Out of This World Music

End of Life Songs

Suppositions about dying educe meanings for living. Death opposes life. Likewise, life addresses death. Death is for life a grand question and master teacher. What? When? Where? How? Why? Then? Meanings granted to death both enhance and diminish living.

I first explored the interrogative quality of death sixty-two years ago in a course entitled Death and Society I taught at Clark University. While it should have been obvious—because death, then as now, hovered nearby in the shadows—I was thirty, and nicely deceived. While death feels in my ninth decade starkly real and friendlier, it remains respectfully remote, even as its statistical probability nears one-hundred percent. I try to remain nicely deceived, and, with David Gilmour and Pink Floyd, comfortably numb.

Despite the politics of self deceit, or as the fruit of it perhaps, I have temporally ‘settled’ on five pieces of music as enduringly meaningful to me, the outcome of a personal inquisition addressing living and dying. They are only five of thousands; hopefully there will be more. They are owned by other creators, and I thank them all, particularly Leonard Cohen, from whom I’ve chosen three songs, for their generative authority and wisdom. They are mine now only because mine is mine. The wisdom of the music, while deeply personal, is drawn from a cultural heritage available to us all.

I share the five beloved songs here by title, lyrics, a recent YouTube version, and comments.

Black Peter

Black Peter was written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter for the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead album of 1970.

Lyrics

All of my friends come to see me last night
I was laying in my bed and dying
Annie Beauneu from Saint Angel
say “the weather down here so fine”

Just then the wind
came squalling through the door
but who can
the weather command?
Just want to have
a little peace to die
and a friend or two
I love at hand

Fever roll up to a hundred and five
Roll on up
gonna roll back down
One more day
I find myself alive
tomorrow
maybe go
beneath the ground

See here how everything
lead up to this day
and it’s just like
any other day
that’s ever been
Sun goin up
and then the
sun it goin down
Shine through my window and
my friends they come around
come around
come around

People may know but
the people don’t care
that a man could be
as poor as me…
“Take a look at poor Peter
he’s lyin in pain
now let’s go run
and see”

Run and see
hey, hey,
run and see

Here are two versions of Black Peter from YouTube, first the original studio version from the Workingman’s Dead album, the other by Peter Lavezolli, #27 in the JambaseSongs of Their Own” series compiled for the fifty year anniversary celebration of The Grateful Dead in 2015.

Comment

Not everyone gets to experience death. Life can be suddenly snuffed out without a whisk of consciousness. If given the choice, I’d prefer to see it coming and experience something. In this context, Peter, our interlocutor, has gained a wise and mature vantage point: he knows he’s dying, today or tomorrow, he accepts it, it’s fine, and he requires only the company of a few good friends. This mental achievement is stupendous; I admire his maturity and sufferance. It’s a day like any other, and death has been coming every day all his life. Even the weather loses its capacity to command!

But then, the serenity turns back on itself into shocking catastrophe. The expected friends turn out to be “people who know,” but “people who don’t care.” folks who no longer see a friend, but rather a dying “Poor Peter.” In the shock of non-recognition they abandon the friendship, unfriend “Poor Peter,” leaving time only for them to “go run, and see.” You kidding me? Run and see?

“Run and see
hey, hey,
run and see. . .”

This situation is reminiscent of the social limbo into which imminent death casts Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s masterful 1886 narrative, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Reality vanishes poof in the death room; nonexistence enters prematurely before physical life ends. In Peter’s case, we might hope his friends would wise up and take the opportunity to hang around with him a bit more, one more day perhaps! But yet, how many people wise up in the face of death? Not me! Not much!

Here is the blatant truth. Death is fairly obvious. Peter’s friends see it coming well before it topples Peter into his deathbed. Because they “know,” they “care,” but mostly about overcoming shock and managing powerful personal fears. Discombobulated, they take a quick look-see, and then abscond mentally to a happier time beyond death. People wish to be oblivious to death, and, when that is no longer possible, minds move quickly beyond. At the instant of shock, Peter transforms into a curiosity, a specimen of death, no longer a man.

The Darkness

Leonard Cohen published The Darkness in his 2012 album, Old Ideas.

Lyrics 

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up

I got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

I should’ve seen it coming
It was right behind your eyes
You were young and it was summer
I just had to take a dive

Winin’ you was easy, but darkness was the price

I don’t smoke no cigarette, I don’t drink no alcohol
I ain’t had much loving yet
But that’s always been your call
Hey I don’t miss it baby
I got no taste for anything at all

I used to love the rainbow
And I used to love the view
Another early morning, I’d pretend that it was you
But I caught the darkness baby
And I got it worse than you

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up

Here is a  YouTube version of The Darkness as recorded on the album.

