled up our mats and went our separate ways, even the ones getting in the same car. Our ad-hoc group identity created at the front of the stage, our bodies all synced to one beat, shouldn’t be taken as some transcendent experience that can solve our loneliness, as much as love and alcohol cannot. Such experience of joy, albeit temporal, shouldn’t be dismissed, just not asked to do what they cannot do. Singing about loneliness is not going to make it go away. But it sure is fun.
So there was my wife on stage, there was my mother next to me, and there was my son on my neck, all of us loving each other best we can, which sometimes is awful and selfish, and each knowing that we have our own lives that can never be fully understood by the other. Each one of us lonely in our own way, each of us singing together about our loneliness, as families should.