Death

Instead of talking about death, let's sing about it

I spent the day putting together an application to be a speaker at End Well — “a dynamic gathering of individuals committed to generating human-centered, interdisciplinary innovation for the end of life experience.”

I wanted to share what I wrote in my application because it may spark something in you — a story you want to share with me or perhaps you have a place for me to come speak and sing these songs.

What would you talk about on stage? 250 words or less.

My mom got ovarian cancer. I abruptly left a successful career as a performing singer-songwriter and moved home to be her primary caregiver. Throughout all the acts related to her “living dyingly” (to use Christopher Hitchens’s potent phrase) -- the rounds of chemo, the periods of radiation, and, eventually, the months of  hospice care -- I wrote songs. It was nearly impossible to find time to craft lyrics and melodies amidst the overwhelming demands of her disease. It often felt utterly absurd to put the enormity of our grief into musical form. But try I did. In little bursts of lyrics and melody.

That act -- of being creative in the face of the ravages of her disease and her impending death -- ended up being my most important act of care.

I’d watch the impossible weight of her sadness and despair lift -- just a little -- as I sung her my song “Letting Go,” “Come a little closer now / Take my hand / It’s not loss / Let’s try to understand / It’s so hard / You should know / It’s not loss / Let’s call it letting go.”

That I would use precious minutes of free time to write a song about her made my mom feel loved, worthy, and cared for on a primal level. My songs gave expression to emotions neither of us knew how to talk about, emotions best expressed through the ancient act of singing. She experienced release and relief through that rhythm and resonance.


How is this speaking topic new, innovative?  Be as specific as possible.

Writing and performing pop/jazz songs about death, dying, and the landscape of loss while living that experience (as the primary caregiver) is something I’ve not seen and heard many other musicians do. There are, of course, some brave souls who’ve walked the path. Paste Magazine, that arbiter of culture, has done a round-up of the most well-known examples: “10 Historic Albums About the Loss of A Loved One.” Still, it’s an endeavor that’s heart-wrenching and begs a lot of questions.

Now that I am recording and performing the music I wrote for my mom, audiences ask me how I did it. They want to know two things -- how I did it literally (how I found the time and the energy when the caregiving was so all-encompassing) and how I did it figuratively (how I found the words to express the inexpressible blank space of death).

To be creative in the midst of the complexity of caregiving was no easy feat. I wrote melodies while my mom and I were sitting in the chemo suite. I wrote lyrics on the days when she couldn’t get out of bed, dead-tired from the side effects of treatment: “She’s been lying in her bed all day, sleeping off the meds / Think I’ll open up the window to what hasn’t yet been said.” I’d retreat to my bedroom and scribble away, pausing to check on her every hour or so. I’m a musician. I knew that somehow, in some way I had to try to process the unfathomable through my chosen medium.

After I finished the first song about our experience, called “Death Come Slow,” and after I played it for her, I knew I had to keep writing and singing. She burst into tears and hugged all the air out of me. I felt like I had finally found a way to speak to the shadow figure of Death that was haunting us: “Your crooked shadow there at the door. My two hands can’t help her no more / Split my fingers, skinned both my knees, crawling after her disease. / Death come slow / Death come shy / Death don’t you look her / in the eye.” That song gave us both the courage to face another day.

What would your audience get out of hearing these songs and my story? They’d viscerally experience a different way of processing death and dying. Music is a different medium than conversation, than dialogue, than spoken word. It’s elemental. It breaks us open; it breaks through in ways the intellect alone cannot.

Lastly, I want to tell you that I made a conscious decision to write songs not only about the dark and sorrowful parts of my mom’s dying, but also about the light and joyful aspects of our time together. She and I were hyper-aware of the opportunities her diagnosis presented. We talked honestly not only about how she wanted to die, but also about how she wanted to live. Every conversation about death turned into one about life. There is a dimensionality to these songs. The lyrics and melodies transform unutterable grief into something shareable, even sing-along-able. The music is candid and compassionate, heart-wrenching and, miraculously, life-affirming.

What A Song Is and What A Song Does: Intro to the Death Album

On December 9, 2017, I went into the studio to begin recording my next album — affectionately nicknamed (for now) “The Death Album.” The songs chronicle my time accompanying my mom from diagnosis of ovarian cancer to death. At this point, in the midst of this multi-year project, I feel compelled to corral some of the thoughts I had and notes I made along the way.

My 3 Things - March 2017

1. LISTENING: “I Told Jesus” by Roberta Flack (aka “If He Change My Name”)

Looking across different versions of a single song is one of the best things about recorded music.

