A Song to Die (to)

For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place.

Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

To start this blog, we are thinking  about endings. This may be morbid, but to be honest, it is not an uncharacteristic move. Poetry and music have a long and storied relationship with death—from ancient encomia and ritual hymns for dead heroes and gods to modern dirges and songs of commemoration, songs have always marked these critical transitions for those who have passed and, in any way possible, to speak to those who remain. Music communicates on so many different levels—death music feeds and assuages grief and, through its attempt to carve a single, critical moment out of time, effects a sense of timelessness.

While these are important aspects of songs, what I am interested in is something more personal and ineffable. Conversations about music often develop (or devolve) into simple questions: What is your favorite album? What is your favorite song? Anyone who cares about music even casually cannot answer this question the same way twice. So, my solution—and a strategy the Younger J employs in interesting ways—is to come up with contexts. What is the best song to drive to? What is the best song for running?  We all know that Marvin Gaye and Barry White have the market cornered for love-making.

What would be the best song to listen to while dying? I do not mean the music other people would hear in a motion picture version of your life; but rather, if you knew you were dying and you could only listen to one song as your life slipped away, what would that song be? How does one even begin to answer this question? Most of us have no frame of reference for our inevitable ends. Any answer to this question is so wrapped up in issues of personal identity, memory and beliefs about the human condition and the hereafter that it may be dangerous even to try to answer it. Nevertheless, since the Brothers J believe that the music we listen to shapes the people we become and that talking about this music offers unique opportunities to know ourselves and our times better, I will try.

This is, obviously, not the first time I have contemplated my death song. I decided long ago that the best song to die to would be The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” from Stop Making Sense (1984;  the album version seems a bit stilted and lifeless in comparison). Above average in duration for a pop song (about 4:58), it starts with a characteristic blend of keyboard, rolling percussion, slightly eerie synth sounds, and a rhythm guitar that builds in crescendo until the verse begins. By the time the electric guitar comes in, the song itself is an absorbing topography of complementary sounds. It is impossible for me not to move when I hear those beginning measures.

David Byrne on Hitfix.com

More importantly, David Byrne’s lyrics are untethered to a specific time or place—sufficiently so that the listener may read what he wants to into it. The repetition of the word “higher” and the invocation of a “you” addressee (“and you’re standing here beside me / all long the passing of time / never money, always for love / come on up and say good night”) combined with the alternation between Byrne’s solo lines and a near gospel-choir develops, for me, a sense of the interdependence between the individual and others;  this relationship, in turn, creates a tension between the specific time of the song’s singing and the full life around that it seems to allude to.

The entire song—which is constructed around its rolling beat into a series of breathless crescendos—flirts with ambiguity and uncertainty. The singer expresses desire for love and home but at the same time admits that he is unsure where the place is (“Home is where I want to be / but I guess I’m already there”) or how he came to find the “you” he sings to (“I can’t tell one from another / did I find you or did you find me”). This uncertainty about the basic building blocks of life is projected outside life’s bounds through one of the most poignant lines of the song: “There was a time, before we were born, / if someone asks this is where I’ll be”. Soon after, this space outside of life is invoked again when Byrne and the chorus sing together “you love me til my heart stops / love me until I’m dead”. The song continues, but for me, these two last lines encapsulate its many different meanings.

The universal of this song becomes more powerful when combined with the personal. At the same time as it gathers in all of these different strains, this song triggers in me layers of meaning from its repetitions throughout my life. A flood of memories, beginning with trickles of moments, places, and people, overflows each single new listening to create a collage of my life. The singer’s “you” becomes the woman I love; the singer’s “home” becomes the metaphorical home my memory constructs from so many different places and times; and, finally, the singer’s own uncertainty becomes mine. But this uncertainty is not a pessimistic or depressive surrender; instead, it is a surrender to all of the beauty that life’s unknowns may bear and an acceptance that cherishing that which is temporary is the very act that gives life its most transcendent meaning.
“This Must Be the Place” is a song worth dying to for several reasons. The music itself is interesting—at once calming but rhythmic in a way that you feel that you must be moving somewhere. The song’s structure, even if this seems typical or trite, builds slowly, reaches several moving crescendos, and then fades out, much like a typical life (the applause at the end doesn’t hurt, either). The lyrics, which are a fit match for its myriad sounds, express, at once, both the uncertainty that surrounds life and death and an elegant optimism amid resignation to the end to come.

The song’s voice finds meaning in the “other” who loves him, accepts this love as having an origin that can’t quite be pinned down, and imagines (hopes? insists?) that even at the moment when we look at death—at the uncertainty of what comes after—we find the origin of all that we are in the similarly unknowable place we come from. When I listen to this song, my breaths become regular, my anxieties dissipate, and by its end, no matter how I felt before, I smile. I cannot truly imagine my own death, but this seems like a nice accompaniment.

And you, brother? What do you think of this song? More importantly, would you die listening to it, or can you think of another?

7 comments on “A Song to Die (to)

  1. professormortis says:

    You would think a guy who’s used an internet handle with “Mortis” in it for as long as I have would have thought about this, but I really haven’t. Right now I’m going with my gut reaction of The Clash’s “I’m Not Down”. One, I’ve always loved it; two I know that when the end comes I’m not going to want to believe it; and three, I know that I’m going to want to go out on a song that makes me happy and ready to face whatever comes next (or nothing) with a little spirit.

  2. theelderj says:

    Dear Professor,

    Great choice. Pissin’ all the way to the end.

    Does this mean you’d revert in part to your high school self at that final moment?


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