Because the Night: A Ballad for the Night
Our best song about falling asleep watching TV arrived in 2003, with Guster’s “Come Downstairs and Say Hello.” (The second-best song about falling asleep before your TV belongs to Guster too, “Dear Valentine” creasing the atmosphere three years later.)
Should you stop by my place sometime between 10:30 and midnight, the day’s weariness and satisfaction becoming overtones, I’d play you my favorite night music.
The track opens softly, almost gingerly, like some stoner fantasy. Ryan Miller takes the night a frame at a time, “The Wizard of Oz” keeping pace with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Changing channels, he settles on MTV, the sound almost muted, before switching back. Each transmission whispers promises:
“Lips move / They say, it’ll be OK.”
Miller’s heavy-lidded eyes dilate while the song swells beneath, then around him.
Bass and percussion conspire mercifully—Awake, O sleeper, they call to all within earshot; ascendant chorus vocals propel listeners down the yellow brick road of it all, to walk into the world newborn again.
Guster’s original recording baptizes; performing with the Omaha Symphony in 2020, “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” transfigures. The song becomes some 21st-century friend to Copland or Gershwin. This rhapsody in blues and violets, rich auburns and impossible greens evokes night-black, the way it contains all colors.
By song’s end, Miller starts mouthing prayers, the sort that sin and believe all at once. Faith and sight blur as he sings, “Tomorrow I start in a new direction / I know I’ve been half asleep / I’m never doing that again.”
Should you stop by my place sometime between 10:30 and midnight, the day’s weariness and satisfaction becoming overtones, I’d play you my favorite night music. Guster at the bookends, of course.
Our limbs flinch in reflex, the way they do inside dreams, at the cleft in Natalie Merchant’s voice crooning the “take” in “take me now” on an anthem inherited from Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith.
Listening to R.E.M., we shut our eyes and sense gentle, lapping ripples, Mike Mills’ piano playing the water Michael Stipe treads while “Nightswimming.”
Our mirror smiles widen when Van Morrison pronounces the wildness of the night, his voice somehow Irish and American like ours for a few moments.
And the pull into sleep and a woozy, wordless farewell accompanies “Round Midnight,” Thelonious Monk flushing lamplight across white keys, spilling gin on the black.
Others sound out the night without trying, without ever talking of the hour. John Coltrane. Mazzy Star. Depeche Mode. Each note of Jimmy Eat World’s Futures. These artists know nothing of “Sunshine on My Shoulders” but they make me happy, they always make me cry.
Some who dread the night dislike how its black knows no beginning, no end. They fear wandering into this chambered mouth, losing themselves a hundred different ways: to drugs, to loveless sex, to any obsession and every violence.
My fixation came not in pills, but pixels; the wan glow of a TV set up past its bedtime. Maybe this is why “Come Downstairs and Say Hello” moves me still, moves me more 20 years after first hearing. Guster wrote a symphony to my particular sadness.
Unatoned sins and good songwriting teach me the night will not be used, only entered into, absorbed.
I never fogged my mind and heard early 20th-century film characters prophesy, never sat up to watch a Fatboy Slim video as soundless oracle. But I have stayed up five more minutes, five minutes more, contending with tomorrow, trying to keep the sun from rising.
My own drooping eyes, weighed down by another day alive in this world, know the strain of fixing themselves on Conan O’Brien and his next guest, wishing the rhythms of their conversation would go ahead and solve something inside.
Unatoned sins and good songwriting teach me the night will not be used, only entered into, absorbed. Night will not let itself be outlasted, will not be bent into a crucifix, will not be crushed up and made into medicine.
Songs born of a true spark, including Guster’s couplet, meet the night on its own terms and entreat us to live likewise. Taking what the night gives, eventide appears at its most beautiful and carries its consolations—the real stuff.
This cooperation draws dreams and waking life into one conversation, taps the meaning Springsteen sang into “Show a little faith / There’s magic in the night.” Drawn up into the still life, the ambient glow and silent reveries of darkest night show up in your seeing and hearing anytime.
Once after a Sunday night of beers and what the better prophets of our nature call “God-bothering,” I waved off a ride home. Walking that mile or so, past our city cemetery and closed markets, past mid-century bungalows—some already asleep, others still burning—a Midwestern rainstorm made its first, flirty gestures.
Ushered all the way home by Coltrane’s “Lush Life,” my feet inevitably found the sidewalk leading to my door. Only then did the rains come. It’s as if the sky and its storm, the saxophone and the rhythm of my own steps planned it all, set me up to slip between layers of atmosphere they co-created.
Every Sunday evening this September—and no doubt through the fall—I make time to play a Tom Waits record. “Small Change” and its siblings don’t transform the night as much as explain its consecrated pull. Waits, his voice rent and ragamuffin already in his late 20s, plays the accent notes for what’s already there. The grace notes.
Let this early ‘90s ballad make its face shine upon you, amen.
Best I know, radio stations rarely send out dedications anymore. I miss driving past Arizona pines in my youth, tired Midwestern crops later, only their outer edges aglow in the day’s eleventh or twelfth or first hour. Fiddling to remain awake at the wheel, I kept a hand on the radio dial, waiting for any voice to come through.
From my bent antennae down to my bent fingers, the transmission would clarify itself long enough to tell me how Kelly missed Scott, to hear a DJ pray on her behalf. Let this early ‘90s ballad make its face shine upon you, amen.
So, in the selfsame spirit, I send you these dedications. Lucy Dacus focusing her rage into the breathtaking cool of 11:47 p.m. on “Night Shift”; David Wax Museum heavy breathing for bands of would-be lovers on “That Night in Richmond”; Josh Ritter staring into God’s original design for the night sky on “Homecoming.”
These ones go out to you, friends—songs with different notes and the same chorus. The night will let you be yourself, if you’ll only offer the night equal grace.