When You Leave, You Become Lore is not the first song I ever wrote. But it’s a song I wrote before writing songs was a thing I did and the sort of thing I stumbled upon with little intention and purpose.
The song is not about anything. Despite its heavy-handed title, When You Leave, You Become Lore was not written for any specific reason, circumstance or human. It was written around a C-chord, a chord I’m indifferent toward. I don’t have any specific recollection writing it. At my best, I just exist and in my existence, When You Leave, You Become Lore exists and so, two years later, it and I exist together.
So while I never think about my “music” in terms of “good” or “bad”, the songs I write feel like the songs I’m supposed to write. Which matters. When You Leave, You Become Lore is everything I’m supposed to create. If my destiny is to write shitty songs, they’re supposed to sound shitty like When You Leave, You Become Lore. And so, at the end of the day, it just is.
So I play When You Leave, You Become Lore a lot. I joined a songwriting group before writing songs was a thing I did and I nervously stumbled through my insecurities and lack of talent and sang When You Leave, You Become Lore. I performed it at my first open mic. At another open mic at a place called Gypsy Sally’s. There were other songs I played. A song called A Pressure to Be Graceful. A song called Sound of Surrendering. But I’ve lived a lot of life with that song and When You Leave, You Become Lore feels like my best because it keeps finding ways to define and describe my life and the things I desire.
Unlike the time when I wrote When You Leave, You Become Lore, I’m objectively not shit at the guitar anymore. I can pick up a guitar and play and not feel like I have to apologize. I don’t write paragraphs anymore but I play the guitar and while I’m better at writing paragraphs, I like practicing. I like getting better. It’s a progress no one really witnesses and no one really celebrates. But I do. I could stop typing and play the guitar and feel great about it.
So I played in public Saturday. Alone with my own thoughts along side Brooklyn’s East River. On rocks three feet from the water, drinking coffee from a Mason jar I’d cold-brewed the night before. I wore bright orange glasses and maroon dress shoes. I looked the part. Everyone looked the part in their way, silently affirming each other’s space and together, the composite portrait of isolated reflections of New York City.
I play full songs and I go fishing for new ones. Plucking familiar chords and looking for new ones. They’re unassuming songs, fingerpicked and lightly-sung. I start playing When You Leave, You Become Lore. And I just play it a little louder.
I don’t turn around. It’s a kid. I keep playing.
I smile. Indeed, something like that.
His chatter was joined by another, a girl, a friend. Their chatter mingles with When You Leave, You Become Lore and I drift between my notes and their conversation, through a whisper.
“What if we fall into the river and live their forever? We’ll never see our parents again.” It was the girl’s voice
I kept playing but only because I’ve played When You Leave, You Become Lore a dozen times. I’m all in their conversation now. Typically, I don’t talk to kids because I’m a “stranger”. And if kids don’t understand they’re not supposed to talk to me, I leave them alone. But I turned around. But this question was so good.
There’s a song I love. That’s defined the time I’ve written songs called Neighborhood #1 I (Tunnels) by the Arcade Fire. And Arcade Fire writes songs to capture that thought and I write songs to capture that world and we fail and this girl said it right.
“We like your music, sir.” The boys voice.
His name was Max, perfectly capturing everything a Max ought to be, roundfaced and curious and rambuciously innocent. A black girl with similar skin color to mine, twisty hair, thoughtful. She belonged in an 80s NBC sitcom. Her name was Rose. “Like the flower,” she explained. Following behind were Max’s mother and father, keeping eye on the two friends.
I stopped playing and asked them if they played guitar. Rose said no. Max said yes. So I told him to sit on the guitar case and let him take over. He wasted no time. His fingers strummed through the strings like a frenetic rake clearing fall leaves.
“This is my song!” He explained over his mother’s warning to be nice to the instrument. I unscrewed my mason jar, took a drink and listened.
I asked him what his song was about. He played softer.
“….I’m not sure.”
Of course we wasn’t sure. What a stupid, fucking question. It’s stupid for Arcade Fire. It’s stupid for me. It’s stupid for Max.
Max started talking to me about other things. He’d eaten ice cream for two straight days, he explain. “And at Rose’s party, I’m going to get more!” His favorite flavor was chocolate and vanilla.
