Somewhere in the desert east of L.A., “‘39” found me.
My friend Russell and I were halfway through a cross-country road trip planned in desperation — I was 26, and in the midst of a multi-year crisis, tumbling through a personal and professional void, flailing wildly and finding nothing on which to catch myself, let alone drag myself back to stability.
I created various structures for our 35-state odyssey, hoping that the more external order I imposed the greater my chance of finding internal order. For one, I decided we would listen to an album from every year in the history of recorded music. We were skirting the edges of California’s Death Valley when we hit 1975 and put on A Night at the Opera.
The few Queen songs I knew left me cold, but as “‘39” began, I was galvanized. The eerie opening, all wailing choir and synth, transformed the wasteland around me into a distant planet — weeks from home and years from a true connection with myself, this felt entirely appropriate — and then, with a relief that seemed to alter my very chemistry, that eeriness melted into an achingly beautiful 12-string folk melody.
But it was the chorus that truly found me: “Don’t you hear my call?” the band cried in four-part harmony. “Don’t you hear me calling you?”
In that yearning howl, I discovered what I’d set out on this journey for: a totem to guide me to solid ground. Those words gave voice to my own call from the void, and my hope that someone might hear me and bring me home.
As we crossed the desert, I wanted to hear “‘39” so often that Russell lost patience. I took to playing it during his shift in gas station restrooms, desperate for hits of that opening shift from otherworldliness to peace. Eventually, I understood that “‘39” is about astronauts experiencing time dilation, but the song has never stopped being about me. I may have to squint to make lyrics about Einstein’s special theory of relativity apply to my own inner journey, but that’s the magic of song. More than any other art form, you’re allowed to ignore the trees and find yourself in the forest.
Or the desert.
(Song recommendation by Ethan Warren)