I have dedicated much of my life to music—to the rituals that surround it, to the powerful feelings it invokes in hearts and brains and bodies large and small, in empathetic deep-thinkers and total dickheads alike. Whether in concert or via tastefully appointed home stereo systems, I have witnessed friends, enemies, longtime confidantes, and total strangers thrill to the singular alchemy of, say, Vampire Weekend or Ke$ha or Odd Future or They Might Be Giants or Jay Z or Erykah Badu or Dolly Parton or the Get-Up Kids or Bobby "Blue" Bland or several unrelated Doors cover bands, all with their distinct capacities to inspire joy, sadness, rage, lust, confusion, nausea, derision, transcendence, indifference. I love watching people listen to music almost as much as I love listening to it myself—I am fascinated by how they react, what lessons they draw, what psychological heights or depths they are capable of reaching in the space of a single song.
Let me tell you about one specific song, and one specific listener. On an otherwise anonymous night in the late 'aughts, I found myself in the living room of a jovially filthy San Francisco apartment lodging several young media lions equally conversant in Harper's and Mad magazines, Tom Petty and John Coltrane, burritos and burrata. That night we spoke passionately of Dave Eggers, or Halo 2, or Vivaldi, or A's baseball, or all of the above and more—like the famed salons of Paris, except here everyone was drinking Tecate. Tommy was among that night's throng, resplendent in his beloved Jason Richardson jersey (his favorite player), as always the most vivacious and optimistic of us all, but he was abruptly silenced when, without warning, someone put an unexpected CD in the laptop that doubled as the home sound system.
Even now I can picture Tommy's face, the rapturous grin that spread across it, the tears that welled up instantly in his eyes, his convulsions as he shook with an almost primal mirth. He was giggling. Loudly and uncontrollably. Like a busful of third-graders. And he couldn't stop, or wouldn't, or at least didn't. So everyone just watched him giggle, with amusement and awe and mounting discomfort. This went on for, like, 10 minutes. I'm pretty sure we just put the song on repeat.
This was the happiest I'd ever seen him, and, in truth, the happiest I'd ever seen anyone before or since, the most complete and profound spiritual connection I'd ever seen a human being make with a piece of art. I knew then that Tommy was a rare sort, a refined and transformative cultural figure, capable of tapping into and outwardly conveying wells of emotion like no scholar or aesthete before him. I vowed at that moment to follow him anywhere, as indeed I have, and indeed I will. This was the guy. He would teach us a new way to listen. He would teach us a new way to write. He would teach us a new way to feel.
This was the song.
Photo from Everett Collection / Shutterstock