As pleural mesothelioma ravaged his lungs, sapped him of his breath and robbed him of his voice, the idiosyncratic American songwriter Warren Zevon appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman late in 2002 for what was scheduled to be — and ultimately was — his last public performance. The affair was a bleary-eyed rumination on life and death punctuated by a graceful, final charismatic turn behind the mic. Zevon, with whom Letterman developed a long-running friendship over their intertwined careers, was the only guest that evening — a show of reverence and admiration that allowed the two to take eerily poignant conversational turns into dark existentialism and gallows humor.
At a point during their back-and-forth, Letterman asked Mr. Zevon if he’d learned anything more about life now that he was staring down the barrel of his swift decline. Zevon’s off-handed, pithy reply: Enjoy every sandwich.
Consumption, for better or worse, defines our current neo-liberal capitalist society. The ravenous hunger for ever more and better things has become a bit of a pejorative in the era of widespread economic inequality and systemic injustice — the Uber for Dog Walking app exists but not a cure for cancer or an end to police brutality against African-Americans — but, at its root, consumption is an elemental hallmark of the known universe. From physics, to sport, to art, to bee colonies, life ingests its surroundings with or without one’s consent. Energy is used up. Humans pass on. The x-axis of time ticks on.
From consumption, however, comes creation. The two processes are intertwined in ways that are sometimes fairly tangible: Photosynthesis. Atomic energy. Investment ROI. And sometimes less transparently understood: Happiness. Memory. The Life of Pablo. It is this cycle of meta-respiration—taking in what is around and turning it into something else that others take in—that continues the march of existence toward whatever end. Yet, based on what we know about carbon-based life forms so far, that end comes for us all.
If it all sounds to clinical and sweeping in its analysis, it is perhaps better to zoom it into focus through the deeply human lens of the past weekend in music: A Saturday that walked the balance beam between joy and sorrow and left us craving more. If that sounds like an odd, abrupt turn into dissecting the new Frank Ocean release, well …
One could argue that Frank Ocean is the most perfect musical artist suited for our time, right now, in the hazy 2016 United States sea-change marked by a growing distrust for its institutions, resurrection of white nationalism and mad scramble for social justice. Ocean is black, openly bisexual and an intellectual who first broke by linking up with the Southern California rap collective Odd Future. He toggles between gospel, break-beat, retro-R&B, alt-R&B, soul, funk and singer-songwriter confessionals. He defies easy categorization even in an era where easy categorization of very basic things has become less easy.
Ocean’s hotly anticipated to the brink of madness Boys Don’t C — err, Blonde, the long-gestating follow up to the preternaturally glorious 2012 LP Channel: Orange, dropped on Apple Music to an adoring audience. Music critics raved. Fans cancelled their Saturday evening plans and made a date with their headphones. Social media lost its collective shit. Ocean himself penned a concise post acknowledging the widespread thirst for some, any, artistic statement from his camp:
Couched within the Morse Code simplicity of his reflection on his marathon creative process is not just a nod to how badly people wanted this new big next thing to happen, but a subtle reminder that even art is impermanent. It evolves. It’s made and torn down and rebuilt and tinkered with and fussed with and a bassoon here or an Ableton Push skitter here and, well… good enough. Lyrics are scribbled, scratched out, sung. Ocean later confessed to running up to the release date with two different versions of the same record. Even perfectionism comes with contingencies.
Mere hours later, and in stark contrast to Ocean’s reemergence from artistic purgatory, an even more poignant nexus of insatiable hunger, artistic evolution and human impermanence played itself out north of the U.S. border.
The Tragically Hip are, by several metrics, either the biggest band in Canada or the actual Most Canadian Band. Nine No. 1 albums. 14 Juno Awards. 18 million albums sold. 32 years of music without one single lineup change in the quintet. They made smart bluesy-boozy rock music that meandered into jangle-pop and sea-shanty dirge territory — a more straightforward that it sounds hybrid of R.E.M., Pearl Jam and The Decemberists. They played their final show in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, not by choice but by necessity: Their lead singer, Gord Downie—who penned lyrics peppered with Canadian in-jokes and folklore and clever ruminations on life and death—announced in May he had an aggressive, incurable brain tumor in his left temporal lobe, glioblastoma, with a two-year survival rate of under 30%. With one final 15-stop tour in support of their latest album, Man Machine Poem, Downie and Co. swept across the vast impossible wilderness of the Great White North to celebrate a life and career.
