When Your Life Starts To Unravel, Sometimes You Have To Let It Happen

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Ezra Ellenberg

March 11th. I don’t remember how I started the day, but I finished it in my bedroom at 191 Graham, kinda drunk, kinda stoned. Scrolling through my News Feed, a friend’s status flashed past: “Everyone shut the fuck up there’s a new Tame Impala song.” Six shows in the last 12 months puts me somewhere between fanboy and belieber for Kevin Parker’s central project. I smiled dumbly, strapped on my headphones, clicked the link, and melted into my pillows.

I was already three months into an incredibly difficult year. My girlfriend, Emily, had been given a grim prognosis in December from an earlier bout of cancer and I was struggling to stay afloat – socially, at work, and in my own head. Anyone who identifies strongly with a certain artist could probably understand my anticipation – I had been scanning the web for months, reading every interview for hints about the new album, set to debut in July after a delay earlier in the year. All signs seemed to point towards a significant shift in Kevin’s sound – from guitar-heavy psych-rock washed in reverb to a more diverse set of songs pulling from R&B, disco, and a more Pop-oriented aesthetic. Kevin himself, deeply involved with actually making the album, would only say that he thought it was the most musically diverse release to date. I was a bit concerned (my dad, though not an insufferable “rockist,” did raise me on a steady dose of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Santana.) The song started playing.

She consistently lifted me out of devastation and emotional ruin when it should’ve been the other way around.

Sonically, Let It Happen is a masterpiece, a synesthetic symphony. After a hauntingly beautiful first three minutes featuring an array of melodic synths, his signature Lennon-esque falsetto, and crisp, thoughtful drum fills, he pushes the looper button and doesn’t let go. At first blush, you might think it a gimmick, but after a few repetitions, the head starts nodding reflexively, trapped in a trance until he snaps his fingers and suddenly you’re careening out the other end of a wormhole into uncharted territory.

But what struck me most about the song was the honesty and vulnerability of the lyrics, and the somber tone of his voice. As you can imagine, ‘Let It Happen’ is about allowing the world to come to you, not struggling so hard against natural progressions. Parker put it this way in an interview with NME:

It’s about chaos – the whirlwinds of life that have always seemed too intense for you,” he explains. You put your fingers in your ears and you close your eyes to shut them out, because you’ve always tried to control who you are, control the world that you’re in, but it comes to a point when it takes more energy to block it out than to allow it to wash through you.

beetlejuice

I think the hardest part of watching my girlfriend’s health degrade this year has been accepting radically new realities very quickly. I was caught in a riptide and every time I thought I had re-stabilized from a tough update, another wave would pin me. I just couldn’t stay out in front of it.

Much to her credit, Emily was so much better at this than me. I would jokingly call her a freak. Within hours of receiving news that would send many sprawling, she would call me and seem genuinely steady. “Are you ok babe?” I’d ask her. And without fail, she would say, “Yeah, I mean, it sucks, but everyone can only deal with what’s given to them. And this is what’s on my plate, so I just need to do this. I don’t think I’m special.” I would just shake my head in awe of her. She consistently lifted me out of devastation and emotional ruin when it should’ve been the other way around. “Okay,” I’d respond “but you don’t know how wrong you are. Not many people could do what you’re doing.”

beetlejuice

Being the junky that I am, I sent Emily the song the following morning. I thought she might have become sensitized to my Tame Impala propaganda, but much to my delight, it grew on her quickly. When I visited, we’d listen in the car on the way to lunch or lounging in bed. The message resonated powerfully with both of us, but she embodied the themes while I struggled to do the same. At first, when the chaos came, my first instinct was to deny it, or try to contain it in a tiny box that I’d hold shut, separate from myself entirely. But after a while, I realized that one way or another, the horror of what was happening was going to catch up to me. Emily, her family, friends, and I were all at the whim of a force completely out of our control. The only thing we could do was let it wash over us, get back up, and make the most of the time we had.

