quarantine song

An essay by Roy Lincoln Karp

It began with a Tweet by an old friend about his “Quarantine Song,” which he defined as the number one hit single from the year you were twelve.  Curious, I searched online for mine using the year 1986.  It turned out to be “That’s what friends are for,” by Dionne Warwick and Friends.  The “friends” are none other than Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John and, as one would expect from that all-star lineup, the song is a pop music gem from start to finish.

There is something irresistible about the video as well.  Perhaps these legendary performers had also developed acting skills to match their musical prowess, but they just exude a warmth of sincere friendship: the way Gladys puts her arm around Stevie and the little kiss Elton plants on Dionne’s cheek.  In this time of quarantine and distancing, it is almost striking to see them all so physically close together, enjoying a moment of shared time and space.

Listening to the song on repeat, I realized that it is actually all about being apart from the people you love.  If you only remember the refrain – as I apparently had since I was twelve – this fact is easy to  overlook.  “And if I should ever go away,” the singer implores the listener, “then close your eyes and try to feel the way we do today.”  35 years later, the lyrics are hauntingly prescient for this strange new world in which we are living. 

I posted the YouTube link on social media and texted it to several old friends.  My friend Joanie said she remembered listening to the song together the year it came out.  Another wondered whether the recording was made for charity.  A little online research confirmed that it was.  Written in 1982 by Burt Bacharach, the Warwick and Friends version raised over $3 million for AIDS research.  The song provides a through line of history, an invisible strand connecting those we lost to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s with the thousands dying each week from COVID-19.

This is not the first pandemic we have experienced, nor will it be the last.  The human record is replete not only with plagues, but also attempts to process and understand them through stories, novels like the Decameron, poems, and even nursery rhymes like Ring Around the Rosy (“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down”).  Perhaps that is what makes us uniquely human: the desire to draw meaning from what we experience, especially when it feels so incomprehensible and inexplicable.

Resting on the Rocks, a photograph taken by the author circa 1989.