Saturday night, when they returned with a heroes’ welcome home to play in an arena that crosses a street actually named “Tragically Hip Way,” Kingston declared August 20, 2016 a day of celebration in their honor. The Canadian Prime Minister was one of 7,000 in attendance. The CBC broadcast the final set in its entirety, commercial-free, unedited and uncensored—and live-streamed it around the world. Communal viewing parties stretched across Canada, and to cities like New York, London, Los Angeles and even in the Canadian Olympic athlete house in Rio de Janeiro. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder paid tribute while playing his own hometown set at Wrigley Field.
Diehard, maple leaf-clad fans weeped as Gord Downie sashayed, pranced, screamed and scrambled his way through a relentless assault on the Hip’s back-catalogue: 30 songs in total featuring three encores and running at just a shade under three hours. Each death-centric lyric (and, goodness gracious, there were many) made for uncomfortable, heartbreaking listening. The carefully crafted set list read like a man at his own funeral, winding through his own eulogy, screaming every last word into the microphone before diving into his coffin. And yet, there was a near-universal sense that those who watched, those who witnessed, had just experienced something singular and special. A man who meant so much to so many didn’t just script his final act, but he stuck the landing and left not one ounce in the tank.
And when it was all over, all of it, every bow taken, every wave goodbye, every note sung and shouted into an empty abyss against whatever lies ahead, only the cold reality remained: That everything, from your favorite singer to your mother to the smartphone you stream new releases on, will die. And so will you. And what you do with your time left, what you create, what you consume and how you enjoy it — well, the puck’s in your zone, to mangle a tennis metaphor by drawing a hockey parallel.
Ocean’s uncompromising vision, commitment to process, prodigious talents and unmistakable depth brought an unyielding joy and euphoric burst to fans after years of fretting and hand-wringing and bleary-eyed Nostalgia, Ultra for the salad days of 2012. Downie’s unvarnished, unfettered commitment to paying respect to the fans that turned him into a country’s unofficial Poet Laureate graced his fans with the show of a lifetime, an exhilarating romp cloaked in sadness and ache.
You would think knowing that time’s continuous attack on what we love and what we are would render all this talk of creating and experiencing things rather inconsequential. After all, if we zoom the lens back out to its edges there’s little doubt we’re specks of space dust on a slightly larger speck of space dust in an empty cavern of silence and darkness. Every war, every record, every invention, every birthday party—all contained within a blip on the cosmos. This is all there is—why bother?
And, to that, I would argue… because this is all there is. People are not permanent. Art isn’t either. That’s why they matter. What we have in each other and with each dying breath is the chance to take what we have and turn it into something else, to craft magic from chaos, to make art out of sadness, to spin yarns out of concerts, to enjoy every sandwich—fully and completely—before we scatter back into the black and endless abyss of space-time.
I’ll close with an anecdote. I was texting with my cousin last night — a plurality of the characters consisting of just copy-pasting Tragically Hip lyrics into the message window — reacting to the gut-wrenching finality and preponderance of Mr. Downie’s winking nods at the death that awaits him. We talked about family. We talked about cancer. About death’s merciless, ruthless end to the things and people we love. It’s been a minute since I last saw him. He lives up in Buffalo, up where the Tragically Hip actually made significant inroads in the States, up where I hail from originally.
It’s been six years since I left town. And last night I remembered things like Sabres games, Molson Canadian, packed Dodge Caravan trips to visit his mother and father in Boston, meeting his daughter at her baptism and cheering her on as she battled lymphoma into remission, and graduated high school—within weeks of each other. And as I put my phone on the charger before I drifted away into sleep, I smiled, because I didn’t just remember—I made a new lasting memory. One that was worth the notes sent, the hours glued to YouTube, the plans I broke to stay inside. Sometimes, the very act of sharing the thing you’re experiencing is the creation of something itself.
I think it’s possible that why this all matters. Because, in the end, what we share is what we’re remembered for. And whether that’s a moment, a song, a pizza or a joke, the mere act of sharing can bring people together, raise people up, set new ideas in motion. That’s the rage against the dying of the light: Making the universe work that much harder to write over everything you’ve done, before even the canvas itself fades to black, before there’s no one left to say goodbye to and nothing left to miss when you’re no longer there. If what feels like everything amounts to nothing, and what looks like nothing amounts to everything, then perhaps we’re all just as well served making as many moments from our minutes as possible — we don’t get that many of them.
I’m going to go listen to Blonde now. And maybe make myself a sandwich.
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