The irony is that it takes an immense amount of energy, pain, and mental effort to let things happen, to be capable of absorbing new situations, nodding, but never bowing to them, a concept that is reflected in Kevin Parker’s creative process. He created Currents from scratch on his own, playing every instrument, recording every take, and mixing it once the raw materials were in order. The opening track epitomizes the contrast that makes Kevin’s music so special to me. For all its wavy glory, ‘Let It Happen’ is a meticulously constructed piece of music. But when the vocals come back in around the 5:30 mark, it sounds as though he is speaking gibberish. And he is.

A lot of my vocals are the first takes. So much is that true, that on the first song [on Currents], “Let It Happen,” there’s this part at the end where I’m singing through this keyboard sampler thing, almost like a vocoder but not really. And the first take I did, I was just singing gibberish and making sounds with my mouth just to test it out. And I didn’t even know what I was saying. I was saying words and stringing sentences together that weren’t really words. I do that a lot when I’m demoing and fleshing out ideas, because I’ve got the emotion in me, but I haven’t turned it into words yet. So I was just doing that, and then I left that for months and months, always planning to go back and re-record it with real lyrics. And I only did it a few days ago, a week before mastering. I’m totally contradicting what I said before, but I couldn’t get back the same groove I did when I was speaking in tongues. So I had to make the decision, like, ‘Fuck it. I’ll just leave the speaking in tongues version on the album.’ It will never make sense, but the song is called “Let It Happen,” and it’s about allowing what is overtaking you to take control.

There’s no doubt that it took a lot for Parker to get to this place as an artist. This dichotomy struck a chord with me through the past year – all this effort and obsessing over something so complex, and in the end, you kind of just have to say “fuck it” and let things be as they must.

beetlejuice

Throughout this process, my support system was spectacular. My friends, coworkers, family, and therapist all played massive roles in getting me through this. But I can honestly say that nothing gave me more comfort or relief than closing my eyes and allowing this song to take me wherever I needed to go. Experiencing it wholly with the people around me, people who’ve known me for most or all of my life, made it too real, too visceral, too painful. How can I look into a family member’s eyes and tell them each devastating update, over and over, sense their empathy, and experience the pain all over again? This song allowed me to keep it at a level of abstraction while maintaining the thematic and emotional richness that the experience so obviously necessitated.

beetlejuice

After fighting the disease for a little under a year, the cancer stopped responding to treatment entirely in mid-November. Scans taken on a scheduled trip to her cancer center in Houston showed new tumors growing on her vertebrae, crushing her spinal column. In the initial fracas, the doctors rushed her to the emergency room. They were concerned that unless they were removed, the tumors would paralyze her imminently. She called me from her hospital bed while I was at work and explained the situation. It was another body blow, for sure, but she was scared, so I did my best to slow things down and think about it rationally. A few hours passed, things died down, and we were able to re-evaluate: the surgery would be an extreme measure that, at best, could give her a few more weeks of walking.

Emily made the tough, but correct decision to stop medical treatment, return home to Baton Rouge, and begin hospice care.

But during rehab, she would be unable to receive any kind of treatment on the other tumors, not to mention the tax that such a rigorous surgery would put on her already-drained body. After consulting with her team of oncologists and surgeons, it became obvious that choosing surgery would be a mistake. The operation provided minimal reward and a ton of risk.

Emily made the tough, but correct decision to stop medical treatment, return home to Baton Rouge, and begin hospice care. I visited her in late November. Though her ability to walk dissipated during that week, she was steadfast in her will to live. Each morning, she would put on her makeup and wig, and challenge herself to get outside, do a puzzle, and read. She was also tasked with planning the Christmas celebration and gift exchange for the family. I remember sitting on the couch with her while she fussed over thinking of the perfect thing for her secret Santa recipient.

“Em, what do you want for Christmas?” I asked.

“I really just want another tattoo… so how about some money?”

“Ha, alright. What do you want to get though?”

