Afterparties always seem like such a great idea at the time. Everyone milling about on the sidewalk after being unceremoniously ushered out of the bar, traffic in the street growing thinner. To those who are still standing at this time, news of an afterparty is like a death sentence commuted on the walk to the chamber. The next few hours will be heady. Time, in the traditional sense, won't exist. The next morning everyone will pray for death, but now is the time stories that will be told for years are born and bonds that feel unbreakable are made between strangers who will never see one another again. This column is about the things that happen during those special hours.
The time for dancing has passed. The thud and clatter of house music has receded. And now you are here. A taxi carried you through the sodium-bathed streets of the slumbering city. Here.
A basement apartment. On the laminate floor a bunch of strangers huddle, their tired, glassy eyes bulbous, wired, crazy. The chatter is loud. Voices come out of the gloom like a finger-poke in the sternum. On the glass coffee table, someone is manipulating a set of white papers, emptying in tobacco, crumbling resin.
There is hugging––guys and girls, guys and guys, girls and girls. There is the promise of messy, tired, sweaty sex. For some, but not for you.
You are alone. You lost your friends. You came here because you were chatting to a guy in the courtyard of that club and he knew a guy and that guy came over and chatted and then there was talk of an Uber and then...
There is a laptop on the floor. Something ambient is finishing––something that seemed to last an hour and sound like squashy orange synthesizers yawning. Now someone else sits before it, fanning out the deck of YouTube videos, picking a card.
And then it starts.
A solitary late-night synthesized piano chimes out a riff, sweet with 80s gloss and compression. A man moans. "Ooooooh."
A man in pain.
"I used to think that love was just a fairy tale / until that first hello / until that first smile."
The voice is measured, serious, the phrasing elegant. You register the pause between that "hello" and that "until." You register the tonal uplift on "smile." This is a man with an important story to tell. Even in your state you can tell that.
"If I had to do it all again, I wouldn't change a thing / cause this love is everlasting."
You note the clumsy rhyming couplet––the way that "everlasting" is shoehorned in against "thing." You note and you forgive. Because Billy––for this song is "Suddenly," Billy Ocean's mid-80s hit––is talking to you. There is a naivety in the flawed rhyme that tells you he really means it.
"Suddenly, life has new meaning to me."
And there, already, the song opens out to welcome in its gorgeous chorus. Afterward you will tell how there really is nothing on earth that can prepare you for the celestial, heart-expanding swell of the chorus of "Suddenly" by Billy Ocean. It is life with the color, brightness and contrast all turned up. It is like turning the corner of a suburban estate and finding the Grand Canyon. It is like meeting your executioner and having every shabby misdeed of your ugly past forgiven. It is like coming home.
"There's beauty up above, and things we never take notice of."
George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, wrote that the purpose of the novel is to "extend our sympathies." Billy does that. Right here. He reminds us of those things we overlook, forget like the song of a sparrow in the morning, the smile of a grandmotherly figure on the bus, the kindness of that dude at the club who gave you a handful of cigarettes when you'd only asked for one.
"You wake up and suddenly, you're in love."
Riding up high on the crest of that glorious chorus, Billy looks down on us, a benign deity, and beatifies us by reminding us what is important in life. Like a sage sitting at the end of a neon-lit 80s bar in a white tuxedo with the sleeves rolled up, Billy is talking to you, telling you how to be a human being. Crumpled, with sweaty armpits and early-morning breath, you feel ashamed, inadequate. But there is hope. You and Billy are in this together. And Billy will show you the way.
"Girl, you're everything a man could want and more / one thousand words are not enough to say what I feel inside / Holding hands as we walk across the shore, never felt this way before / now you're all I'm living for..."
Maybe it's the spliff, but does Billy's voice falter just a little on the word "shore"? It's a hint of imperfection that reveals the trembling emotion beneath. Billy is keeping it together––just––and he's doing it for you. He's doing it because he needs to tell you something important, something about how your selfish little life of SnapChat fucks, soiled nights and Uber escapes is meaningless. Meaningless against the glory of love. But it's OK. It's all right. Billy is here now. You will trust in Billy and Billy will take your hand and you will walk across the shore together.
And now that transcendent chorus once more. Is that a quiver of your lip, a stray tear loosening in your eye?
"Suddenly, life has new meaning to me . . . "
Oh God, the wasted time. Oh God, your futile aspirations, your petty jealousies, your stupid, selfish dreams. Oh God, the one who you left so cruelly; the one who you never plucked up the courage to speak to. As the sound expands and the piano doubles down, playing a quasi-classical phrase over Billy's ecstatic revelation, you see the truth of your miserable life laid bare before you.
"Each day, I pray, this love affair would last forever, oooh oooh / Suddenly, life has new meaning for me."
You picture every musician in that LA studio sweating, giving everything and you wonder if they knew, like, really knew what they were doing, recording a song with the power to change lives, to alter destinies, to breathe new life into a loveless world.
To say: "You will be alright."
Now you are getting on your feet, fumbling for your phone, searching for that Uber app. Now, finally, you understand. This is why you came here. You will leave this dingy apartment, and its ring of messy strangers. You will go home, you will sleep and you will wake up renewed, ready to live a new kind of life.
Billy has spoken to you. Billy is all seeing, all knowing, a deity in white satin, his message smothered in 80s reverb.
Billy has spoken to you and it is OK. Everything is going to be OK now.
Follow John Lucas on Twitter.
Previously in this series: Why 'Marquee Moon' by Television Is the Best Afterparty Song Ever