On a recent trip that included a visit to Montreal, my wife and I stood outside the Basilica de Notre Dame trying to decide if it was worth 5 bucks each to go inside and look at a church. As we rested, standing together near a fountain in the church square across the street enjoying the shade on the warm and humid day, I started to notice a street musician with his electric guitar hooked up to a practice amp. He had just begun singing a song that I recognized, but did not know the title or the original artist.
The song (I later found out) was Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, and as the tune echoed out over the square it began to lift me as I took in the milling crowd, the façade of the church, the feeling of my wife’s hand in mine. It was as if I had entered a movie where time had slowed and everyone around me was moving at half-speed. The warm breeze was a caress as the tune soared and echoed and leaves from the trees fluttered down over us. My wife didn’t understand when I refused to move until he had finished the song because, of course, this my moment. The song had made that fleeting moment perfect for me and there were no words that were adequate to explain.
I felt a longing for the song to go on, for the moment to continue, but of course, it did not and life sped up again and the momentary magic disappeared. When he finished I went over to drop a couple of bucks in his guitar case and tell him that I had enjoyed the song, but it was an inadequate tribute.
If I had heard the same song on Wednesday night instead of that Tuesday afternoon, or if I had been walking through a subway tunnel instead of in front of the church, it might have been distracting or annoying. If it had come on the radio, I might have changed the station.
But sometimes music has the power to simply stop me in a moment, to define that moment and freeze it in my memory. For me, a Montreal afternoon will always belong to a mournful song and a solitary singer.