In last month's My 3 Things, we listened to Marian Anderson’s fine rendition of this gospel tune. Now, we turn to Flack’s take on it. Entitled “I Told Jesus," it appears on her magnificent debut album First Take, released in 1969. (I am forever indebted to my friend John Ellis for telling me about this album and insisting I check it out.) 

Her arrangement is slow and brooding, a string section quivering from the start. It patiently builds, almost coming to a stop once or twice in the beginning. Flack gazes inward, the lyrics performed sotto voce. Momentum gathers as the song moves on, and the hushed restraint gives way to defiance by the end (marked by her powerful vocal cadenza starting at 5:24). 

Now that we've heard Anderson and Flack, spend some time with these two takes by Nina Simone: Live, Village Gate 1962 version and Live, Paris 1968 version.  Simone is mercurial as ever. You won't be disappointed.

 

2. READING: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
Reading the final few pages of this provocative, breathtaking, and immensely satisfying collection of essays was a sad experience. Turning the last page, I had to face the fact that I’d never be able to open one or more of our important newspapers or magazines and read Hitchens on, say, President Donald Trump, to pick a single spring-loaded topic.

Arguably was Hitchens’s fifth collection of essays. Published in September 2011, he died in December of that year. More than 780 pages long and containing 107 essays ranging from literary journalism to political commentary to cultural criticism, his writing here is vital, his thoughts and opinions as relevant today as when they were written. 

When I availed myself of the critical reviews of Arguably (after I had finished reading it), I found I wasn't the only person saddened by this book. When the book came out, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote: "This fifth and, one fears, possibly last collection of [Hitchens's] essays is a reminder of all that will be missed when the cancer is finished with him."

All that will be missed is a shatteringly tremendous amount.

Was there ever a US President — much less a US politician or, let’s be real, a single person on the face of planet Earth — more in need of one of Hitchens’s blistering tear-downs than this orange-tinted man-baby? #seriously

Where to begin? Let's start with language itself.

Hitch would be having a f-cking field day with Trump. Studies put Trump’s vocabulary at, variously, third- or fourth-, maybe (if the linguists are being generous and he -- for once -- decides to stick to a script) a sixth-grade level. 

Hitchens’s vocabulary? 

Nothing short of jaw-dropping. Reading Arguably, I looked up more than 60 words I didn't know or didn't know well enough. And Hitchens’s turn-of-phrase is masterful, delightful; I found myself highlighting passages just so I could return to and revel in his language not to mention his argument.

The essay "Words Matter" (from Slate, March 3, 2008) gives us a clue as to how outraged Hitchens would've been by Trump's abuse of language. Hitchens is heartbreakingly prescient:

“Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps ten keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators.”  

He nailed it, I’m devastated to say. 

(It is beyond the scope of my endeavor to imagine how satisfying it would be to hear Hitchens parse the incongruous word pairings “alternative facts” and “fake news” with which we are forevermore saddled. And Trump’s banning of major respected news outlets from the White House daily briefing on Friday, February 24?? I imagine Hitchens would’ve been apoplectic.)

There's so much in this collection of essays that I could go on and on about, but I'll finish by saying that Hitchens’s respect for the reader is a tonic. 

I felt revivified and renewed reading each of these essays, as well as challenged and occasionally maddened (his piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny” isn’t funny, in more ways than one).

Agree with him or don’t, either way this book is a riveting, important read. 

 

3. UPDATING: Death, a reading list - Part 2 … revisited for the making of the Death Album
Way back in December of 2013, I wrote a blog post called “Death, a reading list” in which I shared a “list of the books about death and dying that I find worthwhile, thought-provoking, gut-wrenching.”

The post was a snapshot of where I was then, what I was thinking and learning about.

At the time, I didn’t know how long my Mom had to live or what work she and I would be doing to bring her to a “good” death, by which I mean a death she had chosen, was at peace with, a letting go that felt true and right to her being.

Turns out, there would be more of ... everything: chemo, cyber-knife radiation, hormone therapy, and hospice. And that was just the medical / physical part of it. 

There would still be more of the entire range of her spiritual / psychological reckoning with cancer and death that we both felt was as important (if not more) than any of the miracles her doctors could perform.

