It was 1983, and I was working nights as a computer operator for a Credit Union in Racine. It was the end of the month, and I had to run the jobs that created the monthly statements and babysit the printer. It was essentially several hours of sitting around alone making sure nothing failed or broke and that we had enough paper in the printer.
I’d been married for two years, and was going to school in the days. The big economic recovery of the 1980s was still a year away and the country was still in the throes of a great recession, with both interest and unemployment rates in the double digits. My wife and I were both working part time jobs, the only jobs we could find, scratching out a living. The outlook seemed grim.
The night was moving at a snail’s pace. I’d brought a book with me but didn’t feel like reading. At 1:00 A.M. , I was sitting alone in my boss’s office with his old clock radio tuned in to an oldies station, tired and bored, feeling depressed and defeated, when, from out of the radio, came a strange little voice singing:Dum dum dum dumdy- do ah Whoa, yeah, yeah, yeah-yaa Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa-oow, ah-ah Only the lonely. Only the lonely.
I’d just started thinking, what is this crap, when the music stopped, and another voice, pure and clean and strong, cut through the cheap radio speaker and sang:Only the lonely Know the way I feel tonight Only the lonely Know this feeling ain’t right
It was, of course, the great Roy Orbison. At the time, I didn’t know that, I didn’t know anything about Roy Orbison. Whoever it was, I was amazed at how good that voice sounded through the tinny speaker of the clock radio. More than that, I was stunned at how perfectly and eloquently that voice and those simple lyrics expressed exactly what I was feeling at that precise moment, and as I looked around, the building didn’t seem quite as empty and the night didn’t seem as dark. I was still alone, but no longer by myself. Someone else knew the way I was feeling, and that that feeling ain’t right.
A few minutes later, the radio played the old Eric Burdon and the Animals Song “It’s My Life”, with the opening lyrics:It’s a hard world to get a break in All the good things have been taken
I was familiar with this one, and I’d always admired the lyrics, but they really resonated, they really spoke to me that night. It was as if Roy Orbison and Eric Burdon had been in my head, and were playing back what they’d heard me thinking. I suspect that for a brief time, the clock radio was tuned to a frequency that only I could hear, and that Roy and Eric were speaking directly to me.
That was nearly thirty years ago, but those songs and that clock radio remain stamped in my memory. This is, I think, what art is all about. It’s about reflection and recognition. When art, in whatever form, connects with us, it’s an intensely personal experience. It holds a mirror up to our soul, and enables us to see our shared humanity, our common experience, our joy and pain, our love and despair, and beauty and truth. Most importantly, it lets us know that we are not alone.
When we connect with art, we connect with the artist, and a relationship is made. That night Roy and Eric picked me up when I was down, and though we’ve never met, we’ve remained good friends ever since.