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The wild twist of fate that united musician Peter Himmelman with the late journalist Daniel Pearl.
For many of us, life can be boring. That’s why we need to be entertained.
To help people overcome life’s tedium, I spent several years as a composer for network television shows, including the hit Fox series Bones. The show’s conceit was simple and brilliant: combine desiccated or moldering corpses, ivory-white teeth, witty sexual innuendo, and two main characters who, in every episode, solve crimes and come within a hairbreadth of having sexual congress. As an inviolable rule, each of the main characters’ escapades must take place near the corpses.
While writing these music cues, I couldn’t help but wonder why the people watching Bones, presumably couples in bed, would settle for this sort of wan titillation when they could be having real intimacy. Nonetheless, I felt I was doing something good for humankind. I was making life seem less stultifying for millions of Americans as I sat in a room for four years straight, six days a week, twelve hours a day (except for dinner breaks) on a green lumbar-support chair writing music to make scenes that weren’t particularly scary or funny seem as though they were.
Imagine the following:
Don’t get me wrong—I liked scoring music for television, and I was good at it. At its best, it was a kind of lucrative puzzle-solving.
I didn’t always do that kind of work, though. I’d also been a minor indie rock star. I had the thrill of performing on stages all over the world, making records for three major labels, and hearing my songs play on radio stations across America.
But there was a huge downside. I was missing out on my kids’ childhoods.
I woke up to that reality one evening in Dallas around 1992. Sony, my label at the time, had thrown a lavish promotional event at a radio station for staff and listeners in support of a new recording of mine. In those years, I traveled with an enormous old-school cell phone—to be used in emergencies only. And that evening, just before our band was to take the stage, I got a call from my son Isaac. He was three years old, and I can still hear his voice, so sad but so determined: “I want you to come home.”
It was one of those moments when I felt like something important was happening, something I needed to be acutely aware of. It was as if a gigantic letter A had been rising into the air behind me. And it was: A for auspicious. A for arresting. A for awake. Not long after that night, I slowed down my touring schedule and got involved in scoring television shows, a job that allowed me to be home with my family for dinner almost every evening.
Original artwork by Peter Himmelman
It was around that time that I began to develop an obsessive interest in Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by fanatical Muslims near Karachi, Pakistan, in the summer of 2002. Danny’s last words were: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” But my interest in Danny didn’t arise only because I’m an observant Jew. In 2002, the American zeitgeist was 9/11—all day, every day. The nation had been permanently changed, and Danny Pearl’s mission had been to unravel the mystery of this great upheaval, to help his readers understand the unfathomable. His heroic passion for that mission would ultimately lead him into the hands of his murderers. It was Danny’s heroism that affected me most.
The nation had been permanently changed, and Danny Pearl’s mission had been to unravel the mystery of this great upheaval, to help his readers understand the unfathomable.
After long days working on Bones, I’d read everything I could get my hands on by Danny or about him. I read the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book Who Killed Daniel Pearl? — twice. I even started reading articles by Danny’s father, Judea Pearl, who just happens to be one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence experts. Some nights, while my wife Maria lay asleep beside me, I’d be wide awake thinking about Danny.
Here was a guy who was traveling the world, writing about whatever he saw and felt. But as I stared up at the ceiling, I also knew this sad truth: he and I could never have been friends. Danny was flying at a higher altitude. While I was making little snippets of desiccated-corpse music, he was busy with his brilliant, life-affirming reporting. I’d fallen asleep in every conceivable way. By contrast, Danny was a guy with that big letter A rising behind him like the morning sun every single day. I was sure of it. I’m not ashamed to say I fell in love with Daniel Pearl, a man who was no longer among the living.
One early evening in 2007, after working ten straight hours on music for Bones, I took a break to read some emails. One of them, from a filmmaker friend, had this subject line: “I think you’ll find this interesting.” In the body of the email was a link to an article on Bloomberg.com by a writer named William Pesek. The piece was entitled “Pakistan Is Macallan.” The article was interesting enough, laced with facts about the ISI—the Pakistani intelligence agency—and the United States’ investments in its terror-fighting capabilities.
