🎧 All Things Returning to Water | A Story and a Song Episode 1
AA Bondy's "Mightiest of Guns" and "Oh, Sister" (Bob Dylan cover).
A Story and a Song Episode 1 Transcript:
Welcome to A Story and a Song, where I, Brian Leli, tell you a story about a song that someone else wrote but I like to play, and then I play it. The first episode's song is actually two songs: a live version of AA Bondy's "Mightiest of Guns," and Bondy's live cover of Bob Dylan's "Oh, Sister." Here's my story.
In 2014, I was living in Bogota, Colombia in a neighborhood called La Soledad. The name means "loneliness" or "solitude." And it was a fitting place for me to live. Loneliness is something I've felt much of of my life. And while I feel it sometimes when I'm alone. I feel it much more often when I'm with people. So living in a place called loneliness seemed somewhat personally significant to me at the time.
I lived in what was basically an apartment in a shared house. I think it was even listed as a bedroom that was "almost like its own apartment." The roof leaked when it rained. But I at least had my privacy and solitude.
The tap water in Bogota is clean and safe to drink. So that's what I always did. But one day, unbeknownst to me, a pipe burst. And by the time I learned about it, I'd already been drinking that bacteria-filled water for days.
I got gloriously sick. But after putting it off for too long, I eventually went to the hospital. And I felt better in time for my flights back to the US for Christmas.
But it didn't last. I was back in the US, broke, without health insurance, and with stomach issues that would not quit, and that had already gotten into my head and into my thoughts, where there was already a lot of work to do absent these new intruders.
So I went to an immediate care center. They told me they could do some tests, which would be expensive for someone with no insurance, or they could give me a 30-day course of antibiotics and hope for the best. I'm more hopeful than it might sometimes seem. Plus, remember, I was broke. So I went with the antibiotics. And that began my year-and-a-half relationship with chronic stomach issues and their friends in my brain.
During this same time, I became aware that a certain musician whom I like, named AA Bondy, had all but vanished for a few years. No new music, no live shows, no interviews, no nothing. I began to wonder what he might be up to. Had he found some peace that had eliminated his need to play and perform music? Was he battling some demons? Was he, like me, feeling stuck in something out of his control? And to be honest, I kind of enjoyed wondering. In a way, I think it kept the part of me alive that believes that there are always options. Anything could happen. What is suffering today could be peace tomorrow. One never really knows.
Then one day, out of nowhere, Bondy posted some new tour dates. There wasn't a show where I was living at the time, in Chicago. But there were a few nearby shows. I had a lot of time to decide where to see him, so I didn't buy a ticket right away. But after the tour started, videos from the shows began to pop up on YouTube. And, to me, there was something deeply special about them that, to this day, I still struggle to put into words.
The main things that stood out were the darkness and the quiet. The shows were all in small venues and rooms lit by what seemed to be a single dim, red light. Bondy was onstage alone, with an old Guild guitar, playing and singing softly but simultaneously playing and singing his heart out. It was like he was releasing ghosts. Serenading them and sending them slowly across the room. The audiences were quiet, too. They were listening. They were watching. And whatever they heard and saw seemed to captivate them, as it did me.
It was the opposite of what I was feeling inside. Inside, I felt chaos. Inside, I felt stress and anxiety about my stomach. I felt stress and anxiety about my life.
Of those videos I saw, the one that stood out to me most was Bondy's performance of "Mightiest of Guns." It's one of his more popular songs but was never a favorite of mine. But the way he performed it in that dark, quiet room in the summer of 2015 was different. It became a different song to me, and it's stuck with me. He didn't even sing the main lyric, where he typically sings the words "the mightiest of guns." He instead changed those parts to what what I heard roughly as "all things returning to water." And there's something in that sentiment that I just love. Returning. Going home. Being reborn. There's no path to any of these things that does not include suffering. And we all suffer in our own ways. But we can all also return to something or somewhere or someone and try again. We have options. Or we can give up. Or maybe it's the same thing.
So I bought a ticket on a bus to Madison, Wisconsin to see the Saturday night AA Bondy show. I even booked a night in a hotel room. And it felt momentous. It felt like I was reclaiming something. Some control, for one. My physical and mental ailments could do their worst, but I wasn't going to be stopped. I was going on an adventure. I was going to stand in one of those small, dark, quiet rooms and listen to the ghosts fly around it. And that's exactly what I did. And it was as great and as magical as I'd hoped it would be and better. And I now have that night to return to.
