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christine barcellona

New Nonfiction


by Christine Barcellona

Fact: I am too old to be a prodigy.

      I realized this while standing in a crowd at Webster Hall. When British folk singer Laura Marling first stepped onto the stage, I was struck by her fierce gaze. Angry, ethereal energy emanated from her pale face. She seemed bleached out, her platinum hair framing diamond-cut eyes. She wasn’t real, I thought, studying her white shirt, denim jacket, and the grayish jeans that looked painted onto her thin body. She had no color, no age—she was only simmering rage. She stared ahead as if her worst enemy leered from the balcony at the back of the room.
      Without seeming to notice the audience, she plowed through a few of her older songs. Laura was alone in a room full of people, on a stage crammed with instruments and her bandmates. When she began playing “Ghosts,” a song about past lovers, the crowd chimed in, and she seemed to realize for the first time that she was playing in front of more than a thousand people. She laughed through the first line or two, letting the fans carry the song. The audience quieted when she sang the chorus: “I’m still mourning over ghosts that broke my heart before I met you.” She now looked solemn, but she had become human, and aware of other humans.
      That is when I remembered that this beautiful, internationally acclaimed musician was actually one and a half months younger than me. While I attended college, she toured the world with her guitar. And she was the real deal, a talented artist, not a cheesy Disney Channel tween star whom I could write off as having connected parents or an overzealous agent. She’d been lucky, certainly, but she had enormous amounts of talent and skill, and she had engaging stories to tell.
      Though I respected Laura, however, I didn’t feel completely starstuck. I imagined that I knew her as if she were an old friend, and felt sure that the other audience members also wanted to believe that they knew her. It’s hard to listen to someone’s voice again and again on your speakers and feel like you don’t know them, especially when that person is a soft-spoke folk singer.

      Most people probably have pretended being famous when they were kids. When I was younger, I felt sure that by the time I was “old” (sixteen? eighteen? twenty-one?), I would be a universally admired artist/poet/novelist/philosopher.
      It was so easy, as a child, to look up to famous people and say, “Well, I may not be famous now, but those celebrities are much older than me. Surely, by the time I’m their age, paparazzi will stalk me and Robin Roberts will beg me for interviews on Good Morning America.”
      But as a college student in New York City, the world starts feeling more real, and true success feels both much closer and much further away. To live in close proximity to so many celebrities—artists, writers, news anchors, actors, athletes—is to realize the wide gulf between the world of your daily life and the world of theirs. And at times those worlds feel just as hard to move between as two planets in neighboring solar systems.
      Watching Laura on stage, however, I didn’t feel like she lived in a different world. I felt more like we lived in the same world and she had made more of it than I had. I felt chagrined.

Fact: You hear a sound like the shattering of dreams when you first discover that one of your idols is younger than you are.

       Luckily, the sound was masked by Laura’s soothing British accent when she paused between songs.
      “There comes a time in the evening when I admit that I’m not that good at stage banter, so I state a series of facts,” she said, her shy words sound like something one my classmates could have said. “Fact number one: This is the guitar we recorded the new album on. Fact number two: Her name is Mildred.”
      Actually, she was quite good at stage banter. As I watched her, I couldn’t stop mulling over her modesty. As much as I wanted to, once I remembered her birth date, I couldn’t stop comparing her to my friends and me. She even talked like people my age, with a kind of flirty bashfulness.

Fact: Laura Marling broke into the London folk music scene when she was sixteen.

Fact: When I was sixteen, I lived in suburban Texas, attended high school, and did nothing of note.

      As Laura continued her set, I could tell which of her songs were battle hymns—her steely balcony gaze returned.
      I wondered if she was imagining Charlie Fink standing up there. Charlie is the lead singer of Noah and the Whale, whom Laura once dated, performed and recorded with, and subsequently sung about after they split romantically and musically. When I had seen Noah and the Whale play the Bowery Ballroom a few months before, their older songs had seemed empty without Laura’s voice. Charlie had stripped some of her lines from his performance, not even trying to substitute a different singer or singing them himself. In the voiceless measures, however, Laura’s ghost had chimed in, singing her verses, echoing through the crowd’s memories if not through their eardrums. You could feel it in the empty moments, superimposed over the jingle of ukelele and guitars.
      I wondered if a phantom Charlie haunted Laura’s shows in the same way. Like the lover in one of Laura’s songs, anyone who has gone through a breakup knows what it feels like to “stare at empty chairs [and] think of the ghosts that once sat there.”
      As Laura sang, I realized that she and I were both at an age when our world starts to become populated with memories, ghosts, echoes of the past. When a person is very young, she has not collected enough experiences to feel limited or feel haunted. She can imagine any future, and the world stretches beyond the realm of comprehension. As a thirteen year old, I could not have imagined what it felt like to go to a concert in New York City, or live in the inner city, or walk along the High Line Park and feel like a slob in a sea of yuppies. But when I was thirteen, the part of my brain where memories now live once was a wide expanse of possibilities. I saw a universe without limitations because I could not imagine the possibility of limitations in the unknown world that lay before me. Every day, the wide ocean of the world narrowed and morphed into a fishtank, enclosing me in the slice of the world I chose, involuntarily or voluntarily, consciously or unconsciously. Though I had determined my own path, I still would rather not be trapped.
      As I listened to Laura sing, I realized that the world seemed smaller but also more attainable. When I was younger, I must have thought that books and movies and music was all made by invisible elves who worked out of sight on the East or West coasts. Now, I could stand in the same room as a celebrity. I could listen to an album and then go see the face behind the voice. And I could at least imagine that the singer was watching the world narrow and grow crowded the same way I am.

