lonely arts club band
cultural picks for late night
“The neons and the cigarettes”
When I arrived at Brown University three years ago, I didn’t have friends. I mean, I’d had friends —past tense—but here, immured in the red brick walls of a main green, under the skyline of an alien city, I felt completely and utterly alone. Sure, there were plenty of orientation events designed to get me to go out and actually meet people, but, cynically, I eschewed those functions on the pretext that they were superficial and vapid. Which…was probably true, but it didn’t make the decision to hang back in my room any less ill-advised.
“Rented shoes and rented cars”
In those first few months of social flailing, I only did one thing right. A girl in my hall had posted a collection of music recommendations on a whiteboard outside her room. A complete sucker for people with moderately artsy music taste, I slid a note under her door hoping it’d net me what all those orientation gatherings couldn’t: a friend. Somehow, this uncharacteristic embrace of carpe diem actually paid off. A reply letter turned up with instruction to meet at Prospect Park and bring a playlist with me, and, only a few days into my college experience, I found myself ambling along the sidewalk under the velvet sky to meet up with someone whose face I’d never seen— all because she was cool enough to tell people to listen to Belle & Sebastian.
“The crowded streets, the empty bars”
When I got to Prospect Park she was waiting there with a Bluetooth speaker and a small black notebook of poetry that she gave to me to keep (and which is still sitting on a shelf in my room, grimy and unassuming, full of the mad scribbling of an artist). Without wasting any time, she roped me into jumping the wrought iron fence around the massive concrete statue of Roger Williams. Narrowly escaping death, we took a seat to its right, the wind rising up from the glittering lights of the city and brushing our cheeks with the slight chill exclusive to early September. She fired up the speaker, I pressed play on the list of music I’d thrown together, and we settled in next to each other with the tentative closeness of strangers to listen to “The Downtown Lights” by the Blue Nile— a neon-washed, late-’80s, sophisti-pop song I was familiar with but had never fully appreciated until this particular moment. The latticed grid of the city spread out before me, the Seekonk winding lazily by under the glimmering blues, the red of the Biltmore facade visible on the hairline of the darkening horizon, the distant cupolas of Federal Hill resplendent and gold. It was at this moment, the warmth of her shoulder faintly present next to mine, the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan waxing poetic about the emptiness of the twilight city, that I fell in love. Not with her, mind you—with the night.
“Chimney tops and trumpets”
Since that evening, the malign indifference shown by the city to its inhabitants hasn’t seemed quite so daunting. Indeed, the network of roads west of College Hill suddenly beckoned to me, but only past sunset. You see, there’s a vast wealth of art designed, in part, for lonely people, and a lot of its power is only activated in the dead of the night. Which is not to say it’s all suited for the same mood; wandering the city after watching David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive is bound to evoke a sense of profound horror when one contemplates the glittering highrises, but the same walk set to DJ Shadow’s “plunderphonics” magnum opus Endtroducing….. is more likely to make the shadowy figures of workers on the wharf seem entrancing and beautiful (seriously though, if you haven’t listened to “Midnight in a Perfect World” at night on a city street once in your life, you’ve been doing it wrong). All of it, though, belongs to the hours after dusk when the shadows have deepened and the lights have blinked out on the storefronts.
“The golden lights, the loving prayers”
Not all night-wanderer art is necessarily subdued and isolating. Throw on “Drive Slow” from Kanye West’s Late Registration and cruise the streets in your beater of a car. Trust me, it’ll make you feel supremely alive. Pick up a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, and read it under a streetlight as the taxis drive by, their passengers silhouetted in the grimy windows. Tell me you don’t love this country just a little bit more after doing that. Hell, I wandered out of an art gallery the other week after looking at René Magritte’s L’Empire des Lumieres and felt as though I’d never really seen light before; suddenly, the interplay of the stars and the headlights and the “open” signs in the windows of Chinese restaurants all seemed a part of a beautiful dance.
“The colored shoes, the empty trains”
And then there’s the profoundly unsettling stuff, the art that exposes the dark underbelly of urban life. Check out the photography of Nan Goldin, and try looking at the fellow lonely souls wandering the gum-choked streets the same way you used to. It won’t work, I promise. Walk the residential areas under the dappled light of the neighborhood trees and listen to Cat Power’s Moon Pix and imagine feeling happy again (the secret: you won’t be able to). Pull up a Basic Channel EP, and let the cold metalloid of the throbbing bass remind you just how much concrete and steel and glass there is all around you, all separating people from each other, from the land, from themselves. And can you really listen to Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” without feeling as though you’ve just murdered someone under the light of a full moon? I think not. But even these disquieting experiences can be a comfort; independent and alone in the world for the first time in our lives, this art allows us college students to engage with our surroundings. It’s an avenue of expression for all that isolation; it is, in friendless times, a companion, a place to turn.
“I’m tired of crying on the stairs”
But for all of you, you fellow lonely souls of Providence (and I know you’re all lonely—has anyone else read the Blueno Bears Admirers pages lately?), I have one central recommendation: Take a night walk this week, if you feel comfortable. Bring your headphones. Find a place to camp out—follow in my footsteps and head to Prospect Park, wander the neighborhoods to the north, take a seat on the quay down by the Seekonk. Bring a book or a collection of poetry, if you like. Be nocturnal. Be alive. Stop for a moment and absorb your singularity amid a collection of blank buildings, under a canopy of mute stars, accompanied by only a few small artistic weapons to stave off the silence of solitude, and be glad that you are here. If you make the night your friend, you can conquer anything—even college. And that’s saying something.
“The downtown lights…”