Some thoughts on grief and its treatment in songs

My very close friend Adam just wrote a very candid and thoughtful post in his blog about his ongoing process of grief and remembrance of his sister, who died when we were both in the eighth grade. I remember this time very vividly, not least of all because my own father had died three years earlier. When my friend was faced with his own tragedy, as different as the circumstances of our losses were–my father had had ongoing medical problems–I still related very deeply to him, perhaps sensing that despite these dissimilarities he would understand better than anyone else around me what I had suffered and continued to suffer. I journaled and wrote poems, sharing many of these with Adam. I have sometimes felt ashamed or selfish for having taken a tragic event in his life as an occasion to revisit my own pain, although I’ve forgiven myself somewhat for that, realizing that probably some unconscious part in my 14-year-old self recognized that I still had a lot of healing left to do, healing that perhaps could not have happened at 11, and sprung at the opportunity.

There’s a lot more that I could say about my own long process of grief, which, despite being able to live a rich and satisfying life and consider myself a whole person, I am not certain will ever be done. But what I realized reading Adam’s honest reflection was how superficial and therefore inadequate treatments of grief are in our cultural canon. It’s true that mourning is a deeply personal process and often a very private one, but there’s a fine line between that and secrecy or shame. As far as the medium with which this blog is primarily concerned, songs about the death of a loved one are far less common than those of romance or heartbreak, and with a much more restricted range of acceptable responses, even though I’m inclined to think that the former is the more universal experience.

For my own part, I’ve written dozens of love songs, but only recently have begun to write about my father, despite never having stopped being emotionally affected by his death over the past fifteen years. Part of that is that I want to make sure I get it right, and my relationship to this fact of my life keeps changing. But this isn’t a reservation I have about other people in my life whom I’m moved to write about: I’ve written a song to a lover during our time together, another when it ended and a third when we became close friends again.

Considering, as Adam does, the obligations that I have to myself and/or others who are still alive, it seems imperative that I should write about my loss. I’ve stressed in my past few entries that I consider music to be my contribution to the world: to be more specific, my duty as a songwriter is to render my experiences so that others might be be able to give their pain a shape and a name and realize that these struggles are not theirs alone. The insufficiency of the current body of work addressing this experience seems to demand that I should add my voice, trusting that someone will find themselves in it. Perhaps the most important function of art is to recognize and validate, both to ourselves and to society, feelings about which we might otherwise feel ashamed.

“Fire and Rain”: how to say the unbearable thing without really saying it

My partner warned me against following up my first post with one about James Taylor, for fear that I would pigeonhole myself into frumpiness.  I would probably take her advice if my post were analyzing the lyrical intricacies of a song like “Shower” (What else would you shower the people you love with?  Don’t answer that).  But there’s nothing much more gut-wrenching than a song about a recently passed companion, and “Fire and Rain” is undoubtedly among the best in this category (see also: “You Never Know” by Immortal Technique).

There are a few nice moments in the verses that I appreciate: the grim reliance on faith in the second verse, for instance, stirs a note of pity even in the heart of this lifelong atheist. But really, it’s all about the chorus. Specifically, the last line. Let’s go to the transcript:

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

Before I knew what this song was about, I used to listen to these lines, finding them sweet and somber but not knowing quite why they had such hurt wrapped up in them. Sure, he surveys the hard stretches along the path he’s walked, but it’s implied that because he’s endured them, the good at least somewhat balances out the bad. Then I noticed: the construction of the last line is a bit awkward, at least in terms of rhetorical convention. If he begins by declaring, ‘I’ve seen this, that and the other’ and then halts us with a ‘but’, what follows should properly be in the negative. Which is to say:

“But I never thought that I’d never see you again.”

Which is a far more awful thing to state. To me, it doesn’t seem like much of the song’s sadness comes from the ‘lonely times’ at all, but from the fact that the speaker had been counting on seeing his friend again, probably countless times again for years to come, and this hope had given him strength through all his trials. Not only will he never take comfort in that again, but chances are he’s been in the red for some time, and the rug has been pulled out.

Whether the construction was conscious or not, I suspect that James Taylor found it unbearable to admit this fact outright, but our understanding of syntactical expectancies fixes it for us in the same way that our brains fix the upside-down view of the world captured by our eyes. We’re aware of his loss the same way he’s aware of the sun: ever-present, incontrovertible, impossible to face directly.