Fact: When I had moved to New York three years before, I was content with strolling around the city with friends, eating leisurely dinners at eclectic restaurants in the Village, and sitting in the audience of comedy clubs.

      Three years and several boyfriends later, I felt like I was constantly evading the ghosts who haunt the familiar streets. I had to be careful at the window booth of the Quantum Leap Café on Thompson Street. Wary when I pressed my forehead to the glass at the wide Filene’s Basement windows by Union Square. Cautious of the quiet stones at the New York Botanical Gardens. I didn’t want to step on one of my phantom’s toes.
      Even Webster Hall contained my own ghosts. How many former friends or former boyfriends had stood beside me, pressed close to the stage, enjoying the same music as me? I didn’t want to count, and I didn’t want to catalogue the reasons why those friends had faded away, leaving only their ghosts behind.

Fact: Over the previous year or so, I had edged toward an obsession with live music, the deafening throb of bass, the roiling mass of bodies.

      I was willing—eager—to pay thirty dollars to have my brains blown out by fortresses of amps and to have drunk men spill beer on me. Maybe it was a way to feel like a part of a group. I could stand with my shoulders pressed against the shoulders of people who shared at least one interest with me—we liked the same band. Sometimes it scared me: the roil of bodies, the shifting elbows and shoulders that jabbed me, the occasional groper who disappeared as soon as I turned around. I’d had tights torn to shreds by angry pounding feet, and once I might have crushed a girl’s foot while scrambling, fighting to stay upright by stamping my combat boots. But there’s also a joy in the sound blasting your eardrums. Living in New York City, I was used to the scream of sirens, the moan of garbage trucks, the babble of crowds. The organized, beautiful noise of concerts offsets the nightmarish sounds of the city. The dancing, joyful crowd, all with one purpose in mind and one focus, is a soothing counterbalance to the herds of Times Square or Fordham Road. And being able to dance in the crowd, in public, to songs that I’d danced to alone in the privacy of my room. What was private and personal became public, loud, screaming in concerts—and this gave me relief.
      Maybe concert going was also a defense mechanism to drown out the silences. I didn’t want to be reminded of the verses in my life that lost voices used to sing. It was easier to endure an after-concert headache and buzzing ears than to spend a quiet evening being overcome by the thoughts and quiet that follow a few years of living and loving. Or so I always thought, until I returned home and found that the ringing in my ears sounded much like the ghosts of my past that I had tried to exorcise.
      But after a few years, once you start to recognize the photographers in the press pit, once you have every exit in the venue memorized, once you’ve gone to concerts alone and with others, once you’ve staked out your on the left side of the stage night after night, once you talk to strangers before concerts and tell them this is the third time you’ve seen the band--once all of that happens, you start to see ghosts of your own as you read a book or chat between sets. You start to hear whispers from the past beneath the music and in-between songs.

      The world grew much smaller once I became an adult. The streets filled up quickly with ghosts.
      I watched Laura and wondered what she saw. Her gaze remained fixed on the balcony.
      I wondered if she’d performed at Webster Hall before. I wondered if she’d performed there as part of Noah and the Whale. I wondered if Laura had stood toward the side of the stage and watched Charlie Fink sing while Laura thought her thoughts. I wondered if she’d once seen Charlie Fink stage at the same spot on the stage where she now stood.
       Laura continued to stare up at the balcony as if transfixed. When I peered around to look at the balcony, no one stood out in the shadowy crowd. Even if Charlie’s specter was not visible, he must have been present in Laura’s mind as she began to sing “Blackberry Stone.” Her feathery voice grew gentle during some parts of the song, as if explaining what went wrong for the thousandth time, that “you never did learn to let the little things go, and you never did learn to let me be” and “I am Laura now and Laura still.”
      I felt as though I was listening to a private conversation between a conjuration of memory and someone not unlike myself.
      "I'd be sad that I never held your hand as you were lowered, but I'd understand that I'd never let it go,” Laura sang. I knew it was a reference to “Hold My Hand As I’m Lowered,” a song from Noah and the Whale’s album Peaceful the World Lays Me Down. The band released the album after Laura went solo, but it is laced with her vocals. “Hold my hand as I'm lowered, and please don't see me as a coward,” Charlie begs in the song. “I fell in love with the world in you,” he sings.

