So there’s this band called School of Seven Bells. This past January I went to see them play at Music Hall of Williamsburg. I went by myself. I went by myself because, as far as I was concerned, School of Seven Bells was making music for me and me alone. Why temper my concert-going experience with the fear that the friend I dragged along wasn’t sufficiently “getting it”?
I wouldn’t say it was a perfect show. The sound mix wasn’t quite right, and I quibbled a bit with the setlist. But I think I was also mildly disappointed to see all of those other people in the audience. Of course that sounds absurd. I want ALL of the artists I love to be fabulously wealthy and own castles and yachts. But I think there was a tiny part of me that hoped I’d be the only to show up—I would walk in the empty concert hall and the band, far from dejected, would be relieved that their unwitting muse had finally arrived. “Thank god you’re here,” they’d say. “We can start now.” After all, School of Seven Bells had written and recorded all of this music solely with me in mind, right?
That’s how it is with a band you love: you feel a sense of ownership. Most of the time it’s a cheap “I knew them way back when” feeling. Other times it’s based on some sort of lyrical synchronicity (“Hey, I’m a brown-eyed girl too!”).
Rarest of all, and therefore most precious, is when you stumble upon a band whose music sounds like what you’re already thinking and feeling. A certain chord progression. A particular harmony part. A guitar sound. For whatever reason, it hits the ear and everything inside you yells, “YES, EXACTLY!” You may not even believe they’re the world’s greatest band. You just know that they’re your band.
Less than two weeks after the Music Hall of Williamsburg show, guitarist and co-songwriter Benjamin Curtis announced that he had a rare form of bone cancer. Despite initial word it was treatable, the situation quickly spiraled and he passed away yesterday.
I’m not 100% sure why I’m writing this. Benjamin Curtis was by all accounts a great dude, but it’s not as if I knew him personally. And to be frank, I’ve always believed it’s in poor taste to over-mourn the passing of a stranger. It makes a mockery of the genuine grief felt by friends, family and loved ones.
If I’m being truly honest, what I’m feeling is self-pity. I’m gut-punched at the prospect of there never being another School of Seven Bells album. Both with SSB and his former band, Secret Machines, Curtis’ epic scope and ear for off-kilter chords spoke to the wispiest corners of my musical id. Co-songwriter Alejandra Deheza will continue to make fantastic music—she has a true gift for melody and harmony. It just probably won’t be music solely and explicitly for me.
When someone passes away, we all remind ourselves to hold loved ones close. After all, you never know when someone could be gone forever. Of course this is true. But it may not also be a bad idea to, every once in a while, take stock of the stuff you love—the movies, the comedy specials, the pieces of art. And more than just the stuff you enjoy, take inventory of the artists whose work speaks directly, almost intimately, to you. As we enter the new year, take a moment to thank them for giving you a vague sense of who you are.
In that spirit, I’d like to thank Benjamin Curtis, Alejandra Dehaza, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Alfonso Cuaron, John Davis, Alexander Payne, Alison Goldfrapp, Wallace Shawn, Paul Westerberg, Sandy Skoglund, Peter Gabriel, Nick Hornby, Louis CK, Gillian Welch, Paul Buchanan, Matthew Caws, Jack Black & Kyle Gass, Glen Hansard, Cameron Crowe, Katherine Dunn and at least a hundred more.