In My Time of Dyin’: A Post about Music

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The words are from the title of a song by Bob Dylan, written when he was all of 21 years old. It’s a good song, but really what did he know about dying?

What do I know?

I am much closer than young Robert Zimmerman, who, on the cover of his 1962 debut album, The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan, looked like he wasn’t even shaving yet. Me, I’m close enough to make certain pointed considerations.

Oh, but before I get into those, this is not an announcement of my imminent demise. I am as unaware today as I was yesterday of things actively trying to kill me.

But I am close enough to understand how time will start fraying soon. I know of the things that will turn time from an airy abstraction into hard reality. The heart, the lungs, the liver; they will all start giving up on the jobs they once did so well, for so long. There’s no way Dylan knew of those things when he was 21. He was using death the way poets and essayists have always used it–as an idea to focus the mind.

This blog has never been autobiographical. I’ve occasionally written about my favorite hobby, running, and I once made a big deal of nearly dying from too much morphine after back surgery. I also wrote a florid and intimate declaration of love for a hill one time. But by temperament, I keep a lofty focus on the Olympian heights–books, ideas, and the legacy of Orwell.

But I recently started to address a problem I hadn’t even known existed. And that problem is inescapably autobiographical: the matter of final arrangements. Oh, not the legal stuff. I’m a chary bureaucrat by training and habit, so I’ve checked all the boxes that one thinks of as “responsible estate planning.” Of course I’ve done that. The only thing that really matters to me is my ability to care for the small group of Earthlings I think of as my own, so I’m not going to allow myself to fail, through mere oversight, in that mission. (You know all those memes that start with “You had one job?”–I will not have them appended to the Facebook announcements of my Departure. I simply won’t.)

It has nagged me for several years, though, that there are other, more personal arrangements to be made. Money isn’t everything, after all.

Recently I posed myself the following question: If music were to be played at my wake, what would it be? And a further question arose: Would anyone even know where to start making such a playlist? Given the general glumness of the circumstances and the pressing need for buying tombstones and whatnot, would anyone feel like taking this job on? I fear it might get half done, if at all.

And this cannot stand.

Anyone of my generation knows how decisively important a soundtrack is. The Breakfast Club simply does not, cannot come to its proper end without the booming forth of “Don’t You Forget about Me,” by Simple Minds. The song finishes the story. I’m in search of songs that finish my story.

Well, easy, I thought. My life has a soundtrack, and it is U2’s dark, ironic, but still majestic Achtung Baby of 1991. It says everything you need to know about my inner life: used to be religious, now godless, bonded in some amorphous way to Berlin’s swirl of doom, art, redemption, and American guardianship.

But wait. It’s all very well to have U2’s loudest, most desolate and industrial sounds going through your head literally every day of your life, and to know that the songs are you in a way, but Achtung Baby would be an absolute non-starter at a wake. Take three-quarters of an hour, if you can, and listen all the way through to “Acrobat,” the 11th track on the Album. You’re feeling drained, forsaken and sonically battered by the time it plays. You need a respite of light and air. Instead, “Acrobat” comes on: a buzzsaw of inchoate anguish and rage. All is darkness and moral wrong, it says. Does it project the mood one wants just after a funeral?

It does not.

And this got me thinking: there is an urge to have the last say at one’s leave-taking, but this kind of thing can be taken too far. Last rituals certainly must take the departed as their subject, but they exist for other people. They must take the audience into equal account.

So, I will make time soon enough to write about U2’s formative power over me. There are questions that need answering about how their darkest songs came to score a bright, breeze-kissed life like mine, unmarked by wracked conscience or hint of woe.

But for now, to the task at hand. This is how I got down to the business of choosing the songs I want to be played at my wake, and how they revealed some telling problems.

Balance, is what I thought. The songs need to strike a balance between what they mean/t for me and what they say to the listener. And I came up with a few promising candidates, but I also came up with even more problem cases. To wit:

“Jokerman” by Bob Dylan, would be superb, I thought. It showcases Dylan at his poetic best, managing to be wry, wistful, and vaguely accusatory at the same time. The imagery, much of it Biblical, is supreme. The music, nudged along by Mark Knopfler’s understated guitar work, stays in the background, letting Bob spin out a complex warning of apocryphal menace. “Jokerman” was in.

