This post was published in my masters’ thesis for the University of Texas School of Journalism.
Winter in the Midwest is a bitter time. The sky is gray and heavy, flattened steel, holding back the sun, pressing down on your shoulders. The grass is brown and the trees are bare. Each breath is sharp, sending small crystals of frozen air into your aching lungs. How do keep your blood flowing and your body awake? How do you crack the foggy ice that has petrified your mind?
If you are Richard Edwards, a 21-year-old college student living in a dank Indianapolis basement full of spiders and worms, getting in bed at 11 a.m. and sleeping until 9 at night, trying to keep your heart beating through your first break-up, you write a song. Then you write another. You play your guitar. You make something beautiful.
“I’ve always been a writer,” Edwards says, a hint of self-consciousness creeping into his already quiet voice. “And yeah, most songs are about myself, something that is bugging me. That record was not all personal, but it was certainly introspective. I was younger, I was upset about life.”
Unlike most ballads of depression, Edwards’ music begged for something bigger than a single acoustic guitar. He began collecting talented musicians, from a classic cellist and trumpet player to a pair of guitar-rocking, drum-beating brothers. Armed with Edwards’ songs and the power of eight inspired players, Margot and the Nuclear So-and-Sos exploded onto the indie rock scene.
I first heard Margot in 2005, when I was struggling to find my way in a new city and a new life. I was a new person, only one year out of rehab for an eating disorder, still struggling with the inertia of my self-destructive impulses. But in this confusing and ugly world I could always escape into the beauty and hope of music. I laid my body on the bed, put “Dust of Retreat” in the stereo and let Margot’s haunting lyrics and unyielding strings lift me up.
There was one song in particular that resonated in the marrow of my bones. It begins with the steady thump of a bass drum, cello and guitar layering on top of it, Edwards’ voice growing from the melody. “On a freezing Chicago street we shook/ Your hands were trembling from all those pills you took/ And we got drunk on cheap red wine in a paper cup.”
It was my Midwestern hometown, it was the oppressive winter, it was that faulty body, it was those easy escapes. Yet this time it was beautiful. All these sad, painful things created beauty.
“And I was barely awake when you got home/ And climbed yourself into bed wearing cheap perfume/ And Sarah screamed, your every breath is a gift/ if you weren’t so selfish then you might want to live.”
Yes, selfish. That was the right word. So selfish that you want to throw the pain away. You see the potential, you know what you could make yet you waste it. Not only is every breath a gift, every ache is a blessing and every tear is a promise. Yes, you are lucky to have this pain, to have its power.
“So if your lover should leave don’t get too sad/ And don’t compose epic poems to win her back/ Cause when your bird has flown, she’ll never return home/ Though all your life you’ll wait she never will return.”
When Edwards thinks back to the mildewed basement, the girl that got away, the nights that were his days, he is happy. Not content or ready to stop creating, but he is at peace.
“I always had this grand dream,” he says. “As long as you are doing it for the music, I think those goals act like hope. It meant all this had a purpose.”
Even the unbearable, the broken heart, can lead to this. From the cracks in the dark, pulsing muscle a delicate life begins to grow. The heart has already been broken, the sadness has already washed over you, these things will not change. Pull them all together, weave in each disappointment and fear and sharp memory, and you will find something new. These are not endings but a beginning. Make something beautiful.