But somewhere in the middle of the story, I found this stunning sentence about Pesek’s relationship to Danny: “We first bonded over Macallan scotch and then music—a Minneapolis musician named Peter Himmelman. We agreed he was the greatest songwriter virtually no one had heard of, and we’d go to Himmelman’s concerts together, once making our way backstage to meet him.”
What had first felt like another empty day in a series of empty days burst wide open and spilled its secrets.
I could hear a dog barking at the FedEx guy and the assistants in my studio laughing about something or other as I sat at my desk with tears streaming down my face. What had first felt like another empty day in a series of empty days burst wide open and spilled its secrets. I was awake, rapt with wonder. It was as if the world’s pulleys and levers were suddenly revealed to me.
I emailed Mr. Pesek just then. He responded by email in less than fifteen minutes from Tokyo, where he was working as the head of Bloomberg’s Asia desk.
It was an unexpected thrill to see your name in my email box—I’ve been a fiercely loyal fan of yours for almost twenty years. Really—thanks for the note. I am based in Tokyo. As for Danny, everything you’ve read and heard about him is true—an extraordinary person and a huge loss to this world. As I mentioned in my article, my last time seeing him was in a Bombay bar, and I’ll always cherish the memory. Danny and I met you very briefly in late 1995 when you played at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. You graciously chatted with us for a few moments and even gave me a guitar string that had just busted. While Danny and I loved all your work, we always agreed that From Strength to Strength is among THE best albums ever recorded . . . Danny also had a particular interest in your song “A Million Sides,” no doubt because he was a journalist. Again, Peter, thanks for the note and thanks for your interest in Danny. He’d be tickled to know you were asking for him.
Just a few days later, I found myself in Encino, California, in the Pearls’ living room, laughing and sometimes crying along with Danny’s mother and father while I stole glances at a large photograph of Danny that was propped up against the mantel of their fireplace. I turned to look out their picture window then, and it was as if I saw that letter A rising again over the low-slung mountains of the San Fernando Valley.
I had awakened to the idea that the things we do, the actions we take, have a much greater resonance in the world than we can possibly imagine…we do matter…
That afternoon I had awakened to the idea that the things we do, the actions we take, have a much greater resonance in the world than we can possibly imagine and that despite the conclusions we may have drawn from our many fears and our many failings, we do matter; everything matters. I also woke up to the idea that even the smallest things—the thoughts in our heads, the gestures we make, the expressions we wear, the words we write, and the things we say—have a weight far beyond our limited reckoning. And as for things we say, there is a Psalm, 126, my favorite, composed by the world’s greatest songwriter, King David.
When we return from our long exile, we will have been like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of joy.
This is how I hear it. We are called dreamers because we are, all of us, asleep, asleep to the beauty of being alive. The promise of the Psalmist is that an alarm clock will ring one day and wake us up from our dream, a terrible dream that says, “Nothing is real except satisfying my own hunger and slaking my own thirst.” And when we wake up, once and for all, we will laugh. We will laugh because, in a flash, the kind that banishes all darkness for all time, we will see how we have been tricked into thinking that we need anything more than what we have right in front of us. Yes, we’re hungry, hungry for miracles. But here they are right now, all of them arrayed before us. Each one silently wishing we’d take notice.
Being asleep and its consequences are nothing new: we are simply doing what sleepers throughout the generations have done. We reach for the wrong things. We reach for Netflix instead of reaching for our partners. We reach for Facebook instead of reaching for our children. Instead of reaching for our creative spirits, we reach for our credit cards to buy things we don’t need.
Like you, I’ve probably been awake around .005 percent of my time on earth. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to create a need. Because once you’ve experienced that millisecond of wakefulness, you crave it all the time. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Psalmist’s alarm clock. All I have is my love, my faith, and my music. But I do use them occasionally to try to make that letter A rise.
And sometimes it does.
From the forthcoming book Suspended By No String: A Songwriter’s Reflections on Faith Aliveness and Wonder