Why did it beat out other, better known Dylan songs? I think “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is Dylan’s greatest poem. It is his apex achievement. But that’s the problem. It’s my wake, and I don’t want people zoning out at it, transfixed by what might be the best song written by a popular musician in the last 100 years. Listen to it on your own time.

Ditto “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, mutatis mutandis. It’s too good. Plus, there’s its unstinting mood of heartbreak, which I presume will be going around freely enough without any prompts from my playlist. I hope for jokes to be told at my wake, sardonic stories to be shared. These things won’t happen if we have Jeff Buckley (doing my favorite version of “Hallelujah”) reminding us how the celestial joy of love is always at risk of being run into the ditch of abject human failure.

I also came to suspect that the effort to avoid the grim or acrimonious note could be taken too far. One of my absolute favorite songs of all time is “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. It is, on grounds both psychological and musicological, the happiest song in the world. And therein lay the problem, as I saw upon reflection. Wouldn’t I come off as trying to tell the audience how to feel, and being pretty heavy-handed at it?

I submit this for your consideration and await your response: Should I omit “Mr. Blue Sky” for being too happy?

This dilemma raised a more general problem. Why not simplify the task and just write out a list of all one’s favorite songs, consigning other criteria to the wind? It’s a tempting schema. But it too sails into choppy waters. “Fat Bottomed Girls” is hands down my favorite song by Queen, because it rocks consummately and it it explores a theme that is delightful to me. But do I include it just because of its general excellence? Would I not risk slighting skinny bottomed girls, implying that back in the high tide of life I was indifferent to their presence? Wakes are not the place to feel a small hurt has been done to you, and I refuse to be the cause of even one. I am nothing if not gallant. So “Fat Bottomed Girls,” although a certified sterling favorite, was out.

A few songs were too on the nose, I worried. They seemed to be thrown in because they fit a lax kind of formula. If you hear Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” at my wake, you could be forgiven for thinking blandly, “Oh yes, he liked running.” And it’s true, I did like running. But I really like “Running on Empty,” although mostly for its imagery of the road and youth, not because it’s about running. It captures a time of life when the high, white cumulus clouds decorating the skies in one’s 20s start to turn gray and minatory, announcing the coming storm and turbulence of the 30s. Mostly, “Running on Empty” made the cut because of its musical delivery, earnest and bittersweet but not somber.

I also like Bob Seeger’s “Against the Wind,” and I enjoy the moment in Forrest Gump when the song is used to conjure the depleted, defiant mindset of the long-distance runner against the backdrop of Monument Valley. It’s a great song about restlessness and fatigue, but it leaves the listener wondering if not knowing where you’re going is an inevitable part of life. Is restlessness a permanent state? “Against the Wind” raises this question but does not answer it. Certain forms of melancholy are bound to present themselves at a wake, but I don’t think I want my celebrants asking themselves whether constant, pointless exertion is the main ingredient in the human condition. Let that thought emerge in its own way. So “Against the Wind” was out.

I definitely wanted a song or two by REM. They have always been one of my favorite bands, and I felt like my playlist would be incomplete without them. They provided the soundtrack to my life in my early 20s, before U2 shattered it and replaced it with Achtung Baby. But here I ran into a variant of the just-list-your-favorite-songs problem. It doesn’t work with bands either, or at least it doesn’t for REM. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”? It’s definitely me, but the song is a cockeyed lark. Much as I hope my guests feel free to have zany thoughts, I’m not sure I should make the invitation explicit. “Everybody Hurts”? Lovely song, but please, wouldn’t it be slightly overdoing things at a wake? “Losing My Religion”? This one very well might make the cut, but radio overplay has sapped some of its feeling of originality. Plus people might start doing the choppy-hand dance that Michael Stipe does in the video. Could be weird. I guess it would be okay actually.