Comment

In Black Peter, death is taken lying down; Peter is dying; he awaits death. In The Darkness, death is faced straight up, in what is represented as life; death shows up early and disturbingly often in splashes of darkness. Soulfulness dies in spatters of black in all the familiar places of emotive geography. The future disappears; the present “isn’t pleasant;” even the past “doesn’t last.” And it’s life that apparently did it to him: “drinking from its cup,” no alcohol needed; just drink it up.

It is neat to observe Cohen’s interlocutors at play in his poem songs. In The Darkness, a “you” appears who at times is an earlier self, and at others a lover or friend or life itself, playing temptress, risk taker, or tease. Regret comes stumbling out with the joy and the pleasure. He uses these voices to introduce mistakes and sin into the world. Whatever it is that has happened before, darkness is a byproduct—natural ennui, personal anomie.

We are already dead in so many ways. From The Darkness comes the opportunity to fess up to one’s small virtual acts of emotional and cognitive suicide, and decide what if anything to do about it. Of course, aging—and Cohen is writing in 2014, two years before death overtakes him—brings on the darkness all by itself, so one need not do a thing! Drink life up! One question is how much value there is in kidding oneself about that. But with Cohen, and in this his song, I take satisfaction that I’m still quite wonderfully alive while discovering within myself a small accumulation of tiny murders, accidents, and suicides!

Speaking of imaginative interlocutors, notice that Garcia and Hunter use them too. Peter reports early from his deathbed that:

”Annie Beauneu from Saint Angel
say “the weather down here so fine.”

Oh great! How cool is that?

The phenomena of the arrival of darkness—as death within life—should not dissuade us from noting the larger context! Physics, Genesis, the solar system, for examples. Life is nothing if not a light show. In the beginning there was light. The solar system is a hydrogen to helium and beyond nuclear generator, and is photon genetic! May the lights never burn out in our universe! And, in reference to you and me, the large light words include see, sight, insight, view, intuition, idea, image, and illumination. We’re lightbulbs after all, and through and through!

You Want It Darker

Leonard Cohen published You Want It Darker in his album by that title in 2016, shortly before his death on November 7th of that year at the age of 82.

Lyrics

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Hineni
Hineni, hineni
Hineni

Comment

This is Leonard Cohen’s death song. As he explained in an interview, he had no idea where it came from; the writer can’t know that! Still—and this is a possible pleasure as well as practical achievement—Cohen gained the chance to die with the song on his lips if he chose, if that’s where for him in the end the meaning was at. We auditors get that chance too. I love the song for that reason, but for other reasons more.

I love the way Cohen inherits in this one song all of his religious and cultural tradition as a Jew, and all his humanism and secularism as a man. Note too that these two are joined, not separate, the dialogue is generated within each and by both.

It feels right that Cohen should dare in this summing up to take on God directly, face to grace, as Abraham and Moses were earlier invited, indeed incited, to do. It feels right too that the joint success, but alas, double failure, of God and Man, is declared, in case the  disappointing results had been overlooked by the media. We’re speaking millennia here. God and man in their conspiratorial promising have thus far failed the planet and humanity

“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame”

There is the promise of love. There are the lit candles, millions. There is the magnificence, sanctity, revile, killing, and even crucifixion. There’s the great non-arrival of love, and salvation. There’s the guilt and the shame. And some god, the One who is not “dealing,” Cohen surmises, wants it darker? And we—who, what, why, how—we humans kill the flame?

Yet, when at death’s door this burden is brought to the threshold of the temple, and a choice must be made between healer and dealer, and between human and holy, all the pent up energy of a civilization and a life well- and ill-lived quietly invites, insists:

“Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord.”

I appreciate Cohen’s choice.

It is heartwarming to have this great synthesis nearby as I age, to have this song to sing, but, to be honest, I’ve already declared in my book Abdication a preference for increasing the screws on humans and allowing God to abdicate to a well-earned, emeritus status. I haven’t changed my mind. Our species made the problem, has the problem, and is the problem. We have the tools and responsibility to redeem the planet and ourselves.

Brighten up people! Lighten up the world! Let the burdens of dying bring insight to the living.

Air on the G String
Anthem

Air on the G String” is an arrangement of the third movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068. The Suite was written sometime between 1717 and 1723. August Wilhelmj, a violinist writing in the late nineteenth century, is credited with the violin arrangement and its popular title.“By transposing the key of the piece from its original D major to C major,” an authority explains, “and transposing the melody down an octave, Wilhelmj was able to play the piece on only one string of his violin, the G string.”

