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.