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

Thom Yorke – Suspiria

At this point, almost anything connected to the Radiohead name / brand will receive glowing reviews, accolades by those “in the know”, and give indie elitists a reason to feel like an indie elitist. Which really doesn’t make any sense – Radiohead are one of the biggest bands in the world, ever. It’s always been a a bit of a curious thing that makes me laugh. Anyway, when I read that Thom Yorke was scoring the soundtrack to the remake of the film Suspiria I was intrigued. Not so much by the original 70’s film’s history or soundtrack and how the new film and Yorke’s soundtrack would compare. I was wondering how Yorke’s soundtrack work would compare to Jonny Greenwood’s – his partner in Radiohead who has made a name for himself as a film soundtrack composer.

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Gary & Walter (The Muppets) – Man or Muppet

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

This is truly a non cynical post – The Muppets and the songs they’ve sung are as meaningful to me at 36 as they were when I was 8. Sure, there is a vocal segment of the fan base that refuses to like anything associated with The Muppets in the post Jim Henson era – their loss, I say. 2011 brought a reboot to the movie series with a smart and funny screenplay by Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller. A slew of high-profile Hollywood stars lent their talents to the movie (including Segel). The soundtrack was made up of songs penned by half of the New Zealand comedy / folk duo, Flight of the Conchords. Bret McKenzie imbues the songs with wit, humor, and the ability to connect with adults and children alike – a necessary ingredient for songs associated with the Muppets. Man or Muppet is the 1st song associated with the Muppets to win an Oscar, and deservedly so – it is imbued with a timeless quality that fits within the Muppets canon perfectly. A duet between Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter, it deals with the characters trying to figure out who they are – something we all face in the real world at one time or another. The segment shows Walter coming face to face with a human version of himself (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory), while Gary faces his Muppet possibilities. McKenzie’s goal with this track was to come up with something “hilarious and beautiful”. He succeeded on every count. The track looks to the power ballads of the 80’s for inspiration, spun into a mix worth of the Muppets. It can be a machismo world, something I tend to wholeheartedly reject. I know who I am when I listen to these lyrics “If I’m a Muppet then I’m a very manly Muppet / If I’m a man that makes me a Muppet of a man”.

Bob Dylan – Things Have Changed

Dylan

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

Resignation and regret often times go hand in hand. I’ve always been drawn to songs and artists that can convey these sentiments with ease and the silver screen is no exception. After we collectively breathed a sigh of relief at surviving the oft prophesied Apocalypse that was scheduled to land on January 1, 2000 we could settle into our movie watching routines. Wonder Boys was a financial failure on every level imaginable; conversely it was an artistic triumph for every writer, actor, actress, producer, director, and musician involved. It starred Michael Douglas as a pot addicted professor struggling to write a 2nd novel who also happened to be having an affair with his bosses wife. It’s supporting cast included Robert Downey Jr. (Ironman), Tobey Maguire (Spiderman), and Katie Holmes (Rachel Dawes from Batman). The soundtrack was a complimentary masterpiece, featuring John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s song written exclusively for the movie, Things Have Changed, signaled a possible new direction for him – apathy. Inhabiting the mindset of Grady (played by Michael Douglas), Dylan allows resignation to bleed through in a way that hasn’t been equaled. This is not the hopeful Bob Dylan of the 60’s or the rabble-rouser who sang The Hurricane – this is Bob Dylan saying “I used to care / but things have changed”. Brilliant as Dylan is, I foolishly expected him to continue on the path this song seemed to lay out – he would lighten up, change directions, and never really come back to this piercing sigh of indifference. I suppose he had so convincingly inhabited the mindset of Grady that I never realized he was acting out a part. The video is spliced into scenes from the film, along with notable guest appearances. This is Bob Dylan at his finest.

Haiku Salut – Tricolore

Haiku

Some of my favorite scenes in movies are forever intertwined with the music playing at the time. Thinking back to Ghost World, by the far the most touching scene was the end sequence where some very adult decisions and realizations about life are made. David Kitay’s Theme From Ghost World lends the scene the emotional weight needed to draw the viewer / listener in. The same thing could be said about the end scene of Donnie Darko while Michael Andrews & Gary Jules version of Mad World tugs at the heartstrings. Deryshire’s (that’s in England) Haiku Salut have created an impressive debut that serves as the soundtrack to an imaginary film.

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Mono – Life In Mono

Mono

Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.

In 1998 I went to see a film adaptation of Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow (since this is a music site, I guess I should say Chris Martin of Coldplay’s wife). I’d consider the film to be slightly underrated – the reviews were mediocre but I thought the updated names and quickening of the pace compared to the book were changes I could live with. The previews for the film had featured music that was haunting and seemed to fit the film perfectly. The track of course was “Life in Mono” by the UK band Mono and it is a track that I’ve come back to often over the last 15 years. The song starts out in an entrancing manner, trip-hop beat married to a pop song structure. Vocals come courtesy of Siobhan de Maré and are simply perfect. Evocative, sexy – all wrapped up in an air of mystery. Martin Virgo’s musical backing recalls a 60’s spy film and for good reason – it features a sample from “The ICPRESS FILE” by John Barry (of James Bond fame). At the time the duo were compared to Portishead which I can see, but I’d say they live in a world all of their own. The track seems like it was a bigger hit than it actually was – it hit #70 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the US (#26 on the Modern Rock charts). Emma Bunton of Spice Girls fame later covered this track – and it is a tribute to the songwriters that her version is so enchanting as well. Key lyrics:

The tree-lined avenue
Begins to fade from view
Drowning past regrets
In tea and cigarettes
But I can’t seem to forget
When you came along

Ingenue,
Ingenue,
I just don’t know what to do