It’s a tough day to have a birthday.
I spent all week not thinking about turning 39, but about Rick’s passing and how my brother Tickle will spend today burying his best friend, a guy in the prime of his life who was eight years younger than me.
All of this hit me harder than I expected. An event like this evokes a natural sense of tragedy, and I also feel compassion for my brother. But I found myself in tears several times this week, I think because seeing someone’s life end too soon made me take stock of where mine is headed.
To help me cope, and to help me think, I turned to music. I sought out sad songs, using them like an emotional chemotherapy, feeling worse at first but also attacking what was causing that sadness. I have been lucky in my life to not be traumatized by death. I’ve lost loved ones, but never by surprise. They were all older and saddled with maladies that made their passing unsurprising. I had time to prepare for the grief. Shock is an enzyme for sadness, increasing the emotional reaction we have, because there’s no preparation, no planning for the sorrow that’s coming.
I turned to music, for comfort first, but also to help make sense of this, to fertilize my reflections, so that I could come away from this a little wiser, with something that could help make my life a little better. What could I learn about my own mortality as I approached 40-1? Here are a few things I played that gave me some comfort and comprehension:
1) “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” Japandroids. One of the first songs I turned to this week, because I had been playing this album a lot already.
We used to dream/now we worry about dying/I don’t want to worry about dying/I just worry about those sunshine girls. Those lines made me think of Tickle and his friends, because they lost a lot more than one of their buddies. There’s a carefree part of their friendships that died this week, an energy that, while often immature, made them such a fun group of guys. They will still be fun, and they will move on, but they’ll never quite be the same.
2. “Untitled No. 1,” Sigur Ros. What makes a song sad for me is how it sounds. I’ve always been a music-first/lyrics-second guy, which probably explains how I could listen to Rush sing about caves of ice and demonic swordfights all these years.
The ( ) album from Sigur Ros just drips with sadness. It’s their “winter” album, with songs that evoke the long, cold season we have to endure before the rebirth of spring. As sappy as this may sound, I believe that whenever you find yourself in a dark place, you have to find that point of light, no matter how small or distant, to orient yourself toward. I also think that point always exists. We just don’t always see it right away.
3. “Re: Stacks,” Bon Iver. He has a voice that is so plaintive and yet so uplifting. It’s quite and simple, which winds up amplifying its power. I find myself sometimes leaning forward as if to grab the song as its wispy notes come out of the speakers. I just wallowed in the sound of this whole album.
4. “Naked as We Came,” Iron & Wine. I struggle with this song when I’m feeling good, and I almost couldn’t play it because it is so heartbreaking. At the same time, it overflows with beauty in its intimate look at loss. That compelled me to play it a few times.
Becky and I have talked over the years about who is going to “go first.” It’s often done in jest, but the question certainly came to my mind this week. Would I want to die before her? Or would I want to be the one to say goodbye, to “spread her ashes around the yard” as Sam Beam sings here? I used to think it was the former, because that seemed easier. Now I wish for the latter, because I don’t want to miss a second of my wife’s life. I’ll deal with the immense sorrow that comes if it means I can have her company for as long as possible.
5. “Try Not to Breathe,” R.E.M. Automatic for the People is by far my favorite R.E.M. album, and one of the few albums I find transcendental. It has spirituality that comforts me while still taking a hard look at the trials of living. To me, that’s how you conquer sorrow.
6. “Oliver James,” Fleet Foxes. Much like Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, this is a simple acoustic tune, but with a vocal that soars where the others whisper. The way the chorus lingers at the end is one of the most beautiful codas I’ve ever heard on an album, like a spirit escaping.
7. “Plans,” Dinosaur Jr. It’s been a soul-searching couple of years for me as it is. For longer than I care to admit, I’d spent too much time the last few years focusing on what I failed to accomplish or what I didn’t have. It reached a point where I wondered if I was dealing with genuine depression and needed to see someone.
I don’t know if it was having Libby or just realizing that my depression was really man-made, but I finally decided enough was enough. It’s like Morgan Freeman says in The Shawshank Redemption: Get busy living, or get busy dying. I have had a damn good life, and the things I still want to accomplish are right there for the taking, if I just focus on doing the work instead of focusing on the work I haven’t done. The work was what I could control, and I didn’t control that, everything else was irrelevant anyway.
When I first heard this song, off the outstanding new album Farm, it felt like a theme song for that feeling. There’s some wallowing here, a good deal of regret and longing that things didn’t work out as planned. But a lot of hope as well. I’ve got nothing left to be/Do you have some plans for me? There’s a sense about not worrying about what we can’t control. We can’t predict what’s coming down the pike, but we also won’t see what’s ahead if we don’t keep moving.
I played this a few times this week because it helped me make sense out of a tragedy. The thing about Rick was that he always kept moving. He had his share of doubts, fears, and sadness, but he didn’t let that stop him from going forward. Even though 31 is too young and he certainly would want (and deserved) more time on this earth, he focused on what made him happy and didn’t worry much about what didn’t. I think I’m finally learning that lesson.
8. “And You and I,” Yes. Ninety-percent of the time, I have no freaking clue what Jon Anderson is singing about. However, the old adage that 90 percent of what you say is how you say it applies here. This is my favorite progressive rock song, a song I find exceptionally beautiful, in no small part to the way Jon Anderson sings. His voice blends perfectly with every passage, becoming delicate during the acoustic passages and soaring with the organ-filled crescendos. It just made me feel a little better.
9. “Doctors of Deliverance,” Crooked Fingers. Much like “And You and I,” I don’t really know what this song means, which allows it to be about whatever I want. A lot of sad songs have some resolution, perhaps some moment of happiness or at least revelation that offer a silver lining. Not so much here. That’s okay, though, because the best way to get through sadness is to let it wash over you, like a tide coming in, until it ebbs and retreats back. This is a good song for that.
10) “Keep Me in Your Heart,” Warren Zevon. The irony of the final song on Warren Zevon’s final album is that, as his body was wasting away and he grew weaker, he gave us one of the strongest examinations of mortality that any musician ever has. He stared at his own impending death and crafted something worthwhile out of it, creating an album of beauty and sadness and the dark humor that defined his music. That’s an inspiration to me.
11) “Too Late to Die Young,” Dan Bern. Which brings me full circle. I couldn’t help but think about how I would feel if I died suddenly: how would I take stock of my life? How would others look back on me? Today, after The Lovely Becky and Libby woke me up and wished me a happy birthday, and I remembered, oh yeah, only one more year til forty, this song popped into my head while I was in the shower. There’s your theme song today. My brain couldn’t help but look for a little dark chuckle at my expense.
That’s how I want it. My sense of humor is that point of light. It’s the thing that helps me get through life, even after spending a week thinking about death.