Discover more from All My Regret
Episode 1: Together in Electric Dreams
Music as Memory
TW: This article touches on suicide, death, and grief
There are a lot of reasons people like the music they like. As a child of the 90’s, I got most of my music through mix tapes and burned CDs. Whenever I got one, I would listen for weeks on repeat in the comfort of my bedroom, much of the time on headphones so my immigrant parents couldn’t hear what I was up to. The CDs felt like gold, and the music a refuge.
A lot of the artists that I still listen to, Lali Puna, Mogwai, Boards of Canada, and Four Tet, I first heard off of CDs burned by my friend Birj. Birj and I met doing political work after 9/11 with a bay area group fighting human trafficking in Berkeley and racism against the Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities (Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (“ASATA”)). I had recently moved to the bay after college, eager to stretch my college activist days into the real world. We first met on ASATA’s listserv and then during protests around the bay. I was nervous going to my first protest; I traveled on the BART alone from my small apartment in Oakland to Market Street in San Francisco, looking for ASATA’s sign, until I met Birj in person. He waved at me, marched and protested, and at the end he offered me a ride home in his beat up Honda Accord, crossing the Bay Bridge to an Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland. There, he grilled me on current news, radical and critical theory, and asked me about music. Eager to make a new friend, I enjoyed Birj’s gentle initiation.
We really got to know each other eating our way around the bay, at restaurants and stalls run by immigrants, walking around Lake Merritt, or sitting in his room talking about whatever. And almost always listening to music. During those times of absolute leisure in his room, I would write or read while Birj would paint, pick at his guitar, or take a nap. Often, it was there that he would present me with several burned CDs at a time, consisting of curated mixtapes and whole burned albums. Along with his charming idiosyncrasies, those were his regular gifts.
He put in a tremendous amount of thought into what he was creating, so when it reached my hands, I lost myself within what he made. The placement of the tracks, the drawn or printed graphics, and even how he presented it to you, was always methodical. Sometimes, the CDs were simply marked with colorful sharpies, mimicking the actual CD cover. And the mixes were always themed. Much of the time, Birj's characteristic bubbly handwriting would show up on the CD inserts and CDs themselves, but sometimes it would be printed off of his inkjet printer, folded neatly atop the CD.
When he gave a CD to me, he would look expectantly with his beady eyes behind his glasses, mouth holding a smile or about to burst into one. I remember the intentionality of it all, but mostly the unbridled joy both of us felt whenever he would give me this gift.
He named one such mix 'Peace! Friendship!' and included a graphic of three women from the USSR, China, and India embracing with wide open smiles, flowers held by all. We spoke about this image, about how it came from the tradition of Soviet realist painting and encapsulated the gentler side of the non-aligned movement. Below the graphic lay the track listing of songs Birj had compiled, with artists ranging from The Mendoza Line to The Weakerthans, complete with track timings written in his characteristic, bubbly writing. I regret now that I don’t know where that CD, or its art, is. An online search for the graphic uncovers an image of a single bomber plane. Fortunately, for me, the image is permanently affixed to a corner of my mind.
His gifting a particular CD to me was only the part of the process. I would gingerly place the CD into the player, and listen while working or cooking, again using my headphones so my roommate couldn’t hear, but mostly because listening to these gifts felt so private. As I listened over and over, meaning instantaneously attached to each song. And that meaning became permanently fixed to a time, a place, a feeling. Back then, I was still very much deciding who I wanted to be, thinking about what kind of world I wanted to live in, what I wanted to help build. We imagined those worlds together in our discussions and in our activist work. But it was Birj’s music, and my relationship with him, that helped me figure myself out. By 2004, I had already moved back to Texas, and had trekked a hefty chunk of these CDs with me. While in the suburbs of Houston, his music provided a serene reminder of him and the drinks we shared while telling cheesy jokes and talking politics, and the multitudes of meaning it carried.
In late 2005, Birj took his own life.
I initially couldn't understand why. It was the first time someone truly close to me had died. I learned about it the night before I was to fly to Los Angeles where I would meet another friend from ASATA to travel to India. He was the one that told me. We drove up to Oakland. We spent time that week with friends and Birj's family. I saw his body. Knees buckled. Tears that had been spent came back again. I gave a speech at the services about how much he amazed all of us, how much I loved him, and how much I would miss him.
Eventually, I came to grapple with the concept that the pain he felt was rooted in the lack of progress in Hong Kong, where he witnessed farmers burning themselves in protest. Perhaps he had set a high standard on what “success” meant to him there. And when he didn’t see it, it was too much to bear.
Back in his room, in our walks, in our discussions, we meandered on what the world could be, together. In a way, ASATA represented a space for reimagination of our corner of the world. We made a webzine, Wandering Cows, which didn’t get very far but that was our play at making something different. At the same time, we all had entry level jobs, with entry level deadlines, and ample time was a feature, not a bug. This created the perfect conditions for our intimacy. My folly was not to ask him more about him, about what he felt, about what he cared about after that time together, after I moved away. Before our youth gave way to serious jobs, and serious time crunches.
And that’s what I’m coming to in this moment where we continue to have unending misery everywhere we look. The shit this world cooks up is hard for any one person to bear. Since my time in the bay, I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be borne by any one person. The difficult piece is that intimate relationships with others is how you can deal with a burning world. I’m much older now with a career, partner, and children to mind, and I chase spots of time to think, to write, and to build and rebuild friendships. Yet, I have to keep remembering that my relationships, especially with other men, have gone in different directions, almost always based purely on how much intentional investment I give them.
The last time I spoke to Birj was before he went to Hong Kong. I could feel the excitement radiating through the phone line. He spoke generally of the group he was with, and what they hoped to accomplish. Now, eighteen years later, my memory searches for the words we exchanged that last time, and what more I could have said to him so that I could text him today, to ask him anything. To remind him of the freedom we felt because of the intimacy we shared, and that that was worth sticking around for.
Together in Electric Dreams was one of the many songs by Lali Puna within the CDs he gave me, and it strikes me how prescient its lyrics rang out, and was the reason I kept listening to the song after Birj passed.
I only knew you for a while
I never saw your smile
Till it was time to go
Time to go away
(Time to go away)
Sometimes it's hard to recognize
Love comes as a surprise
And it's too late, it's just too late to stay
(Too late to stay)
We'll always be together
However far it seems
(Love never ends)
We'll always be together
Together in electric dreams
Shortly after his death, Birj visited my dreams. He would show up in his characteristic corduroys, low-key patka, and crinkly eyes. He would wave from a foot away, as he always did. We never spoke, but he radiated benevolence and was usually drinking a beverage. In those moments, I stopped wondering what he or I did, or didn’t do, and instead just enjoyed being next to one another, again.