Here are two favorite YouTube versions, the first featuring the violinist Anastasiya Petryshak, the other by Voices of Music.

Anthem is the marvelous musical synthesis of Leonard Cohen’s secular worldview. The Song appears in his 1992 album, The Essential Leonard Cohen.

Lyrics

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring …

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

Comment

On May 10, 2018, David Goodall, an 104 year old Australian scientist, took his own life in a well planned, celebrated act of assisted suicide. He would have chosen to die a decade earlier when he lost his driving license, mobility, and sight. But it was illegal. When asked about his imminent death, Goodall explained: “I’m looking forward to it,” “I’m happy that this period beforehand has been used to interview me, and I’ve brought the ideas of euthanasia to light.” He hadn’t lost his sense of humor either; he wore for the occasion a shirt emblazoned with the words “Aging Disgracefully.”

The event was funded by $20,000 of donations in what could be described as the inverse of a Make a Wish program. Instead of forgetting and postponing death by embracing a new and exciting life experience, Goodall chose death to avoid another miserable year of life! And there’s more. The plan involved a planned trip from his home in Australia to the event in London. He died while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy.

That’s where I come into the story. While I admire Goodall, his courage, his views on euthanasia, and the grandeur of his exit, I wouldn’t have chosen Ode to Joy. He made a fine choice, right for him, but it wouldn’t have been right for me. While I love Ode to Joy and a long playlist of other music well-suited to the end of life experience, I wouldn’t die with them on my lips, if I had the choice.

I’m being unnecessarily vague. Let me be clearer. With The Darkness I inherited a set of eyeglasses by which to identify and root out needless dead zones in daily living and, conversely, to come to terms with unavoidable restrictions of aging. In Black Peter I found a song that helps me think about the attitude I’d like to be able to assume toward death when it comes. In You Want it Darker I gained some help in writing a swan song, a last prayer perhaps, a final thought.

All that seems lacking to while away the dead time is background music, an equivalent substitute to Goodall’s choice of Ode to Joy.

My problem with Ode to Joy is only that it seems to settle the question of death prematurely, by declaring a conquering joy. Death loses its sting, but I’m not needful for that. I prefer a world in which life on earth goes on and the planet, life, and society eventually improve. Ode to Joy doesn’t do that work; it’s not important in my dying.

I much prefer music in which the universe does the speaking, and life goes perfunctorily along. I seek a beautiful equivalent and successor to what has come to us since The Big Bang as cosmic background microwave noise! For that I can’t imagine a more lovely, mathematical, and eternal surround than Air on the G String, a recurring ecstasy beyond words, joy, and comprehension.

But I am also a writer and an educator, and it’s too soon to give up on the use of words, to give up on the efficacy of words. If Air on the G String is too remote from language, let Anthem be played occasionally throughout the cosmos when the Air on the G String  is on vacation. It would make wonderful planetary background music. As the Poet proclaims:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. “

Alas, with this, death proceeds, and darkness recedes.

Endnote

Montaigne, in his Essays, asserts that “to philosophize is to learn to die.” He says much that is useful and wise on the subject. Yet, today, those who believe him a victorious advocate of thinking, wisdom-seeking, and philosophy, are countered by others who just as fervently believe him an advocate of non-thinking, blithe epicureanism, and obliviousness to death.

Given such ambivalence, I am obliged to wonder whether this paper, written from just beyond Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” advances thinking, philosophy, and wisdom, or obscures the true relationship between life and death. The reader gets to decide. I confess to feeling better, if not necessarily wiser. The texts—the five songs, the music—seem infinite fonts of wisdom to me, but my comments may not have reached the nectar, may not have accessed the treasure. I may have designed a pleasant auditorium to hang out in and await living, but understanding death—as to its meaning and lessons—remains remote, feels elusive.

By taking up this project, I’ve satisfied a need to fashion a structure of music and meaning around the expectation of death. I’ve found poems to love and songs to sing. I understand myself better. Perhaps readers will conclude they understand me better too. That would be nice, good, and quite enough, but I’m hoping that readers gain their own vital insights too.

Life is most meaningful when fine music is at hand for all occasions, including dying! That’s the core insight of the paper. My dying, or yours—“bye, bye, Miss American Pie”—doesn’t matter as much as do waves of music, waltzing near the speed of light, retarding darkness. The composer’s ambition is to convert the sounds of cosmic birth and background noise to the likes of Air on the G String, Ode to Joy, and Anthem, all the way to Hallelujah and beyond, while conveying wise counsel to all of us along the way. So may it forever be.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

June 11, 2018

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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