Feel free, if the mood takes you (Image: IMVDb)

So what I am left with is a handful of REM songs that strike me as inoffensive to the occasion but so obscure I feel I could mislead the mourners into thinking the songs meant more to me than they did. “Driver Eight” fits this description. It’s a quality REM song that I probably listened to hundreds of times in my 20s, but does it signify? In terms of simple musical beauty, “South Central Rain” is my favorite song by REM, but that plaintive chorus where Michael Stipe says over and over that he’s sorry?–It would almost certainly leave some people wondering whether there was a message there. What would I be doing all that apologizing for? And to whom? People might start puzzling out what the industrial scale wrong was that I had done and how it had never come to light. But I still love the song.

So I am at a loss REM-wise. I await your suggestions, dear reader.

I think I should close this post by looping back to U2. I can’t just give their whole catalog the boot because their portraiture of my life is too plaintive and morose for a wake, right? They are my band, after all, and there are questions of loyalty at stake. I must find a song or two of theirs that mark my farewell properly. The songs, it turns out, were easier to find than I thought they would be.

“Kite,” from the 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind is pretty clearly a goodbye to a loved one, but it’s malleable enough that it covers many different kinds of goodbyes. One of a parent’s highest goals in life is emancipation–the moral and practical preparation of a child to stand on their own two feet. It’s a deep paradox, though: if you’ve done it well, you have broken your own heart, let your child go like a kite into the wind. But you have to do it anyway. To leave emancipation undone, or to do it poorly, is to wreck a young life and to risk setting off a broader train of dysfunction. So if it helps to hear Bono put the problem literally, when he sings, “I want you to know that you don’t need me anymore,” you’re welcome. It helped me too.

The second U2 selection was even easier. It was almost perfect for a wake. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it. Also from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” has a lovely gospel uplift to it. It’s addressed to someone lost, careworn, and temporarily defeated. Bono writes a lot of songs like this. (For a more somber variant not quite wake-appropriate but in every way superb, listen to “Stay [Far Away, So Close!].”) And Bono often tells you there is hope, or maybe something even better, like peace or love or affirmation, on the other side of the troubles. The Edge’s backing vocals at the end of the song–while studio-tuned to artificial perfection: oh, well–serve to complete Bono’s message. If we are to be saved at all, salvation will come through other people. Other people will make us who we are. That’s how we go on, I guess.

And so I close with my actual playlist as it stands, with no further commentary (except to say there is no particular order to the songs–that is a whole other problem). It feels okay to leave it this way. It is not just good manners to resist having the last, overbearing word. It is an unavoidable feature of the wake. The songs will have the last word themselves, and then it is up to other people to go on talking.

Bob Dylan: Jokerman, Like a Rolling Stone, Brownsville Girl

U2: Kite, Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

Jackson Browne: Running on Empty, Late for the Sky

Don Henley: Boys of Summer

Neil Young: My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), Thrasher, Powderfinger, Comes a Time

Bruce Springsteen: Thunder Road

Fleetwood Mac: Dreams

10,000 Maniacs: Like the Weather, Verdi Cries

REM: Driver Eight, Losing My Religion

Chris Rea: Road to Hell

ELO: Turn to Stone, Mr. Blue Sky (?)

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Review of “Grant” by Ron Chernow

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Ron Chernow, it seems, has never met a cliché he didn’t like.

I open randomly to any of the 960 pages of Chernow’s 2017 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and the dull, timeworn phrases turn out in squads, companies, and whole regiments. On page 561, we read that President Grant “toiled under heavy burdens,” while his longtime aide John Rawlins “felt duty bound to assist him.” (Rawlins was Grant’s Secretary of War–how else was he supposed to feel?)

We learn of a photograph of Grant taken during the Vicksburg campaign. There is, Chernow tells us, “an indescribable look of suffering” on Grant’s face. How does Chernow limn Grant’s supposedly indescribable pain? The general, he writes, has “sad, woebegone eyes.”

