The 39-year-old boy, Sufjan Stevens, is bent over, his back almost to us. He is finding the keys and pushing them down, on a piano that looks like it came from an attic and it probably did. The band quietly assembles, accompanying him, but only in presence. The song, “Redford,”* is from an early album, Greetings from Michigan. We are in Wisconsin, which isn’t so far from Michigan, and yet, so very far.
I first listened to Michigan while I was in New York and unhappy, to which Hannah Warren would say, “nobody’s happy in New York, but they’re alive,”** although it’s unclear whether I was that, either. On streets, in head shots, through the casting office, I watched people who had sculpted and hardened and polished themselves into beauty. Inspired, I ransacked the internet for the right diet and died to it, denying myself food and repeatedly purging my system with “natural” cleansing protocols. Then I wondered why my body became a stick figure, my face a red acne bomb and my heart a lead balloon. I listened to track number 13 of Michigan, “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” over and over again, until I was crying, until I was crying and groaning, until the Spirit was groaning for me.
Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin
And so begins the next song, “Death with Dignity,” first on the album this tour is supporting, Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s parents, the former of which died three years ago. There are a series of separate panels behind him, like chapel windows, displaying home videos of a family that we know, and don’t: the mother, who battled addiction and mental illness and retreated from her family; the father, who moved to the front line of his children’s lives; the result, a crossbeam with only one support, upon which the children had to balance. But to balance you have to lean on something.
I leaned on my own understanding. After a crash landing back in Wisconsin, I was a survivor who didn’t want to survive. A mild depression dominated for a time and then was disgusted by me, so it departed. Sexual addiction arrived, committed to drug, impoverish and wreck me, ’til death do us part. I pronounce you man and man and man and man and man… you may kiss the lie.
In a bleached-white light, moving through the audience as though a search and interrogation is imminent, Sufjan’s T-shirt, branded with one word, can no longer be ignored: Hustler. His voice, an apparition of a whisper, sings “All of Me Wants All of You.”
Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used
Suddenly my eyes are memorial fountains, the water pumping from the past and splashing into the present. The teardrops are shadows on my pants. The pants are not mine. They are from a production of Oleanna in which I played Carol, a student of “doubtful sexuality” who “want[s] understanding.” I went on a gender bender shortly after birth and could not stop until a few years ago, although I had waited until legal drinking age to buy a dress at the thrift store. I packed it in a bag for a trip to Illinois to visit my friend. Upon arrival I asked her to wait in the living room so I could change into it and make an entrance. When I did, she smiled and said something no one else ever had, not even my parents: “I think the dress looks nice on you.” We drank vodka with her boyfriend and watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch and at the end he made a joke and she made a face at him and tried to make me mad at him with her and I said, “This isn’t a movie, this is my life.”
Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?
“The first funeral I attended was my great-grandmother’s,” Sufjan speaks, 45 minutes into the concert, for the first time. “She was all made up, like a homecoming queen, like Glinda the good witch of the north…I had this beautiful image of death, of my great-grandmother transcending with the angels…and so I’ve always thought of death as womanly. Maybe because, women sort of have to die to themselves to give birth.”***
Three days before, in group, I said, “I’d like to open my sharing by showing a picture of a polar bear. Isn’t this the saddest polar bear you’ve ever seen? I feel like this polar bear. I’m so sad. I’m so tired of being sad. Finally I understand why people want to end it. I’m not going to, I never could, I just mean, you get so tired of trying so hard. Of waiting so long. To be healed. But things are better, really. I’m not going on craigslist anymore, which is difficult, but good. But I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m recovering from.” Everyone was quiet. The leader nodded. He said, “keep coming back.”
Now the stage is empty, but we are standing, clapping, like schoolchildren trying to create the sound of rain; a rain dance performed by hands, to bring the reign of Sufjan back. Just as the possibility is about to become obsolete, he comes on.
The opening notes of “Chicago” have never sounded so entreating, but nevertheless Sufjan bursts into the beginning and blazes to the end. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he sings. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Behind him, the panels are hanging – still divided – but bearing images of light.
*The song inspired an entire album, Undun, by The Roots.
**From California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross.
***Thanks to Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a complete review and set list.