Listening On When it Hurts to Listen
How do you go on listening to music when the main influence in your musical life is no longer there?
In 2016 my father died prematurely and quite suddenly. We had thirty days to absorb the fact that he was sick, and then he was gone. I realise those thirty days would be the envy of anyone who has lost a loved one in more tragic circumstances but nevertheless we felt robbed of him and were plunged into a state of sadness, confusion and shock as we struggled to process the enormity and speed of what had happened.
A large part of my relationship with my father had revolved around music. Our family is comprised of musicians and passionate music devotees, with he and I having a foot in both camps. There was a permanent soundtrack to daily life growing up and most conversations I had with my father eventually led us down the labyrinthine corridors of amateur musicology. After the formalities of his funeral and burial had come to pass (which in Ireland occurs within a matter of days) I had to face into a decision that ultimately would steer me through the months and years of grieving ahead. What place did music inhabit in my life now that dad was gone? Was I simply to listen on without him? If so, to what?
Music, it turned out, was on everyone’s mind. A flurry of communication took place via text between my siblings and I over the following week in a bid to populate a playlist with some of dad’s preferred listening material. It was to be filled with tracks from his life-long loves — The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young — but also an eclectic mix of songs that he had felt had something special; songs we worried we would forget that he had ever expressed a strong opinion on, such as Rise by PiL, Celebrate by An Emotional Fish, Black Hole Sun by Soundgarden and A Lady of a Certain Age by The Divine Comedy. The list grew, and it felt good to think about his life in music, to have a direction for our thoughts about him, but in truth I didn’t actually listen to a single second of any of it.
A short time later I found myself home alone in uncomfortable silence and finally put some true effort into deciding what I was capable of listening to. There was no sound in the world that could alleviate my sadness at that moment in time, but was there any that could match it? The song that came to me (and be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted) was Gloomy Sunday, specifically the Billie Holiday version. There simply is no sadder song, and a quick glance at its history confirms this.
First published in 1933, the original version by Hungarian composer Rezső Seress described the existential despair felt when living through darkly turbulent times both politically and socially, as evident in the title, which translates to The World is Ending. The meaning was altered when the poet László Jávor soon retitled the song as Sad Sunday, and told of a forlorn lover who ached to join his recently deceased partner, giving rise to it being nicknamed the Hungarian Suicide Song. The English version, first recorded in 1936, stayed with this theme of love and loss, but with an added morale-boosting twist towards the end suggesting that the loss was, perhaps, just a dream. Billie Holiday recorded the song in 1941, with her plaintive vocal adding yet another layer of complexity to the composition. For a number of days I played her version when out walking, I sang it at the piano, and I grieved intensely. It would do no soul good to linger too long with Billie and those despairing words (dream or not) and so I moved on, but Gloomy Sunday helped enormously in moving me through the acute pain of those early days.
Somehow I wanted more of this enhanced, perhaps even accelerated grieving that it seemed music had facilitated. My thoughts turned to David Bowie. My father died later in the same year as Bowie, from a different type of the same awful disease, and at the same age, neither of them seeing the milestone of 70. Of course we had talked together about Bowie’s beautifully staged exit from this world and concluded that absolutely nobody in the history of music had accomplished anything so profoundly perfect. Bowie had not only bared his soul in those final recordings, but also bared his bodily self, ravaged by illness in the accompanying videos. Those startling works of art would go on to spark countless conversations about life, death and creativity that he would not be around to hear. I wondered about the level of performance required to give the impression of opening up in late-stage illness, and how it contrasted with my father’s closing in on himself in his last weeks. I was struck by the thought that for lifelong musicians, so much music has been embodied; it is all there within. And so I listened to Bowie’s exit-material, dwelling on I Can’t Give Everything Away, this time in the kitchen as I tidied and cleaned and cried for them both.
There ended the deliberate element of my self-styled therapy through music. As the demands of daily life crept back in, my listening slowly took on its pre-bereavement format of radio in the car and streaming music when out walking. All music, though, now had a heightened emotional resonance and I never knew when I was going to be floored. The first sucker punch landed when, as I drove home late one night, I heard Factory by Martha Wainwright for the first time and panicked at the realisation that this song that I instantly loved would never reach dad’s ears. I cried. The day I experienced an overwhelming sense of human connection as I listened to Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today I pulled over into a car park and cried even harder. When I turned on the radio in the car one particularly frosty morning and the DJ cheerfully announced that John Martyn’s May You Never was up next (myself and dad had seen him together twice) I smiled, and then I cried. None of us believe in signs of course. That is until we do.
As time moved on, I found myself searching for symbolism in music in a way that I never had before. In my working life I am an Arts & Health Specialist, mostly delivering and facilitating singing sessions for groups of older people. I began to take new meaning from the most simple lyrics of songs I had been singing for years. ‘All the sounds of the earth are like music’ now took on a far more profound meaning. At that stage in my grief I regularly told colleagues and friends that music was everything to me, my lifeline. Gordon McRae seemed to agree that indeed it was everything and everywhere. I have never tired of singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning, nor has any group I have worked with. When a song has such intrinsic magic, it should be sung daily, like an anthem of sorts.
Similar can be said of Whispering Hope, a song that had been firmly planted in my work-life repertoire for years, but now crossed over into my personal listening, breathing its gentle message in my ears. The song was written in 1868 by the American songwriter Septimus Winner and first came to me, not through the hearing of the Jim Reeve’s version, but rather at the suggestion of a community choir member, one of the many benefits of working with an older demographic. I had witnessed the song resonate deeply with older people many, many times and I now marvelled at its sheer simplicity and effectiveness. All the bereaved really have is hope. Hope that they can go on. Hope that they will adjust to this new life without their loved one and hope above all else that they will eventually find contentment once again.