When we learn that President Woodrow Wilson, a native Georgian, dismissed Grant’s efforts at postwar reconstruction, it is with this lapidary phrasework: Wilson “consigned President Grant to the dustbin of history . . . .”

As the Battle for Chattanooga came to a successful culmination, “Grant hoped Sherman would reap the lion’s share of glory.” We are touched, later, to know that Sherman stood “ramrod straight” at Grant’s funeral.

Grant “had to show the velvet glove and iron fist at once” while dealing with Indians in the West.

Drearily, there is much, much more. I enjoyed Grant for the most part, but Chernow’s lack of literary seriousness became a distraction. Sometimes I couldn’t help tallying the number of clichés and clumsy phrases on a given page.

Which is too bad. Chernow’s massive biography is largely a success. It corrects a number of misconceptions about Grant and reveals little-known details of his life. Overall, Chernow makes a convincing argument that Grant is both greater and more complex than most of us have imagined him to be.

First, there is the matter of Grant’s drinking. While he certainly had a complicated relationship with booze, Grant was no drunk, at least not in the usual sense. The impression one gets from some Civil War histories (Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War: A Narrative comes to mind) is that Grant spent long stretches of time drinking while on duty and even did so while encamped outside Vicksburg before his breakthrough victory there in July 1863. Marshalling a meticulous string of reports–and winnowing out a substantial amount of character attacks by Grant’s political foes–Chernow develops a very plausible, and different, profile of Grant’s drinking problem.

Grant was a distinctly episodic drinker who knew he had a problem with alcohol and never indulged when his family was nearby to provide emotional support. The early sprees that formed the foundation of later slurs and innuendoes all took place in the 1850s while Grant was a junior Army officer stationed far away from his young family, in remote Oregon and California. His isolated slips later in life all followed the same pattern: when Grant fell off the wagon, it was always one night, away from home, and not on duty. If any other patterns marked Grant’s drinking, they were: how he managed to maintain temperance for months, even years at a time, and how near he came to defeating alcoholism entirely. On a two and a half-year world tour after his second presidency–precisely the time to let down his guard and live a little–Grant steadfastly kept his wine glass overturned even as he was celebrated in palaces, ballrooms, and salons everywhere he went.

Grant’s dogged pursuit of sobriety reflected a broader American struggle to tame its wild side. In 1822, when Grant was born, Americans consumed the equivalent of 90 bottles of whisky each year on average. By the time Grant died in 1885, refusing a brandy-laced dose of morphine because as he told his doctor, alcohol didn’t “agree with him,” Americans drank less than half the amount they had at their peak earlier in the century.

The military genius Grant showed in the Civil War was so central to wartime victory, it has overshadowed how hard Grant fought as president to defeat the United States’ largest, most lethal terrorist group–the Ku Klux Klan. As someone who has worked with soldiers for most of my life, it is no surprise how bitterly they take it when their battlefield sacrifices are compromised by politicians who abandon the aims they fought for. Grant often felt the same way. But he enjoyed a rare historical opportunity: he was a former soldier who found himself empowered to follow through as a politician to try to secure what his troops had bled for.

Grant after a day of hard losses at Cold Harbor, Virginia in May, 1864 (Image: Britannica)

Chernow’s retelling of the founding of the KKK and Grant’s determination to destroy it puts this episode where it needs to be–front and center in the history of Reconstruction. Grant is justly praised for creating the “spirit of Appomattox” when he accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865. Grant’s generous terms, allowing Lee’s troops to return home with their guns and horses, was meant to mark a definitive end, not just to hostilities, but to feelings of hostility. And while many southerners accepted this gesture with dignified thanks, many more did not. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, led thousands of former Confederate soldiers in the South on a campaign of killing Republicans and recently emancipated Blacks, smashing voter registration sites, burning churches, and resisting all efforts to implement the constitutional amendments ending slavery and ensuring voting rights in the South (the 13th and 14th).

