Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Ghost of Jacob Marley in Popular Music

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which means "remember death". Traditionally. one hears these words (or the translation thereof) during the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday as ashes are applied to the forehead; "You are dust and to dust you shall return." This may seem like a gloomy thing to write about during a season whose purpose is to bring light as opposed to darkness, but I would argue to the contrary. It is precisely in contemplating your own death that you do consider what is most life affirming. The first line in the story A Christmas Carol goes something like this; "Jacob Marley was as dead as a doornail. For anything good to come out of this story you must first understand this." The point of this morbid opening line is to emphasize that the power of the story hinges upon the realization that death is irrevocable. Once you understand this then you can begin to understand what is at stake in how we live our lives. Yet the force of the story is not merely in the fact that Scrooge experiences the consequence of his sin, but rather in doing so, he, who was formerly a monster, has finally discovered how to become a man. Indeed, it is as a result of being confronted with his own (imminent) demise that he learns how to live for the first time. And we, fellow Scrooges, also rejoice in embracing this tale- if only for a moment- that we too might exorcise some of our own personal "humbug". Thus, far from being a depressing tale, it turns out to be the epitome of the Christmas spirit, which is to say that it is not until one realizes how close he is to perdition, that he can even begin to appreciate having been offered the gift of salvation.

Time - Pink Floyd

The classic album Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album which explores the many roots of insanity.   The aptly titled song Time explores one of these "roots". Filled with various clock-like noises, the song  emphasizes the way in which time always seems to slip through our collective hands; "Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day. You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. And you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. And then one day you'll find ten years have got behind you. No one one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. So you run and run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking racing around to come up behind you again..." The point is whether you waste your time, and "ten years have got behind you," or you try to keep up with the sun, it's always "racing around to come up behind you again." This certainly isn't meant to be a comforting song (after all, the album is about madness), but it does describe rather succinctly the unfortunate condition of man. Certainly the man who lives well is to be lauded, but in either case, as Ecclesiastes says, "all is vanity", and no man, no matter how virtuous, can escape death. However, there is a hint of consolation which comes at the end of the song; "Home, home again, I like to be here when I can. And when I come home cold and tired, it's good to warm my bones beside the fire. Far away across the field, the tolling of the iron bell, calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spell." Pink Floyd would never be accused of being a religious band, but they do seem to suggest in these closing lines (and in the song that follows) that there is only one true solution. We are all running out of time whether we like it or not, and by facing this we are confronted with the fact that we cannot cling to this world. Consequently, we are forced to contemplate eternity and all the important questions that are to be wrestled with concerning God and the afterlife.

Hurt - Johnny Cash      

The last album that Johnny Cash produced before his death was an album of covers. However, in doing so he didn't necessarily select songs that anyone might suspect. Among the list of songs he tackled were Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Trent Reznor's "Hurt." In the case of the latter, the result was incredibly satisfying. Understandably, Trent Reznor was skeptical that his industrial style would mesh well with an aging country legend. But after hearing the finished product he was amazed and essentially declared it to be the definitive version. Not only did the rendering of the song work, but the subsequent video that accompanied the piece was extremely powerful as well. In essence, the video is shot as a kind of retrospective taken from Cash's life in music and movies. His life is literally flashing before his eyes, and as a result a flood of guilt rushes over him, or at least the words suggest it; "What have I become, my sweetest friend. Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt." Bubbling with pent up emotion, the song builds and ultimately becomes even more poignant as one realizes that this was the last video he ever shot. Making it even more powerful are the intermittent flashes of Christ crucified interspersed with the the aforementioned images. The song itself never fully comes out and says it, but it really does serve as a kind of penitential hymn (though perhaps without any discrete absolution). One other important idea suggested in the lyrics is the recognition that all our possessions (in light of mortality) amount to "an empire of dirt". Once again, this may be unsettling- and a little "too Ecclesiastes" for some." but it does shine a spotlight on the impermanence of worldly success. Indeed, when placed in the context of our death, one quickly realizes the absurdity of devoting so much attention to something so transitory.

Natural Blues - Moby

In this particular song, the artist known as Moby, samples the song "Trouble So Hard" from American folk singer, Vera Hall. The primary lyric, which is repeated throughout, goes like this; "Ooh Lordy, trouble so hard, ooh lordy, trouble so hard. Don't nobody know my troubles but God; don't nobody know my troubles but God." In light of the genre, which is electronica, this repetition is somehow appropriate and seems to amplify the power of the message. Like "Hurt", the song and video work well together. The video takes place in a nursing home, wherein an aged Moby finds himself being shuttled down the hallway past various other elderly people who are all watching the sun repeatedly set on a TV screen. Meanwhile, the same phrase is uttered over and over (Ooh Lordy, trouble so hard...) to a techno beat. Eventually Moby arrives in the main room where the rest of the residence are gathered. As he sits in this room, he watches moments from his life appear on the main T.V. set. Yet unlike the previous video, the images that appear are primarily happy ones from days gone by. The genius of the video is not just that it takes place in a nursing home, which is novel enough, but that we get to see the young artist as he might look sixty years down the road. Hence, we are reminded that when we see the elderly, and have to listen to them chatter on about former days, or even listen to them talk incoherently, we should never mock them, for we are looking in a mirror of the future; "There, but for the grace of God go I." In the face of this inevitability, our posture should be one of humility and compassion, not haughtiness and superiority. Incidentally, the video/song ends with an angel, played by Christina Ricci, carrying the body of Moby gracefully down the hall. The last image is of a baby (presumably Moby) being held up by the angel as an offering to God.

