Coping with Death by Immersion in Music
Two days ago a friend told me her friend lost a son in a car accident. Death is a tragedy at any time of life, but when you're young it's an especially shocking jolt to the system. When I was a senior in high school, a good friend I had known since the early years of elementary school lost his life in a car accident just a couple of months before graduation. He was a bright, athletic young man and full of potential. He was part of the State Championship soccer team the previous fall and planned to go to small college in Illinois to continue his education. The visitation and funeral was typical for a person his age - attended by hundreds of people expressing their sympathy to the family for their loss. My fellow classmates, which included his twin sister, and I were devastated and his family even more so. While I grieved over the loss of a longtime friend I had to keep moving. I finished high school in May and moved onto college that fall.
The following fall, a full 18 months after losing my friend, it happened again. Another family from my neighborhood suffered the same tragic loss when their son was also killed in a car accident. While I felt sick that it happened to someone else I knew well, it was difficult to completely comprehend the situation. My emotions were already strained as my grandfather, a man I looked to with great reverence, was in the final stages of colon cancer and died that same weekend. If that wasn't enough, the father of one of my dad's best friends died later that month. This was someone I had looked up to as another grandfather figure spending time on a weekly basis at his house being paid by my father's friend to cut the grass.
Six months later, a third blow was dealt as the younger brother of one of my best friends - someone I had known since first grade and that lived two houses down - died in a tragic car accident. With his best friend at the wheel, the two fell asleep on the way home from a weekend spent with the driver's family. The driver lived as he had his seat belt on, but the accident killed my friend's younger brother. By this point the it became surreal. I skipped my only chance to see The Ramones live to be with my friend and his family. I was numb.
What allowed me to cope with these events? How do you move on from so much death around you? For me it was music. Each time I retreated into the depths of my record collection and listened to music that would ease the pain of losing these people in my life.
In 1992, seminal artist and Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famer Lou Reed released his album Magic and Loss, a highlight of the work of his middle period. As he had done lamenting the state of decay of his hometown New York City on his 1989 work New York and the death of mentor Andy Warhol on Songs For Drella (with former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale) in 1990, Reed wrote lyrics expressing his thoughts with the topic of death for Magic and Loss. In the album's lyrics, Reed dealt with the loss via cancer of songwriting friend Doc Pomus and former Andy Warhol devotee Rotten Rita and over the course of a year. A song concerning the death of his college roommate who died homeless on the streets of New York City also appears. Reed's song cycle therapeutically allowed him to grieve for his friends and listening to his work did the same for me. Read the review for the album in Rolling Stonewritten by longtime music journalist David Fricke.
Below, I present Reed performing the song "What's Good" (on the album subtitled 'The Theme') on the original Late Night with David Letterman on NBC back in 1992. Please disregard Reed's mullet left over from the late '80s, how young Letterman seems, and how hot Elle McPherson looks, and listen to the lyrics of the song.
Previously, many other musicians had written songs about death that strongly affected them. From the sad folk ballads chronicling news events like the sinking of the Titanic to the Dixon Brothers "The School House Fire" to modern singer/songwriters grieving over friends and loved ones (i.e. Eddie Floyd's "Big Bird," Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" to Eric Clapton's "Tears of Heaven"), musicians have helped heal themselves and their listeners through song. Yet, the prolific Reed dedicated an entire concept album to the subject - a moving document to a few friends lost. Yes, I know what you're thinking - Indie rock darlings the Arcade Fire brought us down with their 2004 debut album Funeral written with several deceased family members in mind, but I have to stick with Reed as he helped me through a particularly emotional time.
Final Note: A good read for music lovers is a 2007 memoir published by Rob Sheffield, Fricke's colleague at Rolling Stone, titled Love Is A Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time about the death of his wife Renée who died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism.