Republish from April 2019. Long ago, I sat in my living room listening to Amnesiac by Radiohead with a head full of LSD.
I stared at the fireplace, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, watching the giant stones swirl in geometric patterns. Listening intently, I tried to understand the pops, clicks, and clanks of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”. I was awestruck; everything made complete sense, yet it made no sense at all.
“Pyramid Song” started playing and I sat up. The flood gates of my mind opened; a river of emotion flowed into my ears and out of my eyes, a gleaming mirror formed in my field of vision as music notes danced on the surface.
Fog rolled into my living room. As the orchestra kicked up and Thom Yorke moaned wistfully, a lighthouse beacon appeared. I was on a ship in the ocean. I looked over the edge and saw those black-eyed angels Thom was singing about. I looked up to a dark blue sky laced with pink clouds above the twilight. The songs became stranger and infinitely more beautiful as the album unfurled.
Amnesiac isn’t an album on LSD — it’s an odyssey.
I can never fully describe the experiences I had listening to Amnesiac on acid. The description above is a rough, crude sketch that doesn’t begin to convey the level of beauty and strangeness I witnessed in that living room.
Amnesiac had a calming quality, but it was also brittle, vast and perplexing. I could drink in the cold passion while I wrapped my brain around the puzzles within the sound. I could never solve those puzzles, but I never tired of the effort.
Radiohead’s music has been the soundtrack to moments of intense connection and grief in my life. Looking back, it was the calming and therapeutic quality of Amnesiac that hooked me above everything else.
Now I’m returning to Radiohead for the same reason, exploring late period music I overlooked in the last decade and discovering songs that serve my journey now the way Amnesiac served my acid trips in 2003.
I’ve recently experienced severe anxiety. It’s subsiding now, but this Nightmare Land lasted nearly a month. When anxiety strikes, it’s like a series of waves crashing. When the tide goes out, you’re left with an ethereal, ghost-like feeling. That’s disassociation. This is your brain’s way of dealing with adrenaline overload. It’s almost like being high. It’s a welcome relief from the feeling that you will collapse from fear.
For that reason — the “high” thing — I’ve been purposely feeding it with Radiohead. Because nobody does disassociation like Radiohead. They’ve been doing it well for a while.
The album A Moon Shaped Pool is arguably Radiohead’s crowning achievement in otherworldly disconnection. Today I walked 4 miles in the sun listening to A Moon Shaped Pool, just floating along on my ghost trip. Normally while the sun is out, I won’t touch Radiohead. On a sunny day I usually prefer bombastic guitar-based music.
But not today… because it doesn’t matter what the weather is. I’m up here in my head. People pass by and they’re in another realm. I can almost pretend I’m invisible. They ruin it sometimes by looking directly at me, but not often because I don’t look at them.
But I have Radiohead.
I have the gothic choral strains of “Decks Dark” in my ear, and I could float up to the damn sky on the refrain if I wanted to. I could climb the arpeggios of “Present Tense” up to a rainbow. I don’t need to eat lunch or dinner to walk 4 miles, and I don’t need much sleep. I’m never tired and I’m never fully awake.
But I have Radiohead.
And I have Radiohead backward…. Backward, way back through the smoke rings of my mind…way back through the haze of all that weed I used to smoke. I see Wyatt when he was still alive, playing a Radiohead song on his acoustic guitar.
I see Wyatt before he killed himself and shattered the lives of everyone who loved him. Before the memory of 20-year old boys howling in pain at his wake, some of them quiet with tear-stained faces, before the memory of his stoic mom barely holding it together, greeting kids so bravely, hugging me and asking where I’ve been lately.
Before all this, I see Wyatt in his room.
I see Wyatt who idolized Thom Yorke before he became obsessed with Tom Waits, who he probably learned about from Thom Yorke. We’re in his room, just me and him. We’re smoking weed and he’s playing the riff to “Street Spirit” over and over again, getting it down.
Fast forward to a different night under the full moon shining down on Cook Inlet in Kincaid Park. There’s me, Wyatt, and two other boys trekking through the woods at night, climbing up an endless hill to gaze at the jeweled moon. Three of us took acid that night, and I wasn’t the sober one. Neither was Wyatt.
There’s Wyatt pulling out a spoon to show me the reflection of the moon on its silver rounded surface, as if he’d brought a spoon just for this occasion. We’re on top of a grassy hill overlooking the vast inlet below. We all have headphones on. I’m listening to OK Computer by Radiohead. I take my headphones off and I hear the faint, tinny scratches from Wyatt’s headphones. I ask him what he’s listening to. He tells me he’s listening to Ok Computer.
I smile wide and tell him that’s what I’m listening to. We didn’t discuss what we’d listen to beforehand. It’s not an album I listen to much anymore since I discovered Radiohead’s Kid A, but it seems right for the moment. Apparently, Wyatt thinks so too. I marvel at the synchronicity for a moment before getting lost in something else within that long magic night under the Alaskan moon.
Fast forward a couple of years later and there I am in my bedroom, still stunned in disbelief that Wyatt is gone. Listening to “How to Disappear Completely”. Listening to other Radiohead songs. Listening to other music I like that Wyatt also liked, laying there like a stone unable to move for days. Going over every memory I have of him in my mind from the past 4 years.
Last week I thought I was losing my mind; staying drunk to get food down on account of anxiety, hiking the woods during the day, and finding relief near the ocean. Then I returned, and I had Radiohead.
For a few days I couldn’t listen to anything but “Codex”. This song is a perfect example of Thom Yorke’s brilliance as a singer. You’ll first listen the song focusing on the sound, not paying attention to the lyrics. You’ll hear a word here and there. “Dragonflies… the water is clear…”, that’s all you can make out.
But it doesn’t matter because his voice is like a bell from heaven combined with a raw nerve. The whole meaning of the song is stretched out in every yearning moan elicited between his quieter moments of despondency. He soars up and bellows out that great beautiful bell-tone ache, then slides down quietly as if to say, “this is so sad, I can’t even”.
One day I looked up the lyrics. When you read the lyrics without listening to the music, they sit flat on the page. The words are so devoid by themselves that it’s almost comical. However, once you know the lyrics and then listen to the song again, the beatific emerges. Now this song is about getting lost in the serenity of the woods. You’ve done nothing wrong and you don’t deserve this. Here’s the clear water now. Take a break.
I love songmeanings.com. Looking up songs on this website is sometimes an exercise in comedy, but it always provides revealing insight into people’s lives. I looked up “Codex” on this site (found here), and as usual I’m entertained.
Many people think it’s about suicide. Someone thinks it’s about political conspiracy. Another guy thinks it’s about flying a military plane and carpet-bombing civilians. Someone else thinks it’s about Radiohead breaking up. Another person thinks it’s about Christianity and the clear lake is holy water.
The interpretations people come up with are a reflection of their own lives and beliefs, and that’s the genius of songmeanings.com.
The highest rated comment is my favorite, and I have co-opted it for my own purposes. The commenter posits that it’s about “the Buddhist spiritual cycle of life, death, and rebirth” — that it’s about “exploring the unfamiliar within ourselves and abandoning our previous shells”. He then provides evidence that one of the songs is titled “Lotus Flower” and other songs on the album follow a similar pattern thematically.
This is a beautiful interpretation, and I can no longer hear the song any other way. After reading this, “Codex” changed from being just a sad song about being isolated and needing a break to a song about experiencing sadness, but finding hope through a spiritual path.
And it took Radiohead to get there.
If you liked this, you might also like Saturn Returns
I jumped in the river, what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cars
And all the figures I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt
-Pyramid Song, Radiohead