Music and Mortality #2: COVID-19 Update + Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne Performs Live In Amsterdam

A series of blog posts on music that faces up to the reality of death (in different ways). Plus my latest thoughts on COVID-19.

So another week has gone by, myself and all my work colleagues are working remotely, and we’re all safely at home. I feel already in a week we have entered a new era in the Australian COVID-19 saga. If last week was marked by a general fear and anxiety on everyone’s part (which I was suggesting was part of our collective fear of death), I feel like this week that’s turned into general angst.

We’re safe now. We’re stuck inside, you can’t come near me, and I can’t come near you.  So now we’re just getting irritated. With our situations, with each other, with our politicians. Not everyone, and I wouldn’t want to read my week autobiographically into everyone else’s but, as we sit at the start of a stay-at-home period (not yet a full lockdown in my country) of an indeterminate period, it’s unknown how well we’ll treat each other in coming weeks.

See, we love stories about adverse situations bringing out the best in people. (In fact, I think it’s why everyone has a particular love affair with WWII movies at the moment.) But will we actually see that in ourselves at this point in history? I don’t know, but I’m finding it harder than I thought!

In the meantime, it’s time for another song about death, and this time by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. I came across this song a few years ago while working through Tom Moon’s 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.

(Two quick tangents about that book: a) In case you’re wondering, I did get all the way through it over several years and managed to listen to probably 95%+ of the material in there, if it wasn’t super-obscure. b) Is COVID-19 going to put a stop to this “Before You Die” sort of subtitle on books? They suddenly doesn’t seem as amusing any more.)

Anyway, back to Jackson Browne. Probably not a guy I would have come across on my own (he’s more of a Baby Boomer specialty) but his songs have a quiet thoughtfulness that is quite distinctive. But the one that has stuck with me for the last few years, possibly because my own father was critically ill in intensive care when I first heard it, is “For A Dancer”.

It is, quite simply, one of the most poignantly and brilliantly written songs about death. It’s metaphorical enough to appeal to those who like poetry and philosophy, but the meaning is simple enough to be grasped by the ordinary person.

If only the first verse and chorus of the song existed, it would still be amazing. Using the metaphor of dance (it was actually written in tribute to a dancer friend of Browne’s who had died), it contains a number of true-to-life reflections that are hard-hitting in their simplicity and truthfulness:

  • The sudden shock of losing someone else: “You never know what will be coming down”. 
  • The way we lose touch with our close friends, somehow assuming we’ll always have an endless amount of time to catch up with them another time: “You were always dancing in and out of view / I must have thought you’d always be around”
  • The feeling of not knowing what is beyond death: “I don’t know what happens when people die / Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try”.
  • Possibly most poignant of all, the loneliness of death: “In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone”

All of these things would be total doozies to contemplate in and of themselves in our day and age. However, after a great violin solo from his collaborator David Lindley, Jackson comes back with the second half of the song, which elevates his musings on death to even greater theological and philosophical heights:

“Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down”

I don’t know that this has ever gone out of fashion – our ability as humans to want to turn to God (or something higher) when we face death and devastation. But there aren’t as many mainstream songs that I can think of that express this so clearly. The sting in the tail is that line about “You never know what will be coming down”. It seems a bit flippant at first, as if Browne is saying “You might as well pray to something. After all, it might do some good.”

But the next lines are the ones that haunt me:

“Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found”

Maybe this sentiment was more easy to express for someone living in the 1970s – caught in those tumultuous decades after the West had turned had away from traditional organised religion but still had the beliefs and customs lingering in the air. But it resonated with me when I heard it in the 21st century. It’s the crippling language of doubt.

That’s because I went through a period of doubt of my Christian faith for something like five or six years. And if felt exactly like the lines of those songs, and it wasn’t at all pleasant. Some people never quite understand what this feels like. It wasn’t a feeling of: “Oh, I don’t believe all this is true. I’m going to become an atheist.” Instead, it was just a simple feeling of being unsure. Perhaps there is a better world drawing near, but just as easily (depending on how you looked at it), maybe there is nothing there. And if there was nothing there, then I couldn’t find a great deal of meaning to explain the world either.

A world with many beautiful things, but no ultimate meaning. Could you cope with it?

In the end, Jackson and I probably part ways at this point. For me, I had a dawning realisation that God being there or not was not actually determined by how much I felt he was there, and that was the start of the road back.

But for this song, Jackson embraces the uncertainty and encourages his listeners to “Go out and make a joyful sound” – regardless of whether you are able to believe in something higher or not.

However, in the final analysis, he is stunningly honest about what happens if you choose this path. In today’s day and age, we would probably make the being joyful part almost transcendent. In other words, if you can be happy yourself, make others happy, that’s pretty much as sacred as following a religion. “For a Dancer” is far more down-to-earth in its final lines:

“And somewhere between the time
You arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know”

It’s certainly a far cry from today’s mantra of finding your highest purpose. But maybe – as is the point with the music I’m writing about in this series of posts – maybe contemplating death changes our thinking about our highest purpose.

Anyway, before you have a listen to the actual song, I just found out that poor old Jackson Browne has actually tested positive to coronavirus. I do hope he gets better soon.