I am talking about the deep conversations we were to have, the many Joseph Campbell videos we were to watch and re-watch, the half-a-dozen sessions with a wonderful and caring oncology psychologist, the dedicated trips to visit (in the words of Campbell) her “bliss stations” or favorite places, and the specifically-planned but wonderfully-unstructured time with dear friends and closest family. There would be many more walks in nature, much more time with her dogs, and hours of feeling good and not-so-good, and hours feeling she was ready and yet not ready to die. In short, there was so much more life to be lived between that blog post and her last day, October 13, 2015.

I've been living and wrestling with her death ever since. But then you know this: you've been following along.

The two great commitments of my life since she was diagnosed in October of 2011 have been: 1) caring for her from diagnosis to death (and beyond); 2) writing songs about that journey.

I’ve written well over 20 songs and this year I'll be making something of them — an album, more than a few concerts, collaborations with other artists, etc.  I lovingly and tongue-in-cheekily refer to this project as “The Death Album.” 

Recently, I’ve played some of the songs on Facebook Live; maybe you’ve watched. (If not, this is one you should watch because I lay it all on the line.)

Since that "Death, a reading list" blog post, I’ve done a lot of living, reading, and songwriting.

I thought, on the eve of making the Death Album, it would be appropriate to update the original post. For your consideration: Death, a reading list - Part 2.  

What follows is only an excerpt ... 
"This list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would necessarily recommend it. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have taken the form of a single sentence or two, one chapter, or a particular stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list ... and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still."

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

Death, a reading list - Part 2

Back in December of 2013, I wrote a post called "Death, a reading list."

So much has happened since then, not the least of which was the death of my Mom, I thought it was time to update the list.

As I embark on recording my next album -- lovingly nicknamed "The Death Album" for now -- I wanted to lay a trail of breadcrumbs between the worlds (and words) I've been immersed in and the songs I've been writing about my Mom, our time together, her living and dying, and my own living and dying ("you are dying everyday").

As with my original post, this list is certainly not a “best of," nor is it in any particular order. You have to find your own way through this topic, as we all do. And just because a book appears here does not mean I loved it and would recommend it without reserve. These titles have shaped my thinking about death, but that shaping may have come in the form of a single sentence or two, a single chapter, or merely a stance toward mortality more generally.

I've only carried one book over from the original list (go back to that post if you want to see the others) and that is Christopher Hitchens's Mortality.

I am never not reading Mortality. I finish it and immediately begin again. I've given away my own copy so often -- at gigs and to friends and acquaintances -- that I now keep a stack on my desk for just such occasions. It is the keystone of the Death Album; it is the touchstone of the songs about death I have written and am writing still.

THE LIST:

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life & Nothing To Be Frightened Of

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart

Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary

Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Edited by Kevin Young, The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

Complied by Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems

Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

Lapham's Quarterly: Death, Volume VI, Number 4, Fall 2013

 

 

A cold reading of the Death album

Cold reading is a term used in theater. It means "reading aloud from a script or other text with little or no rehearsal, practice, or study in advance" (Wiki). 

A playwright schedules a reading so she can get a feel for how the play is working as a whole, so she can hear the rhythms of the language of the play in the actors voices. It allows her to see the play from a distance, usually for the first time. It's an integral part of the creative process.

On December 11, 2017 at my apartment on the Bowery, around 35 brave and generous souls gathered to listen to me "read" through nine (out of the 25) songs I have written for the Death album. 

The questions I wanted to answer by staging this reading were these:

  • What is the best way to tell the story of my time as my Mom's caregiver from her diagnosis to her death? What songs? In what order?
  • What is the narrative arc that is most powerful to a listener?
  • How do I talk about these songs as I am performing them? What is the stage banter, if any?
  • How do I keep the show from being too sad? My time with my Mom was filled with happiness and joy, so how do I show the full range of that experience in a set of music?
  • How do I end the show?
  • In general, how did these songs work? What feelings, conversations, and moments did they create?
  • Playing these songs, creating this event, am I any closer to my goal of changing the conversation -- or lack thereof -- around death?

Here's a picture of the set list from that night ... 

If you were there that night, thank you for coming. It was quite an evening! There were more than few tears and more than a few laughs -- including a hilarious prank pulled on me during the show by my dear old Dad!!

I'm so grateful for your attention, your openness, your willingness to cry, laugh, and share yourself with me and my family and friends. We created more than a few moments that night, didn't we?

If you weren't there, I'll be doing more of these evenings at my apartment in NYC.

Don't want to miss out? Make sure you are on the NYC concert list, otherwise you won't get the details about the house concerts and other gigs around the city.

Don't live around here? Let me know in the comments below if you want Facebook live concerts of this music and the album as it takes shape.