It's weird when the music you love stops sounding good to you. It's happened to me before, once after a terrible breakup, and once during an awful day job, writing adventure travel brochures for the elderly. The breakup ruined The Band's entire discography for me, and the copywriting gig ruined Tina Turner's greatest hits. It's been years, and I still can't get through "Up on Cripple Creek" or "Simply the Best" without breaking into a cold sweat.
Cancer is something like a bad breakup and a soul-sucking day job, maybe times a million. It's got me wincing at my all-time favorite records, even my hypothetical desert island picks. I can't go near Aretha's greatest hits, Willie Nelson's "Stardust," or the collective works of Patsy Cline, Bonnie Raitt or Ray Charles. Aretha sounds stuck in "baby, baby" mode. Patsy and Bonnie are too mid-tempo and tragic, and make me think of plane crashes and dead-end men. Willie's having too good a time all the time, and Ray's had all the good times he'll ever have. I've got a lifetime of memories and dreams tied up in their songs, and I've been in love with them as long as I've had ears. Now they all sound like a bunch of triggers.
My boyfriend Ed noticed my silent standoff with music before I did, early in my diagnosis for an aggressive form of breast cancer. I started driving to medical appointments in silence, staring down the highway, concentrating on which terrifying questions I'd ask my doctors. I sat in tense waiting rooms waiting for lab results with just the sound of morning cable shows blaring overhead. At home, I made scrambled eggs to talk radio, and folded laundry with my TV muted. It was just me and my inner monologue, and that was noisy enough.
Ed made me the playlist out of sheer desperation a few weeks before my mastectomy surgery. He titled it "Jess Deep Breaths," his quiet plea for me to relax. At first I braced at the name. I hate being told, even politely, to calm down. But once I put on my headphones and listened, I couldn't help myself—it was Valium to my ears.
It wasn't the new-agey yoga Muzak I expected from the title, nor was it my typical bluesy-mama fare. He'd chosen an odd assortment of rockers, crooners and musical oddities: Van Halen, Sly Stone, Nat King Cole, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits and Cannonball Adderly. It was good music, but more importantly, it was uncharted territory for me. No triggers, no pulled heartstrings, just wailing rock anthems and big, reverby kick drums.
I need music like I need water, so I lapped it all up. Before I knew it, I could sing every word to Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" and Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan." I couldn't help but smile at David Lee Roth singing about beautiful girls, or Robert Palmer sneaking Sally through the alley. I couldn't help but rock my head to "Walk Away" by the James Gang. Where has Joe Walsh been all my life, I wondered. If this was Ed's idea of relaxation music, maybe he was on to something. I turned the volume all the way up.
The playlist pulled me through the blurry days and sleepless nights leading up to my surgery. I got my affairs in order, I waited, I worried and I listened. If you're in a waiting room anticipating a full body scan where all your bones and internal organs will be checked for cancer, or really, if you're in any situation where you're pretty sure your heart is going to beat right out of your chest—it is helpful to have Nat King Cole singing "Sweet Lorraine" in your ear. Or Ace Frehley of KISS singing "Shock Me," for that matter.
My strange little musical cheering squad made it doable somehow, like I wasn't living a slow-motion nightmare. When Jimi Hendrix sang to me about castles made of sand melting into the sea, I felt less paralyzed. When Nick Drake reminded me to keep things simple as a kettle and steady as a rock, I felt less overwhelmed. And every time Robert Plant sang, "What's to stop us pretty baby/but what is and what should never be," I felt it deep down in my bones. I drove to my last pre-surgery appointment drumming on my steering wheel. I could do this. I was doing this, and nothing would stop me.
The morning of my surgery, Ed and I reported to the hospital and were sent directly to the Nuclear Medicine department. There I was asked to lie in a state-of-the-art imaging machine that looked like a giant panini press, while a chatty doctor injected radioactive dye into my armpit. He explained he was marking my lymph nodes, to make a map for my surgeon. Everything was riding on whether the cancer had spread to my nodes, he explained, as if I weren't already acutely aware of the stakes. He chatted about Boston traffic, and poked me with the needle again and again. I lay there with my hands over my head like a bank teller in a stickup, and fantasized about head-butting him. When he finally left me with the Panini technicians to begin 40 minutes of imaging, my heart was pounding in my ears. I asked if I could listen to my music, and they agreed.
Ed dutifully fetched my headphones. "Put on my Deep Breaths playlist, please?" I asked, my arms still over my head. He cued it up, and I listened hard, trying to hold steady. I made it through "Que Sera Sera," then "Mercy Mercy Mercy" before I cracked. When "The Rain Song" came on, I cried, right there in the panini press. I was still crying when the surgical team came for me and whisked me away to my date with destiny, but I like to think that Led Zeppelin sent me off with luck on my side.
I'm still having my date with destiny. And it's a good thing I've got my Deep Breaths playlist, because the sicker I get, the more my old standbys aren't cutting it. They're the soundtrack to my old, naïve life before cancer—they sound out of place in my new reality. They were my first musical loves, and they'll be my last, but they're too dusty and poignant for me right now, and we need a break. Hard times are no time for easy listening.
There's no getting through chemo or radiation with anything middle-of-the-road. And there is nothing easy or middle-of-the-road about the flute solo on "Thick as A Brick." All my Deep Breaths playlisters make terrible background music, and that's why they're the perfect score to what I'm going through. They get it: Life is short and messy and juicy and best experienced at full volume. They're ridiculous at times, completely uncareful and totally unafraid. But mostly, they don't sound like my old life, or the uncertain future ahead, they just sound like the present. And that sounds a lot like me kicking cancer in the ass.