I had a room on the 26th floor of one of the dormitory towers that first year that I went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I went as a music theory major, although that plan was abandoned before the year was out. I'd listen to the classical radio station until midnight, when jazz came on. The host of the jazz program was an idiosyncratic character, with a very distinctive voice, and the lead in to his show was the third Gymnopedie (in the version orchestrated by Debussy). That was the first I heard of Erik Satie.
I'd look out the window at the city lights. I'd gone to a boarding school my last two years of high school, so this wasn't my first experience being away from home. But I wasn't going back on weekends anymore, and I knew that I would never live in the town I'd been raised in again. I had always been a small town boy and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the city. But there was a whisper of melancholy that I carried with me and Satie's simple melody captured it perfectly.
I was playing guitar a lot in those days, and filling notebooks with poems and stories. While I loved the theory of music, I could tell that I wasn't going to fit in with the music major crowd. It seemed to be such a narrow world and the competition and back-biting among the students was already fierce. I didn't want to get to know any of my classmates. The group of friends I eventually fell in with were as aimless as myself, curious about everything, but not terribly concerned with what we were going to do when we graduated. That seemed like an awfully far distant thing.
Astonishingly enough, I did graduate -- with a philosophy degree, which perfectly prepared me for the job driving a forklift in the candle factory in which I found myself a few months later, newly married and living in Oshkosh. At the local public library I found Aldo Ciccolini's recordings of the complete works of Satie, and got to know the Gymnopedies in their pristine form, along with their spiky cousins the Gnossienes. I was working 2nd shift and I'd come home at 10:00 or 11:00, and sit in my study trying to write more poems and stories. I wasn't playing guitar much anymore.
When I listen to Satie's little gems now, I can still feel what that melancholy was like -- the uncertainty of my place in the world giving over to a kind of youthful, romantic despair. I suppose there is still a touch of it down deep, but somewhere along the line I moved past it. Understanding comes in different forms than I imagined it would when I was young. I think I'm simpler now, and comfortable with the insurmountable mystery of the world.