Music and Mortality #1: My thoughts on COVID-19 and Bach Cantata BWV8


Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

It’s been about three years since I posted on this particular blog, but I’ll be honest, COVID-19 has driven me to it. Plus I now have a bit more time on the weekends.

As many of you may know, I work in marketing for an orchestra. In Australia. And so, in less than two weeks, a group of talented musicians, many of them my friends, went from performing for an audience nearly every weekend to now being stuck at home, victims of a ban on public gatherings that started at anything larger than 500 people in one place and very quickly turned into anything greater than 100.

So here I am at home on a Saturday night – and not facing up to the prospect of going out to a concert tonight. (To be fair, there wasn’t one scheduled for this Saturday – it was next weekend. But you get the idea. I’m going to have to keep the moths off my concert-going clothes.)

But what I wanted to drill right down to today, because I can be as relentless about oversharing as I can about pursuing cold shivers – is the fear of death.

This week was exhausting. In fact, I checked Twitter on Friday afternoon and the word “Exhausted” was trending. (Sorry I didn’t screenshot that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

There are many reasons for this exhausted feeling (unexpected work, sudden change, trying to work out how to video conference!), but my theory is that the biggest reason for this collective collapse-in-a-heap – even if we’re not saying it out loud – is that my nation has taken a collective adrenaline shot of the fear of death.  Sure, we’re all talking about locking down and working from home to “flatten the curve”. But I think when we read the words “flatten the curve”, we’re not just talking about the idea of slowing down the rate at which we get sick. I think for many of us, what we’re hoping is that we won’t get sick. And we’re hoping that, because many of us aren’t ready to die.

Or maybe it’s just me? Whatever, I’ll ‘fess up.

In my head, up to a couple of weeks ago, my money was on me lasting maybe to my late 60s at least. The idea that this year or the next could be my last – no, that was not featuring in my thinking and planning. And these last two weeks have exposed how deeply I fear that changing. And I say that even as a Christian, someone who feels confident that there is life beyond this one.

There was an interesting blog post by Stephen McAlpine recently, back a few weeks ago when the biggest thing going on in Australia was the lack of toilet paper. I’m truncating his full thoughts, but he made these comments:

There’s a thin veneer of confidence in the Western world that is completely untested by any major traumatic event that sweeps all before it … It is a confidence that has held no weight and has no knowledge of anything that could break it. Yet. …

It’s like those videos of people in turbulence-rocked planes, with oxygen masks and luggage bouncing around, crying and screaming out that they don’t want to die.  And then the plane lands and they don’t die. And they have their holiday in Fiji and their massages and their cocktails on the beach.

But somewhere tucked in the back of their mind is the fact that actually they don’t want to die, but they will someday have to. It just wasn’t today.  And it just wasn’t that way.

This idea that we walk around with a fear of death tucked under a thin veneer of confidence was striking to me and has played on my mind.

But rather than get too philosophical about that (I’ll leave that up to Stephen and others!), it got me thinking about several bits of music I’ve come across over the years that deal with death. Maybe I’m morbid, but if fear of our own mortality is what we’re facing, music can sometimes be a more subtle way of looking it in the eye.

So I was thinking I could do a series of three or four blog posts sharing different music that I’ve come across that has a strikingly open view of death. But the one that I wanted to start with was one I stumbled across several years ago – the opening chorus of Bach’s Cantata BWV8.

A quick bit of background if you’re not aware of Bach’s cantatas. The great composer J.S. Bach used to compose music for the Lutheran church and wrote about 250 short works (about 20-25 minutes long) for orchestra, choir and soloists called cantatas. They would have been performed in the Sunday service and would have been tied to a particular Bible reading or theme for that particular Sunday.

The BWV8 cantata was composed for the 16th Sunday after Trinity on the calendar and it’s the day where, as far as I can tell, the congregation contemplated their mortality.

So this chorus “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” literally translates as “Dearest God, when will my death be?” I cannot think of any church I’ve ever been to in my 41 years of church going that ever got as in-your-face about death as Bach does in this opening line of the chorus.

The full lyrics in English are:

Dearest God, when will my death be?
Now my days run ever on,
And the heirs of the old Adam,
In whose number I, too, am,
Have this for their legacy,
That they for a little while,
Poor and wretched, earth inhabit
And then are with earth united.

Here we go – in one chorus, we’re inhabiting the earth poor and wretched for a little bit and then get united with the earth. The next few sections of the cantata expand on this and explicitly and deliberately  work through the fears of death and offer the comfort of Jesus. (You can go read the full lyrics here to see how it plays out.)

But just have a listen to this opening chorus, because even despite the somberness of the sentiment in the words, Bach spins it out with some of the most delicate beauty ever created in music. There are long pauses between each line of singing, with a glorious duet between two oboe d’amores (an older version of our current oboe). Underpinning all that, if you listen closely, you can hear a very insistent rhythm, a slow ticking in the low strings, and a fast furious ticking on the flute. (Almost like one is the minute hand and the other is the second hand on a clock.)

I can’t prove this and maybe a Bach scholar can help me out, but even if it wasn’t done on purpose, the idea that this chorus literally ticks like the clock of our life, while discussing the idea that that clock will stop one day, is just musically spectacular and utterly moving. Somehow, miraculously, Bach has moved the fear of today’s age front and centre and said, “Let’s talk about it.”