Afternoons and Coffeespoons - Crash Test Dummies

This little diamond in the rough comes from the Crash Test Dummies album "God Shuffled His Feet". It details the story of a man who, it would seem, is dealing with, or imagining himself to be dealing with, a cancer diagnosis; "I've had my lungs checked out with X-rays. I've smelled the hospital hallways. Someday I'll have a disappearing hair line. Someday I'll wear pajamas in the daytime, and ohhhho afternoons will be measured out, measure out, measured with, coffee spoons and T.S. Eliot." There is very little subtlety in this song, which is part of its charm. It is a description of the thoughts, smells, and feelings of one who is going through the rather unpleasant (if not banal) process of getting treated for cancer. Moreover, it offers a rather ironic itinerary of what one's day might consist of were it to be "measured out by coffee spoons and T.S. Eliot"; "Times when the day is like a play by Sartre. When it seems a book burning's in perfect order. I've watched the summer evening pass by, I've heard the rattle in my bronchi." Yet as dark as this may all sound, it is comforting in a way. After all, the worst fears are often those we are unwilling to talk about. When we allow the unnamed shadows to build up in our imagination, we become even more terrified. By contrast, when that terror is confronted and named, especially with a little good humor and a willingness to make light of the situation (which this song certainly does), it then can take some of the sting out of that terrible reality; "O death where is thy sting! O' death where is your victory?" And so by expressing these thoughts and feelings we don't feel so alone anymore- as if we were the only one ever to go through this. This is the importance of empathy, to know that someone else has walked the same difficult path that you have without completely losing their bearings.

Live Like You Were Dying - Tim McGraw

Hopefully people have recovered from the fact that this song saturated the airwaves back in the early aughts because, whatever you think about country music, it is a well written song. Country music writers seem to have a remarkable knack for capturing lightening in a bottle with pithy ideas and well phrased truisms. Live Like You Were Dying is no exception. We have all thought about how tragedy can make us reevaluate our lives, or how losing someone can make you realize just how much you love them. But how do you communicate that to someone in a simple way. Enter Live Like You Were Dying. As most of you know, the song details the story of a man in his early 40's who finds out that he has been diagnosed with some form of cancer. As a consequence, he is completely at a loss for what to do. But instead of sulking about the fact that "this really might be the real end", he sets out to do all of those things that he should have been doing in the first place; "I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing. I spent 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu. And I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying. And he said some day I hope you'll get the chance to live like you were dying." Mr. McGraw (and the songwriter) cut right to the heart of Memento Mori here. One does not think about their death for death's sake- they think about it in order to live as if every moment were a precious gift, never to be taken for granted, or frittered away. When we are young we tend to think about our lives as extravagantly lengthy, and therefore there is a lack of urgency when it comes to how we approach life. But imagine with what efficiency we might perform acts of charity and generosity were we to imagine that each day was potentially our last. Alongside this healthy attitude, there is also a more aberrant form of "living life to its fullest," which can be best summed up with the popular acronym YOLO (You Only Live Once). What is implied in this phrase is the rather flippant notion that one should do whatever one feels like, because, hey, you're going to die anyway, so what difference does it make? However, if we do believe in God (as opposed to this nothing burger) then the phrase immediately takes on new meaning. Because we live only once, we must do what we must, not because we have nothing to lose, but because we have everything to gain.                

The Living Years - Mike and the Mechanics

This late 1980's hit probably brought tears to the eyes of many a son and daughter, especially those that had a difficult relationship with their parents. The reason it had such power was not simply because we could all relate to having parental problems (which most of us could in some form). Its power derives from the combination of the dispute, coupled with the fact that the son is unable to reconcile with his father because he has already died. As was the case in a Christmas Carol, nothing good can come out of this song unless you realize that the singer's father is dead as a door nail; "I wasn't there that morning when my father passed away. I didn't get to tell him all the things I had to say. I think I caught his spirit later that same year, I'm sure I heard his echo in my baby's new born tears. I just wish I could have told him in the Living Years." In a sense Mike Rutherford (the one who wrote the song) is like the ghost of Marley here saying, I can't change this, my father is gone- but you can. Make peace with your father/mother before it's too late. Don't let pride get in the way- or as John Mayer expresses it on the soundtrack to the movie The Bucket List; "Even if your hands are shaking, and your faith is broken, even as your eyes are closin'... say what you need to say." It is far better to be rebuffed by the one with whom you are trying to reconcile, than to live with the fact that you were too proud to try at all.  



  1. Pink Floyd is dark stuff that should come with a warning label. If I have that on my playlist whilst out walking I am liable to step out in front of oncoming traffic.

    Tim McGraw, alas, thought the instructions were to "sing like you are dying" thankfully for him there is Autotune.