Magic and Loss – An Exploration of Grief Songs

In mid-August my world was turned upside down – something that has become a yearly activity over the last 5 years. I received notification that my Grandmother had passed away at the tender age of 82. As it was communicated to me, the services would be held very quickly – just a few days later – making the airline tickets out of reach on such short notice. Fortunately, I already had vacation time as I had been expecting my parents in from Philadelphia the very next week. Their Seattle plans now cancelled, I had 4 vacation days lined up with nothing to do except dwell on the loss of my Grandmother.  One thing led to another and I found myself on a whirlwind cross country trip, taking full advantage of my day job’s 3 day bereavement pay along with the aforementioned vacation time.

Loss is a curious thing – it hits you in different ways at different times in your life. The trip to Philadelphia and back to Seattle on the road was an adventure that surely will make its way into my fiction work at some point. Of course, there was the 5 days in Pennsylvania surrounded by family, love, and sadness. But that’s a tale to be told another time. What I want to focus on in this particular piece is the music that has helped me through the tough times. Happy or sad, I always return to music as a guiding force in my life

Sufjan Stevens “Should Have Known Better”

I’m not sure Mr. Stevens will ever top this song in my mind. Not about death, really – but it has a sigh of regret that really speaks to me. Accepting what was, what is, and hopeful for what will be is about as deep as one can get. The instrumentation is sparse, echoing the resignation in the vocals. Features my favorite lyric of all time: “Should have known better / nothing can be changed / the past is still the past / the bridge to nowhere”.

John Mellencamp “Longest Days”

I made it a goal to listen to only John Mellencamp while driving through Indiana on the way back to Seattle. Some of my friends mock my love of John Mellencamp, but I really don’t care. I think he is a gem and he speaks to me on many different levels. This song kind of kicked off Mellencamp’s current phase indebted to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  It’s not an uplifting song, but as I was thinking of my Grandmom I kept playing this song over and over to listen to the line “But nothing lasts forever / Your best efforts don’t always pay / Sometimes you get sick / And don’t get better / That’s when life is short / Even in its longest days”.

The Flaming Lips “Do You Realize”

At their best, nobody captures the light and darkness the way The Flaming Lips do. The childlike innocence is buoyed by the realization that there are the sober facts of life. Nowhere is this more evident than on this 2002 single. I sang this at the top of my lungs somewhere in Ohio. “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die? / and instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know / you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last”.

Bill Withers “Lean on Me”

I felt – and feel – somewhat broken as the impact of my Grandmother’s death hits me in different ways as each day dawns. I listened to this over and over in the car, I think somewhere in Iowa. My Chihuahua thinks I am a great singer. I don’t know who I was singing it to – maybe Bill Withers himself. He has such a calming voice in this song. It is one of the greatest songs in history.

Sleater-Kinney “Broken”

The first time I heard this song was the day my Grandmother died and I instantly burst into tears. It is the most unusual song in the band’s entire catalogue – a ballad on piano w/ orchestration. The first time I heard it I was thinking about how the loss of my Grandmother was going to impact my Mother, and I was thinking about how to get home if need be. And suddenly, the lyrics “I really can’t fall apart right now / I really can’t touch that place / Thought I was all grown up right now / I really can’t show you my face”…”But I’m breaking in two / Cause I’m broken inside” spoke to me in a way that made it seem like the band knew what was happening.

David Bowie “Lazarus”

David Bowie’s final video and single hinted at his knowledge that he wasn’t long for this Earth at the time. It was an artistic triumph and a final way for Bowie to secure his legendary status. Electronic flourishes married to jazz orchestrations, and a lament for the ages. And yet…and yet…it makes me feel good every time I listen to it. “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I got scars that can’t be seen”. Indeed. My Grandmother is too, David.

Leonard Cohen “You Want it Darker”

Of course, Leonard Cohen pulled the same trick as David Bowie later in 2016. He released one of the finest albums of his entire career and passed away shortly after. Leonard Cohen also knew his time was limited and he spells it out in detail throughout the album. This track is unsettling yet strangely comforting. It is the Gospel according to L. Cohen. I played a mix of Leonard Cohen songs somewhere in Utah.

Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”

Penned by Leonard Cohen but made famous by Jeff Buckley, this is a song that is usually misunderstood lyrically, though the emotions it evokes in the listener is true blue. I smirk when I see it being used in a religious way – I guess sex is a very spiritual thing when done right. Anyway, Jeff Buckley was a legend gone too soon and makes me feel like everything will be OK. I’ve listened to this song thousands of times and will never get sick of it. I listened to this in Idaho, tired from the road, missing my Grandmom.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails”

One day I think this collaboration will be spoken of in the same hushed reverent tones that are applied to The Postal Service. In fact, I prefer this project. It is a one off for Mark Kozelek, sounding like nothing else in his diverse and confounding discography. It is a story set to an electronic background, as Kozelek tells us about all of the people in his life he has lost. He keeps coming back to the simple things in life that we take for granted and the line “And the wonder of life always prevails”. I listened to this song 5 times in a row somewhere in Eastern Oregon.

Death Cab For Cutie “Title and Registration”

I was a pallbearer for my Grandmom which left an impression on me that I am still processing. After all was said and done, I threw the white gloves in my glove compartment and haven’t been able to bear the thought of opening it since. It reminded me of this song where Ben Gibbard sings quite a bit about the glove compartment. Obviously, I disagree with his lyrics now.

Mount Eerie “Real Death”

This song spoke to me quite a bit as I was thinking about my Grandmother. “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / and it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art”. It is sad and cathartic. I listened to this multiple times throughout my journey.

Eels “P.S. You Rock My World”

This is a song about pushing forward in life even after facing great losses. It is a bright moment on a dark album, and one that I want to end this exploration of songs to listen to in times such as these. “And I was thinkin’ ‘bout how everyone is dying / And maybe it’s time to live”. I’m not there yet, but it is a great reminder. This was my Washington State soundtrack.

One thing I’ve found over the last few weeks is that not everyone is going to understand your journey as you deal with grief. I keep thinking of that Depeche Mode song “People are People” – never has an expression seemed more apt. I can think of worse things than to be misunderstood, so I push on – relying on friends, family, art, literature, and music to get me through. Just last night I was taking in the Original Misfits and felt more alive than I have in almost a month. Time may not heal all wounds, but it sure helps them hurt a little less. I still miss my Grandmother though.

For Kathryn E. McGinley – May 11, 1937 – August 16, 2019

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Allan Feather 3/27/70 – 6/26/18 – a memory through music

Last Wednesday, June 27th, I found out that someone I grew up with had unexpectedly passed away. Suffice to say, my posts on “The Social Network” have been a bit emotional and delved into what happened, my sadness at his passing, and what he meant to me as a friend and mentor. Allan Feather was many things to many people, but to me he was a true friend. He was responsible for introducing me to “alternative music” in the early 90’s and took me to my very first show – an unknown Gin Blossoms opening for Toad the Wet Sprocket at the Trocodero in Philadelphia. I wanted to create a short post for my site that I can revisit as the years go by. I wanted to explore some of the songs and artists that Allan and I bonded over. One thing that Allan taught me was that it was OK to love underground bands and still love sports. Does that sound silly to you? In the 90’s, it was a real thing. A struggle. A battle. He made me laugh, he made me believe in myself, he made me experience nostalgia (something fake punks fight with all their might). And last week, he made me cry. This week too, in fact. And I think that’s OK. This post is for you Allan Feather.

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Chris Cornell – 7/20/64-5/18/17

The morning of May 18th, 2017 is not one that I’ll forget in my lifetime. I woke up to a message from a close friend indicating that Chris Cornell had passed away at some point early in the morning. Puzzled, it took me a few times to understand what had happened. Out of the blue news about a musician who had long seemed to settle into his lifestyle, it shook me to the core. News and articles seemed light on details at first – at first I thought it had been a hoax – but reality soon sank in. Chris Cornell – Seattle’s son – had passed away at the age of 52 by his own hand.

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Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

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This is a guest contribution from Jeffrey Edwards, talking about one of the greatest albums ever made – Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses.