He asked me about the guitar case and I opened it for him. Upon feeling the felt he immediately hopped inside. His mother told him to be careful, paused, and then told him to stay still. She needed a picture.
Max liked the Ramones. I joined him singing, “Hey. Ho. Let’s Go.” He started whispering, “I want to be sedated….”
“I want to be sedated!” I exclaimed, eyes amused.
“I want to be Sir David.” The mom clarified.
“I want to be Sir David!” I humorously repeated. Indeed.
“Teach us how to play your song.” Rose asked.
I’d given the guitar to Rose. She approached the guitar with more hesitation, yet her mind stayed equally focused.
I laughed. I wasn’t teaching a six year old a song called When You Leave, You Become Lore.
I asked her what songs she knew. I tried to think of kids songs and the only one I knew was “Where is thumpkin, where is thumpkin?”
“NO. Teach us how to play YOUR song.”
I balked and the mother laughed. The song is infinitely teachable. But in the previous moment before they came, it felt like a heartbreak song. Not a song for a six-year-old on her way to chocolate and vanilla ice cream.
I asked her what songs she knew. Something called Heroes. The ABCs. The father told Rose she liked a song and didn’t remember what it was. He reluctantly fumbled through the top-40 drivel, “Shut up and dance….or something”. I filled in the blanks.
SHUTUPANDDANCEWITHME. She joined in.
The only song I know that I didn’t write is Zombie by the Cranberries. But I fished for some chords and we meandered through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. An equally good choice. That C-chord came in handy.
No one would argue that I’m good with kids. Because I don’t really know any. And many people would argue that I’m not good with people, especially the ones I care about. And I’m not terribly good at life. Or compliments. But the one thing I can say is that I’m good with music. I’m conscious of its essentialness and constantly finding ways to embrace it.
Whether it’s the Ramones or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or When You Leave, You Become Lore, I think that it matters and I like to talk about it, whether it’s online for a concert or with a six-year-old in my guitar case, I can’t hide my excitement for it behind sunglasses or Mason jars or adulthood or whatever. I can’t not let music be a thing that defines my life because I don’t have anything else in its place.
And the older I get and the more times I listen to Tunnels or playing When You Leave, You Become Lore or whatever, music does feel like an isolated thing. That there’s so much history and experiences behind a certain song, there aren’t the chances to let people understand what music can mean and what it’s meant to me. Which sucks. Because the only thing in life I’m really comfortable saying about myself in a positive way is becoming a thing understood and appreciated and celebrated alone. Which sucks.
Which is why I’m really grateful to Max and Rose. I don’t like the Ramones but I’ve lived loving a band called School of Seven Bells for years. One half of the duo died of cancer. Their last song together was a Ramones’ cover. I Get Knocked Down But I Get Up. I don’t know the Ramones. Max does. He doesn’t know School of Seven Bells. I do. And I’m old enough to know what that all means and I love it and that shit gets me so fucking hyped.
People ask me what When You Leave, You Become Lore is about and I don’t have an answer. They’re really asking, who is it written about and who was it written for? Those aren’t the right questions. The better question is, “When do you love the song, When You Leave, You Become Lore?”
The song really captures my whole life. And that could be a shitty life and it musically objectively could be entirely shitty, or worse, forgettable, but there’s no version of my life that exists without When You Leave, You Become Lore sounding entirely okay.
I spent my whole 15 minutes with Rose and Max trying to figure out a way to not annoy their parents. To make sure they could go on to whatever it is they were doing as quickly as possible, nothing there’s nothing really about me they’d really be better off knowing or experiencing. Which is how I treat everyone. Except when we got to talk about music. I’m good for that. And it’s just another reason I’m grateful to have When You Leave, You Become Lore. Because they liked my song. It wouldn’t a song worth having if it wasn’t a song Max and Rose could like. And I knew when I met them they’d be a story I’d want to tell for a long time. It’s a sad realization and it’s a beautiful one too.
When You Leave, You Become Lore isn’t about Max and Rose. It’s about me. It’s about the moments I disconnect from the people and places that kill my cynicism and in three and a half minutes celebrate those things in a way that feels honest and feels true, even though they’ll all never know what it means. That what makes music the best, even when I write it or not is that it does all the work, says enough, matters enough. Like love and friendship and community, the C-chord does enough if you let it.