“Well I’m thinking of getting a blue whale on my right shoulder blade with ‘Let It Happen’ in script underneath.”

What a woman.

It was especially difficult to say goodbye on that trip. We hugged each other through faces full of tears and her brother-in-law drove me to the airport.

Everything held steady for the next couple weeks. I went back to work, Emily’s pain was under control, and it seemed like life had stabilized, on a lower plateau, but level nonetheless.

beetlejuice

On Sunday, December 6th, I sat down to an early dinner with my family, somewhere around 5 p.m.. It was a lazy, tired Sunday. The sun was already down, and no one felt like cooking, so we ordered falafel platters from Taim. My uncle was in town, my sister and her boyfriend showed up, and I was in a pretty great mood. At 5:38 p.m., Emily’s mother texted me: “Please call when you can.” My heart plunged. I swallowed hard. “No, I can finish dinner, it’s probably something minor,” I lied to myself. “Fuck.” I excused myself quietly from the table and tapped the telephone symbol. The only person who has approached Emily’s level of fortitude in the last 13 months is her mother, who is now sobbing on the other end of the line:

“Hey, Ezra?”

“Yes?” I respond, my voice already in a quiver.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this over the phone, but Em has slipped into a coma.”

A few seconds pass. My head spins, my mouth fails to open.

“The nurses don’t think she’s going to come out of it.”

I manage to choke out a few words before breaking down: “I’m so sorry Mary-Katherine.”

The T.V. room in my parent’s home sits between my former bedroom and the dining room, which veers left towards the kitchen, where my family is currently sitting, completely unaware. In complete shock, I take one step into my bedroom. “No, don’t try to do this alone,” I tell myself. I turn around and head into the kitchen. My sister’s boyfriend is the first to catch my eye. I watch his lips curl downwards. Everyone turns. “Emily’s in a coma, they don’t think she’ll come out of it.” My mother wraps her arms around me and every ounce of strength I have in me leaves, immediately. My knees and hips give out, I tilt backwards and nearly smash my head on the kitchen island. My mother pulls my weight up and leans me down in her chair. I completely unravel. After 20 minutes, I start to take form again. I walk like a zombie to the couch and turn on the television, unable to confront the situation as it stands. For all the progress I’d made with acceptance, this felt like something far too cruel. In one second, it seemed she was gone.

A couple of hours later, my phone lights up: Mary-Katherine Callway. I can’t deal with any more bad news, but fuck it. I pick up the phone. “Em is back. She’s awake!” Holy shit. Mary-Katherine gives the phone to Emily. We talk for a bit. She’s confused. She doesn’t understand why people are in her room, watching her sleep. She insists she’s fine. We try to explain that she was not just asleep, but unconscious. We spare her the details, but the reality is that her body is shutting down, and she will not last much longer. They put me on speakerphone.

Mary-Katherine begins: “We were trying everything we could to bring her out of it. We were talking to her and just tellin’ her how much we loved her. We even started playing whale sounds.” Emily was an environmental science major at school and did her thesis on the presence of culture in communities of orcas. “Then we played that song she loves. Dan, what’s that song?” Mary-Katherine asks her son.

“That Tame Impala song, Let It Happen.”

beetlejuice

One of my favorite memories of Emily came every Sunday afternoon. After a night of a few too many drinks, she’d smack me gently on the ass around 9:30 and remind me I had to get out of bed and get to work. I assistant teach at a Sunday School in child care on W. 4th street in downtown Manhattan. We would struggle to the Montrose L stop, stopping at Bread Brothers for a bagel and coffee if there was time, and ride into the city.

