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.
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 (?)