Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Shinbone” and “Red Rose Nantahala”

Hiss Golden Messenger, the jam-heavy, indie folk-rock project from singer-songwriter MC Taylor, is one of my favorite bands for a number of reasons, including the enthralling groove nearly every song aims to find and the lucid lyricism Taylor regularly pens around a number of existential inquiries. (I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Taylor on three occasions—for The Bluegrass Situation, for Holler, and for Indy Week—about some of the larger themes in his work.)

On “Shinbone,” from Taylor’s new album Jump for Joy, there’s one line in particular that’s been rippling at the rocky shore of my mind, like a lapping, insistent wave bent on shaping those stones. Singing about awakening to the ephemeral sensation of happiness, Taylor looks to the future and asks a potent question: “If you lose it all/ Can you love what’s left?” It’s a large, looming reflection set against bright, new wave synths and an easy saunter of a bassline.

Walking around Toronto this weekend, listening to Jump for Joy in the hours leading up to Hiss’ show in the city, the query encapsulated so much of what I’ve felt these past 14 months as I’ve grappled with long covid. I’d look around at those who seemed to be living full lives—going out, traveling, participating—and wonder why things had taken such a different turn for me. It was the most isolating experience, to watch the world go on.

There were times when I thought the answer to loving a life that had metamorphosed into something else entirely was “yes,” when it seemed as though I could accept this new, quieter version. Then there were others when the roar of something deeper resisted that forbearance and refused to be silenced.

Bill Hicks, one of my favorite comedians, once equated life to a simulation that looked and sounded a lot like an amusement park ride. Given the language he used to describe it, I used to imagine the ride as a rollercoaster. Yet, as I’ve gotten older, the lived reality seems closer to a Ferris wheel, which feels more appropriate given that life so often resembles a wheel of fortune (minus Pat Sajak). There are moments at the top when everything moves easily, and moments near the bottom when the struggle becomes onerous, bordering on impossible. But wait long enough and things will change. They always do.

Over the last year especially, I’ve worked hard to let go of any grasping or clinging reaction I might have toward the wheel, knowing that as my grandmother once said, “Nothing ever stays the same.” The wheel will turn and turn again, so isn’t it better to acknowledge the good moments and trust—or hope, at least—that the bad will pass? Each is a lesson in the transitory nature of existence.

But the same cyclicality applied to my health has been far harder. Earlier this year, after I got my heart’s long-held desire to move to Toronto, my health seemed to stabilize, improving enough that I could manage my symptoms and be a bit more social. It didn’t last. Somewhere into summer, everything I knew about coping with my limited energy no longer applied, and more days than not I had some kind of half- or full-crash, wherein my body succumbed to a weighty lethargy and pulled my mind down with it.

When you’re not feeling well and you start to feel better, you want the certainty that “better” will last. When it doesn’t and you have a few bad days again, and then a few more, you want to know—immediately, assuredly—when it will shift back to something more tolerable. Unfortunately, like the larger wheel of life, the only guarantee is that, as the old saying goes, nothing is guaranteed.

For an upsetting stretch of time, nothing I did seemed to make a lasting difference. Then, last Friday, the naturopath I’ve been seeing (since traditional medicine continues to offer one big shrug) suggested that I add the amino acid l-glutamine to the supplements I’m taking. Her theory was to focus on gut health, since we now know it’s the second immune system, but once I got home and dug into the research behind mitochondrial function, I learned there were actually a few amino acids that might be worth incorporating since the levels for these vital compounds tend to be woefully low in people with long covid. So I got underway.

By Sunday, the difference was striking. Suddenly I had energy, I could think far more clearly, and my muscles didn’t ache from doing the smallest activity. Now, I’m well aware that I’m writing this from the early days of this most recent experiment, knowing that past treatments have helped for a short while before whatever underlying cause (viral persistence? microclots? post-viral damage?) overrules that latest surge of hope and my body shifts back to its new baseline. Still, perhaps there’s a way to be grateful for this turn. So much of living lately has been reduced to a day-to-day basis, which is all any of us ever really have anyway.

Even though I may return to this post in the weeks to come and roll my eyes at the grasping wish radiating through these lines, it feels worth documenting because of the Hiss show. Last night, amid this incredible surge of hallelujah anyhow, I went out to see Taylor play. In the lead-up, I’d been trying to conserve my energy because concerts have become a hit-or-miss experience for me. Yet, as soon as I woke up on Sunday, I felt the difference. It was like coming home to the person I’d been before all of this started. Goodness, I had missed her.

Not only did I have the energy to go, but the desire as well (the mental part of physical malaise being its own minefield), so went I did. I hung out near the back of the room, away from the crowd and wearing a mask, and hoped I could handle standing for at least a few songs before I’d probably needed to head home. It turns out, I didn’t need to set that limit. Once Hiss started up, I was transported beyond the worry of constantly monitoring my body.

Perhaps it was the music’s sheer familiarity—I’ve been listening to Hiss since 2015 and his sound has long been a tunnel toward brighter things—or perhaps I’d tapped into another wheel, the wheel of time, since it was just over a year and a half ago that I’d last seen him, albeit as a DJ spinning dub records at a new-ish bar in Durham, North Carolina. Whatever the reason, I stood there last night, tracing the line between then and now, and felt the wheel turn.

At the show, Taylor played a range of songs—many from his new album, but a few deeper cuts as well, including “Red Rose Nantahala” off his quietly evocative 2013 album Haw. The song describes the spiritual or universal forces keeping anyone from inhabiting the fullness of their being in all its loving possibility. On the chorus, Taylor sings in a kind of droning intonation, “Oh lord, let me be happy, be happy,” with the drums riding the cymbals in a marching step. As I stood at the back of the venue, feeling connected in the most surprising way to my body and its sudden, startling energy—an energy and wellness I truly had not felt in over a year—I held my hand to my heart and, like a prayer, sang along.