After getting out at 14th street, we’d walk briskly south, weave towards 5th avenue, and pass through the arch on the north side of Washington Square Park. That’s where I would give her a kiss and leave her for a couple of hours while I went to work. After work ended, I’d emerge into the sunlight and cross the street back towards the park. I’d always see her before she saw me; I don’t think she ever knew that. She’d usually be sitting on a bench, completely absorbed by the pianist who plays there on Sunday afternoons, her blond hair flowing in the breeze, blue-green eyes shining speckled in the sunlight.

beetlejuice

Emily, still dazed and not quite in it, starts speaking: “Yeah, I was in a dream. We were in the park and I was waiting for you to get out of Sunday school, and “Let It Happen” started playing. You had your back towards me and you were walking away and I was calling your name, but you couldn’t hear me. And then the music stopped and you turned around and looked at me. And then I woke up.”

I would consider myself agnostic at this point in my life, but I am a very spiritual person. I’m not saying that the music had any kind of causal role, or that the spirit of God came down and woke Emily from her coma, but the sequence of events is undeniable. Here’s this song that meant so much to me through the past year, that helped me accept the unacceptable, unfair things that bludgeoned me, one after the other. And I was just lying on my parents couch, thinking it was all over and I’d never get to say goodbye to my girlfriend. And then I get a call telling me that she’s back, and awake.

This song, it brought her back from the brink. It opened a channel for us, so that I could tell her I loved her one last time, so that I could hear her voice and tell her not to worry. As soon as she told me about that dream, the image crystallized and I was there with her in that park. It would be dishonest of me to say that this made everything ok, but it gave me a sense of finality and sewed the seeds for closure. I fear for what state I’d be in if that didn’t happen.

beetlejuice

After her brief moment of clarity Sunday night, Emily was in and out of consciousness for most of the following week. She slept most of the day and experienced minimal pain, but her body was shutting down – pulse and heart rate dropping, body temperature slowly cooling.

The universe is prescient; it gives gifts to your mind around times of death.

I tried staying home from work Monday, but that did not work at all, so I forced myself to come in for the rest of the week. On Thursday, I found myself going back through old interviews of Parker from around the time the album was released. I found one from Under The Radar that I’d never seen before. I went through it slowly and finally got to the interviewer’s last question:

Do you have any particular expectations for how this album will be received?

There are a few times in making an album where I’m in a really kind of emotional state, and it’s very intense to me. If that happens to someone else anywhere around the world, then I’ve succeeded. And if it happens to more people, then that’s even better. While I’m making an album I do like to just think about this one person that is experiencing it in a really strong way. That’s what motivates me to finish it. “You’ve got to get this out there, because this person, who is unnamed and without an identity, is waiting for it.” I guess [that person] is me in a parallel universe. There’s not much quite like it.

No, Kevin, there’s absolutely nothing like it. I can tell by your attitude, by the care with which you make your music that it comes from some other realm. I may never meet you, you may never know who I am, but our lives have played out in parallel and your art has done more for me than I can express. I am still completely dumbfounded by the last 12 hours of my girlfriend’s conscious life. I have no idea what happened, but it has given me peace and it has allowed me to let go.

My girlfriend, Emily Jane Callaway, died early in the morning on Saturday, December 12th. She was 23 years old. The universe is prescient; it gives gifts to your mind around times of death.

Song:

Lyrics:

It’s always around me, all this noise
But not nearly as loud as the voice saying
Let it happen, let it happen (It’s gonna feel so good)
Just let it happen, let it happen

All this running around
Trying to cover my shadow
An ocean growing inside
And All the others seem shallow
All this running around
Bearing down on my shoulders
I can hear an alarm
Must be morning

I heard about a whirlwind that’s comin ’round
It’s gonna carry off all that isn’t bound
And when it happens, when it happens (I’ll be holding on)
So let it happen, let it happen

All this running around
I can’t fight it much longer
Something’s trying to get out
And it’s never been closer
If my ticker fails
Make up some other story
And if I never come back
Tell my mother I’m sorry

I will not vanish, you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to bounce to it
All the while thinking I might as well do it
Any other woman and I wouldn’t dare it
Take the next ticket to take the next train
Why would I do it? And you weren’t thinkin that
[x4]

Maybe I was ready all along
Maybe I was ready all along
Maybe I was ready all along
Maybe I was ready all along TC mark

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