The morning after the show, I woke up feeling especially sick. And I knew I had to get back on a bus going the other way. And it was not exactly pleasant. But it was absolutely worth it.
After I got back, I wrote some things about the experience that I eventually sent out in a newsletter. I was feeling good about what I wrote, so I forwarded it to Bondy's publicist, whom I'd worked with before, way back when I used to photograph concerts and do some local music journalism. And I just said, "This is for Bondy."
Now, to give you an idea of what I'd just done, here's a small piece of the thing I wrote:
I watched a few songs from the opening band. As they were finishing up I walked out to the bar for a drink. On my way I saw Bondy. Without meaning to I established eye contact with him. I was supposed to say something. I wanted to tell him that I enjoy his silences as much as his songs. That I enjoy the wonder. And that I respect his peace. I had practiced this part earlier in my head. But there were other new parts that I hadn’t practiced. And they all came rushing quickly through me. I wanted to tell him that his music creates a calm and weightless atmosphere that I like to climb inside of and float around in. I wanted to tell him that I feel safe there. I wanted him to know that he is a heavyweight. A raw power. And that he is special. I wanted to inquire. I wanted to say, Where have you been? How have you been? Have you been sad? Have you been stuck? Have you tasted the flint of mental breakdown? Have you been saved? I wanted to confess. I wanted to say, Bondy. Something is not right here. I don’t understand this place. I feel like an alien even among my friends. I worry that I’ve made too many bad decisions. I think about death too much. I induce my own nightmares too often. I fall apart whenever I witness something remotely kind or sweet. I sometimes picture my thoughts as bacteria eating away at my wellbeing. And I wonder how much longer it will be before it’s all been chewed away. Sometimes I think that maybe I love too much. And that maybe I’ve loved too much for too long. And now I have all this love and I don’t know what to do with it. And it hurts. And it’s not healthy.
And I wanted to hug him. I wanted to say, You make all of that go away.
But instead I just nodded and said, Hey, and kept walking to the bar.
So I dumped that, and a lot more, onto Bondy. And then, nothing. I went back to work and my usual routines.
And then one day, while I was working, I got an email with the subject, "hey brian it's bondy." And it rattled me a little. I didn't read it for hours. I think I wanted to hold on to the wonder and the options. But more than anything, I think I just didn't want to be disappointed. But eventually I opened it, and it was not at all disappointing. It was thoughtful. It was touching. And it was something real between strangers that I could now have and return to as needed. And of course I ruined it by responding. But still. In the moment, that response was huge to me. Bondy's response was huge to me. Very simply, it just made me feel better and less alone in at least this one small space in my life.
As the months passed, I kept watching videos from that tour and returning to them repeatedly. I continue to return to those videos often. They've lost none of the magic. Not to me anyway. It's all still there and tangible. The one I've probably returned to most is Bondy's cover of Bob Dylan's "Oh, Sister." Like "Mightiest of Guns," it's a song that never really registered with me until I heard it played the way that Bondy played it one night in 2015. And still when I hear or play it, I move in those three small minutes through everything I've just talked about. Bogota. Loneliness. Illness. Mental anguish. Wonder. Desire. The bus to Madison. The show. The whole night. The bus back. The thing I wrote. Bondy's reply. The ghosts. Returning. Returning. Returning. All things returning to water.
That's my story. Here's my rendition of the songs that shelter it. You can also check out Bondy's performances in the videos below. Thanks for listening to A Story and a Song.
“Mightiest of Guns”
“Oh, Sister” (Bob Dylan cover)
The guitar you hear in this episode is one I bought in Lampang, Thailand (where I live now) when I fist lived here in 2013. My friend held onto it for me while I was away. She gave it back to me when I returned in 2017, and you should probably know that I’ve still yet to change the strings.
Also, the “pick” that I’m using in the recordings is actually a cut-up triangular piece of my old Colombian health insurance card, a somewhat relevant fact that was lost on me until after I’d recorded the songs.
Lastly, yesterday, on my way to pick up some dinner and walk for a bit on Lampang’s historic walking street, I stopped at a guitar shop and bought new strings and an actual pick. In other words, the budget for this podcast just got an $8 boost.