      Conversations that occur between past and future, heard by many but intended for only one person, flood the airwaves. Though private discussions become public and the world shrinks, imagination doesn’t vanish with the passing years. It changes. Once-imaginary scenarios grow more grounded, more real as the world solidifies and becomes more familiar. The songs you hear start to sound familiar, as if you’d written them yourself, about your own ghosts. And whether you sing along in your room, in your car, or at Webster Hall, you feel the words and process them not just as art but also as your own words.

      Later, Laura opened the floor to the band. She explained that she always wanted the band to chime in, but they told her backstage that she never gave them the floor. That’s why she wanted to introduce them and let them say a few words. The band sounded off facts about the history of Webster Hall, punctuating their lesson with awkward chuckles and nervous smiles.

Fact: Webster Hall was built in 1886.

Fact: Constructed in the Queen Anne style, Webster Hall is the first modern nightclub.

Fact: In the early part of the twentieth century, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp used to hang out in Webster Hall.

      It was a nerdy moment, but it made me speculate about what other ghosts lurked in the corners of the club. I had read that everyone from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to The Pretenders and U2 had recorded or performed there. I wondered if you could hear whispers, echoes in the hall when it is silent and the crowd is gone. Is it haunted during the empty daytime hours?
      One of the reasons I wanted to move to New York in the first place was the history. The ghosts of my idols. I remember walking down Macdougal Street in the Village shortly after moving to New York, trying to imagine what it had looked like the first time Bob Dylan saw the street. I breathed the air and felt the pavement under my thin soles and wondered who else had stepped on that same slab of pavement. It wasn’t hard to imagine that every contemporary or postmodern artist, musician, or writer who I admired had once stepped on the same slab of cement, looked up and down the street, and thought their thoughts while passing by. I could feel the ghosts of my heroes particularly strongly in the Village, where old New York had been. The roofs were lower and the storefronts looked ripped from a Hopper painting. The unknown ghosts of the neighborhood, of the past, felt like my friends.
      Webster Hall, located close to Grace Church, where Newland Archer is married in Wharton’s Age of Innocence, represented much of the charm and artistic wonder of the Village for me, especially when I saw performances like Laura Marling’s.

      Whether it was to ward off ghosts or because she felt like a stranger in a strange land, Laura made a point of conversing with the audience throughout the show.
      “I never feel more English than I do in New York,” she said. She told her stories about unsettling people she had encountered in the city. She explained that she often told her own stories, but had once been one-upped by a tour manager who once witnessed a homeless person throwing a rat at a window. She said she did not have a tale to beat that.
      Every New Yorker has similar stories. A sense of wonder and bafflement is strong and heavy in New York City. You learn never to be fazed, whether you witness a man throwing a rat at a window, a woman grocery-shopping topless, or a dog covered in temporary tattoos. It’s a city of wonder, but also a city of fear. Screaming subway cars, outerborough junkyards, dead chickens on the pavement. Anything can happen in New York, and probably has, but “anything” includes the good and the bad.

      Maybe strange New York stories were on Laura’s mind because it was the last night of her tour, and she would be returning home soon. She explained that they “don’t consider ourselves rock and roll enough to do an encore,” two songs before the end of the set. “If you want, you can pretend that was our last song, and the next two songs are our encore,” Laura said, a note of apology in her voice. She was as good as her word—no encore.
      As she left the stage, I marveled at how she had become more than a voice in my headphones, more than a supernatural angry singer on stage, performing songs that may be about her private life or may be fictional. She shrunk into someone like me, an ordinary person, when she proved that she could headline a show, but still not even think she was enough of a star to deserve an encore.
      She would return to England and continue her life of magazine interviews, shows at midsized, hip venues, recording sessions. I would go back to the Bronx and work on becoming someone, knowing all too well that that someone could never be a young prodigy. Though I had hardly conceived of it before, I already felt weighed down with the additional limitation of never being a virtuoso. By the time I reached the subway, the thought had woven itself into my conception of the world as if it had always been there. But the world had also grown a little smaller, more familiar. I knew that someone about my age in England was also afraid—or at least aware—of her personal ghosts, watching the wide world narrow to become her own small sphere.

Christine Barcellona studied English and creative writing at Fordham University. She grew up in Texas, and now lives in New York City and works in publishing.

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