In a linguistics class, I learned that advanced speakers of a language will anticipate what someone is going to say before they say it a large percentage of the time. So conversation, for the most part, is boring and expected. But song lyrics are different, because logic is often abandoned in favor of poetics, so when people think they hear Elton John singing, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza,” they don’t stop to ask why.
When I shipped myself off to Spain for a semester, I was not an advanced speaker of the language. The 2-year-old in my host family understood more than I did. Her privileged position frustrated me. She was fed first, coddled, and soaking up Spanish by osmosis while my 20-year-old mind struggled to string together phrases like “I don’t like tuna fish on my pizza.”
Other students in my program were also getting lost in attempts at translation. One had gotten a charley horse in his leg while he was sitting next to his host mom and watching TV. She watched him convulse and then jerkily extend his leg and jump around the room. Once it was over, he didn’t have the Spanish word to explain, so he just sat back down. His host mom shrugged and turned her attention back to the screen.
For me, the communication barrier was made worse by the fact that January is a cold and dark month in Spain, and the air and water in my family’s home never got to a temperature that I would describe as warm. To avoid the cold, I started taking showers only when necessary and wore layers consisting of most of the clothes in my suitcase each day.
My inability to understand TV left me with a lot of spare time on my hands. I took to wandering the streets and listening to my Walkman, searching for new meanings in old songs. One gray day, U2’s “One Tree Hill” came on and the first line caught my attention: “We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill.” I wrapped my inappropriately thin sweater tighter around my body and then sat down on the nearest bench to listen to the rest of the words.
I had gone through an obsessive period with U2 a couple years earlier. I liked Bono as a lyricist and admired the fact that the band had kept its original four members for so long. I had heard that Bono wrote “One Tree Hill” after his friend died in a motorcycle accident. The song played on and another line caught my attention: “And in our world a heart of darkness, a firezone.” I had studied Heart of Darkness in my AP English class in high school. After reading a book, we used to write geeky jokes on each other’s lockers, like “Ann Marie is Mr. Kurtz’s girlfriend.” Thinking of the book made me think of all the people back home that were sound asleep in their own beds, secure in the knowledge that they would have hot showers in the morning and little chance of Spanish words creeping into their dreams. Somewhere in the midst of my nostalgia, a third line spoke to me: “Jara sang, his song a weapon, in the hands of love.” My Spanish-literature professor had talked about Victor Jara the week before. From what I could understand of the lecture, Jara was a musician in South America whose hands were cut off when he refused to stop playing his guitar as a protest. I had never understood the reference before, but the fact that I got it then lent some validity to my decision to go to Spain. And for some reason, after hearing those lines on a cold day in Spain, I had a new favorite song.
The truth is, eight years later I remembered that I had had some epiphany about the song but the details surrounding it were fuzzy, so I returned to my journal entry from that time to refresh my memory. After explaining Bono’s reason for writing the song and then my own revelations, I write, “It’s like the song has suddenly been written for me. And Bono wrote it in like 20 minutes and doesn’t even remember it! That makes it all the more divine and destinized.” Yes, “destinized.” I wish I could say this entry was an anomaly, but several of my other musings from this period also look like they were stolen from a junior-high diary. My reasons for feeling connected to the song then seem juvenile now. On some level, they don’t even make sense. AP English class and Spanish lit? Maybe I could pretend it was telling me to be an English teacher, but it doesn’t seem like the stuff of epiphanies. And what’s worse, the song and references in it are much more grave than my situation was. I mean, clearly, your friend dying, your hands being chopped off, and journeying up a river in search of a crazed man are all examples of situations that are much worse than spending a semester at the beach.
But that is a conclusion I was only able to arrive at with perspective. At the time, all that mattered to me was the fact that U2 made me feel a little less lonely during a rough time on my own. Even if my interpretation was flawed, at least I could understand the words.