With the legendary rock band in the middle of their worldwide reunion tour Not in This Lifetime, it seems rather fitting to review their best-selling album, Appetite for Destruction. Having sold 30 million copies around the globe, this debut studio album is also one of the best-selling records of all time. It was released back in July 21, 1987, and remains one of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll albums, resonating with that spirit of rebellion that Guns N’ Roses were notoriously famous for.

While the majority of people are more familiar with the more popular tracks of the album, as games like Burnout on the PlayStation and Guns N’ Roses video slots from online gaming portal Pocketfruity feature “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Paradise City” in their musical scores, every song on the album played its part in making the album a commercial success. Kicking off the record with “Welcome to the Jungle”, which was reportedly written in just three hours, the aptly named track set the tone for their artistry and image. They were a rambunctious bunch of rockers whose rebellion and impulsivity was the driving force in their musical genius.

There are loads of interesting facts about the compilation of this album. According to NME, “Mr. Brownstone” was penned on a grocery bag. Another fun fact of the album is that “Out ta Get Me” is based on Axl Rose’s life as teenager back in Indiana, where he often found himself at odds with the law. And despite being a fan favorite, the band slated “Sweet Child o’ Mine” as a filler or circus music. But even with their less-than-favorable opinions of their biggest hit, fans love the song no less.

For those that don’t know GNR for anything other than their popular ballads, Appetite for Destruction is not meant for those who are afraid to venture beyond the conventional. The album explores all kinds of taboos through crazy guitar riffs, rebelling against the cultural atmosphere fostered back in the ‘80s. However, the record’s raw punk quality is what garnered its retrospective acclaim, becoming one of the greatest albums in music history.

Here is the complete tracklist for Appetite for Destruction:

1. Welcome to the Jungle
2. It’s So Easy
3. Night Train
4. Out ta Get Me
5. Paradise City
6. My Michelle
7. Think About You
9. Sweet Child o’ Mine
10. You’re Crazy
11. Anything Goes
12. Rocket Queen

What’s your favorite track?

My Favorite Albums of 2016

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Another year gone by, another year filled with musical delights. We lost quite a few musical legends starting in December of 2015 – Scott Weiland, Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie, Prince, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, and George Michael to name just a few (and let’s not mention an overall list of artists who have left us in 2016). I lost my Aunt unexpectedly back in February the morning after attending a Black Sabbath show. The year was filled with unexpected highs and unexpected lows for me. As with anything in life, sometimes you have to feel bad to feel good (and vice versa). I made some friends, lost some friends, and reconnected with some old friends. Throughout it all, I had music playing. Here are my top albums of 2016:

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Favorite Records of 2014

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Another year gone by, another year in music to review. For me personally, it was a strange year in music. I found myself listening to unsigned / self released artists more often than some of the mainstream artists that I love so much. 2 Neil Young records – the 1st was good, if not great. The 2nd was a little too lush for my tastes. Neither appear on my year-end round-up. I looked forward to the new John Mellencamp (yes, seriously) but I came away only loving about half the record. Bruce Springsteen added Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine to his band and the record he released didn’t disappoint me. I managed to get out to a few shows in 2014 and was blown away by Mudhoney (twice) and First Aid Kit. Speaking of First Aid Kit, their Stay Gold record grew in stature with repeated listens and should help them become a household name. So without further rambling, here are the records that I played the most in 2014. Note: these are listed randomly and I chose to focus on full length releases that were released in 2014.

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Into the Sun With The March Violets

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Every so often someone will tell me about a band that I somehow either missed the 1st time around or hadn’t taken the time to delve into their catalogue. I have a few weaknesses, one of them being bass heavy post punk from the late 70’s into the 80’s (and let’s be honest, all the various revivals from the last 15 years or so). A friend of mine in the city of Angels buzzed me a few years ago asking if I’d heard that The March Violets had gotten back together. I’d heard the name (Sisters of Mercy connection in the early years) but sadly hadn’t heard any of their records. Somewhat hard to find, though not impossible in these glorious days of the “world wide web”, I quickly became a huge fan as I indulged in the early singles & records.

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