Grant may have been president, but in 1870, as the KKK launched what Chernow rightly calls “a new civil war by clandestine means,” he reverted to thinking like a general. The KKK’s center of gravity, Grant reasoned, was its ability to intimidate anyone who might testify against them in court. So Grant went all in on destroying this center of gravity. Responding to southern governors’ requests for help, Grant sent federal troops to enforce the Ku Klux Klan Act (actually three “Enforcement Acts”), which empowered the government to jail KKK suspects without Habeas Corpus rights–critically depriving them knowledge of witnesses’ identities–and to use federal troops to directly suppress KKK activity, doing the job local sheriffs refused to do. By 1872, Grant smashed the KKK’s power. Forrest resigned as Grand Wizard and recanted his overtly racist political goals.

Of course even the most naïve student of American history knows that Grant (and the nation) did not succeed in achieving the broader aims of Reconstruction. Indeed Chernow does an admirable job of describing how the decline of Grant’s second term as president was more or less coextensive with the demise of Reconstruction. When Grant left office in 1876, the network of white supremacists that would maintain the racist power order of the South were still alive and well despite the defeat of the KKK. They would go on to create the legal structure of Jim Crow and resist civil rights for another 80 years. (Read Eric Foner’s entire body of work on the massive criminal enterprise that defeated Reconstruction and kept racism alive. If you only have time for one of Foner’s books, make it Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution – 1863-1877.)

We often hear how personal the Civil War was, dividing brother from brother and father from son. The most luminous thread woven throughout Chernow’s book, retold with fine, stoical understatement that makes up for some of Chernow’s general failures of style, is Grant’s friendship with John Longstreet, who would become an acclaimed Confederate general. Grant and Longstreet became friends at West Point, when each was a boy of 18. Depending on which source you believe, Longstreet was Grant’s best man at his wedding to Julia Dent, or was at least instrumental in pairing the two up. (The Dents were family friends of the Longstreets.)

Longstreet and Grant served together in the Mexican American War in 1846. The next time they would meet on the battlefield, Grant’s forces would nearly kill Longstreet, in the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Then, miraculously, Longstreet appears at Appomattox Courthouse, a senior commander under Lee. He is astonished when Grant treats him as a friend, and Longstreet is instrumental in persuading Lee that Grant will give, and honor, fair terms of surrender. After Grant’s death, Longstreet would call him “the truest as well as the bravest man that ever lived.”

Grant was a hard but idealistic man. He fought the Confederacy with death-dealing determination but then acted magnanimously in victory, hoping mercy would open the door to reconciliation. His genius as a general consisted in an intuitive understanding of a new kind of warfare he was helping to create, which is today called combined arms maneuver warfare. But he was no mere theorist. Grant won, Chernow tells us, because he never let up. His victories were often sealed on the day after a bout of grievous losses. Grant knew the other side would be reeling too, and he judged that that knife-edge moment was the opportunity to win–a victory of the smallest margin would give way to a larger one. And Grant was right. This was the path that he followed to defeat Lee and end the war, which earned him the undeserved label of “butcher.” Grant was not a butcher, but a fierce realist. He knew tomorrow’s peace would come faster the more violence he visited on the enemy today, and that was how he fought.

I have left out a handful of other themes that make Chernow’s book worth reading, especially his description of Grant’s habitual credulity and how it led to a string of corruption allegations. Grant’s surprising ability as a writer late in life becomes less surprising when we learn he wrote as many as 40 detailed orders a day as a general and later wrote all his presidential addresses without the aid of a committee of editors. As Grant was dying of cancer, he finally took on an editor he trusted, to help publish his memoirs so Julia would have a pension. The editor was Mark Twain, and Twain, who was not shy of cutting down idols no matter how large, called Grant a “flawless” writer.

A final theme that emerges from Chernow’s biography is how Grant constantly improved himself and constantly reinvented who he was. And he was seemingly afraid to leave nothing of his old self behind in the process. By the time late in life Grant had become, in turn, a driven civil rights activist, a calculating politician, a capable economist, an effusive public speaker, and a writer for the ages, he had completely shed his old identity as a warrior. His steadfast refusal to glorify war and to trade on his status as the general who saved the Union was the highest mark of his greatness.