I cannot deny that there were and are less straightforward moments in my journey through music and grief. In those first few months my own songwriting life stalled as words all but deserted me. When I lost my beloved sister in 1999 the opposite had happened. I wrote and recorded songs about and for her very soon after she died, but grieving was very different for me in my twenties. I had no children of my own then and I was able to indulge myself, my sadness and my creativity. I had time and space to let it all mingle and take note of what emerged. Now in my forties and snatching stolen minutes at the piano, I sat as soundscapes poured out of me, not recognising at first that there was repetition in what I played. It took weeks to harness enough energy to capture and shape the repetition into a small series of instrumentals. Playing them now they sound so direct to me, infused with grief in a somewhat obvious way, but grief is so blatant and solid in those early days I doubt that they could be any other way. When words eventually came back to me they were plentiful, but all prose, poetry and lyrics — no matter where their starting point was — ended up being about loss.
My listening, too, has not been without its challenges, hindered by self-imposed rules that seemingly wrote themselves. I can listen to new music by artists dad admired but did not love. I can also listen to old music by artists that he was devoted to. I absolutely cannot, however, listen to new music by his favourite artists. Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and the late Leonard Cohen have all released new material since 2016, all of which I have quite deliberately avoided. Van Morrison — keeping to form with his reputation for being difficult — has caused me great difficulty in trying to dodge his prolific output. It is, at this moment in time, a leap too far for me to listen to those new releases or even read about them. Difficult to overcome also was the pervasive feeling of regret, the small list of ‘whys’ that at first haunt, but with time, soften to mere bafflement for the recently bereaved. In that first eighteen months, for example, I couldn’t bear to hear the band The National mentioned, see their name in print or listen to a bar of their music as I couldn’t come to terms with the thoughts of the conversations I would now never have with my father about their brilliance. Dad had nudged me more than once in their direction, telling me to delve deep into their back catalogue. I don’t know why I didn’t. The only explanation I can give is that I thought we had plenty of time for that future conversation to unfold.
Perhaps most difficult of all is resolving my feelings about the intense musical life that my parents shared and (having chosen a different path than I) the absence of music in my mother’s life today. Since my father’s death over three years ago, when asked to even contemplate actively listening to music, my mother’s simple answer is that it is just too painful. In trying to understand her unwavering decision I have come to accept that, although nobody can avoid being at the very least a passive listener, she may never allow music to have a real presence in her life again. She fell in love with a musician. My father fell in love with a music obsessive and we, their children, reaped the rewards of bearing witness to a significant part of their journey, shaping the path for our own deep relationships with music. While I have managed to find a way to listen to music without the person I enjoyed discussing it with most, for my mother there is a fear of enjoying the music itself without the person she listened with, and to, for over fifty years. This reality is sometimes too sad for me to acknowledge, but then somehow music itself finds a way of reassuring me.
Two tracks that I listened to within a week of each other this year were Thom Yorke’s completely stunning Dawn Chorus and Hobo Johnson’s Move Awayer, both lifting me in different ways. Thom’s calm repetition of the line ‘If you could do it all again’ leads me to my parents’ music-filled life together each time, and there follows the wondrous thought that if they had a second run at it, I don’t think they would change a single thing. In an entirely different, yet somehow similar way the energy and honesty of Hobo Johnson’s song (whose intended demographic I surely don’t belong to) reminds me that as long as people keep falling in love and maybe also having their hearts broken, there will always be raw and challenging music coming into being. Both of these thoughts comfort me greatly and point towards a greater, overarching meaning to this life, a meaning that is somehow revealed to us fleetingly through the hearing of the carefully chosen sounds and words of others. That is the purest explanation for why I chose to listen to music so soon after my loss, initially diving into the most sorrowful pools that I could think of so I could resurface and allow it to surround me as it always has.
Music has continued to support me and keep me forward facing. I have swayed and swooned with hoards of fellow fans at concerts by Villagers, London Grammar, John Grant and many more. I managed to overcome my initial guilt and have now truly fallen in love with The National and the voice of Matt Berninger. I am carefully absorbing the work of others while writing and recording my own material, managing to stray from the theme of loss occasionally, and have even recorded some of the songs my father loved. I have come to appreciate the specialness of my musical relationship with my husband. Our tastes hardly diverge at all, we both love live music, and so we have quite a journey ahead. I am delighting in the musicianship of my children knowing that dad’s contribution is alive within them. I smile at the thought of dad hearing my sixteen year old son play Wichita Lineman on his old Takamine guitar (which he inherited) knowing he would say something like ‘you can’t keep a good song down.’
All of this has been hard, and taken time. I do not doubt that I will miss my father’s musical presence in my life forever, but I am so thankful that I found a way to continue to engage meaningfully with music without him. I have discovered so many wonderful compositions and, inspired by that initial playlist created a week after he died, I am dedicated to filling my own ever-growing Something Special playlist, most recently with Cranes in the Sky by Solange, Quietly by Sive, Cormorant Bird by Fionn Regan and The Trellis by Nick Mulvey.
I can’t imagine not having these songs in my life, and so I search and gather and listen on.
Update added on the 30th of October 2020
Today is the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. We miss him more than ever and continue to celebrate his life through music. 2020 has been a very difficult year for everyone, so it is with great joy that I update this article with the news that my mother now listens to and thoroughly enjoys music once again. During the harshest version of our lockdown in Ireland in late March, music found a way back into her life. Enjoying and moving to music in online exercise videos she was using to keep active while cocooning lead to her seeking out and turning on her radio. The rest is history! We now talk about music nonstop, she recommends songs for me to sing on our livestreams at Embrace Music Ireland and we keep memories alive as we talk about favourite concerts and songs of herself and dad’s. It’s a dream come true for me. All she needed was time.