The last few years have been tough, friends. On June 29, 2016, my oldest sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She fought like a bastard against nearly insurmountable odds (the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is a mere 9%), and managed to live about 4 months longer than her doctor estimated, but it finally overtook her one year later, on June 29, 2017.
My relationship with her, while not terrible, was not necessarily great prior to her diagnosis. She was married to a loudmouthed know-it-all jackass conman who was almost certainly cheating on her while she was dying, and when he was around, the whole family operated on a scale ranging from uncomfortable to angry. His presence made me want to be around her less, and the influence he held over her by virtue of paying attention to her (her first husband, while not a bad guy, was not so good at that) was distressing to say the least.
In addition to her lazy shitbird husband, she left behind three sons (the youngest of which – who we’ll call “F” – was born with severe developmental disabilities). The two younger boys (F and “J”) were adopted half-brothers with the same birth mother. They’re only about 2 years apart in age, so they were kind of raised together no matter what, with the result being that J was treated as if he, too, needed help constantly, and with everything he did.
I think having two people who were totally dependent on her for survival helped my sister cope with life.
At any rate, F and “Z”, the oldest son, went to live with their dad (Husband #1) after her death, while J came to live with Mrs. Circle Pit and me while he finished out his senior year of high school. The year following my sister’s death was a challenging year for my family for a lot of reasons, but personally, being a sudden surrogate parent to a teenage boy who wasn’t raised with the capacity or inclination to think or do anything for himself made my first year without her much harder than it would’ve otherwise been. Thankfully we had my parents (especially my mom), and Mrs. Circle Pit’s family to help, otherwise who knows how this story would’ve ended.
And speaking of my mom, after years of health issues brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking (which she had given up 13 years prior, after her first heart attack), she went into a coma brought on by cardiac arrest, and after two days of watching her health continue to decline, the ragtag band that makes up the rest of my immediate family made the unimagineable and excruciating decision to take her off life support. She passed minutes after her breathing tube was removed, on June 29, 2018. I’m certain she died of a broken heart.
If you’re keeping track, that’s 3 major and majorly terrible life-altering events on the same godforsaken day three years in a row.
I opted to not be in the room when they took Mom off life support, but I did go back in the room afterward, and that memory will forever live in my brain as perhaps/hopefully the most surreal experience of my life. I had become accustomed to a wide variety of noises in her room over the prior two days – lots of beeping, humming, whirring, the steady *kkkkkhhhhh-SSSHHHHHH* of the oxygen being forced into her lungs – and the absolute, utter, void-like silence that greeted me the last time I saw my sweet mother outside a casket hit me like a freight train, and frankly, I haven’t been quite the same since. It was a difficult decision to walk into that room, but it was something I needed to do, and I don’t regret it.
What’s the point of all this? Contrary to how it may seem, I’m not trying to make you sad, dear reader. I’m just laying down a primer coat on which to paint a thing about how music has quite literally saved my life many, many times over the past few years. Music is undeniably my religion, and has always been the most important thing in my life after family and friends, so it’s always played a role in keeping me sane, but I don’t know if I would’ve survived these past two years especially without some of the songs I’m gonna share with y’all now.
I plan to write more about Sturgill Simpson another time, but what you need to know for now is that I got to see him live the night before the last time I talked to my mom in person, and his show was absolutely fucking life-affirming, so I already had him firmly on my side going into the maelstrom. I saw the face of God while Sturgill and his band played that night, and his music (in particular his third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which he wrote as a sort of letter from the road to his then-infant son) provided the soundtrack to those days in the hospital and days, weeks, and months after Mom’s passing.
“Breakers Roar” in particular reminds me of the days leading up to her death, especially in the final lines. I can clearly picture myself sitting in my car in the hospital parking garage when those lines presented themselves to me so vividly.
Bone breaks and heals
Oh, but heartaches can kill
From the inside, so it seems.
Oh, I'm telling you it's all a dream.
It's all a dream
It's all a dream
It's all a dream
It's all a dream
It's all a dream
The third-to-last song on the album, “All Around You”, has been speaking to me since the first time I really paid attention to the lyrics, which happened at some point during those 2-3 days in the hospital (the timeline in my memories is unreliable at best – grief and lack of sleep will do that to you). I’m gonna share the lyrics in their entirety after the video, which is (obviously?) not the album version, but which is my very favorite version of this song that I’ve heard yet (it’s actually one of my favorite versions of any song I’ve ever heard). The original is great too, as is the video, and I highly recommend you check both of them out.
There will be days when the sun won't shine
When it seems like the whole world is against you
Don't be afraid when life is unkind
You can let go of the pain if you choose to
'Cause time slips away and skies fall apart
Revealing to all a universal heart
All around you
There will be nights that go on forever
Like you're alone, lost at sea, never to be found
Just know in your heart that we're always together
And long after I'm gone I'll still be around
'Cause our bond is eternal and so is love
God is inside you, all around you, and up above
You the way
Time slips away and skies fall apart
Revealing to all a universal heart
All around you
So Sturgill helped me truck along through a pretty dismal second half of 2018, and I entered 2019 feeling much better about things in general. The fact that I had a shitload of live music on my docket earlier this year didn’t hurt at all. Since March of 2019, I’ve seen the follwing bands/artists live (sort of in the order that I saw them):
- Metallica (First time!)
- Clutch (Ninth time?)(!)
- Big Business (So good!)
- Death Angel (Fifth and sixth times! A force to be reckoned with!)
- Mothership (Major fuckin riffs from Texas!)
- Overkill (First time!)
- Eyehategod (Second time! Unfuckingdeniable!)
- Iron Maiden (Third time! The fucking greatest!)
- Crowbar (First time! So heavy!)
- Corrosion of Conformity (Second time! Much better than the first!)
- Sacred Reich (First time! I never thought I’d see the day!)
- Savage Master (Kickass traditional metal from Louisville, KY!)
- The Mountain Goats (Unbelieveably good!)
- Anti-Flag (“Die for your country, that’s shit!”)
- Suicidal Tendencies (Third time! Suicidal for life!)
- Ice Cube (I danced so hard I fucked up my back for a week!)
- Andrew W.K. (Friendliest circle pit I’ve ever seen!)
- Guns ‘n’ Roses (The band sounded great, but Axl can suck it!)
- plus lots of local openers
- I might be forgetting one or more others.
Judging solely by that list, 2019 has been a hell of a good year, and that’s mostly true. But while a surface view of my emotional state the past year or so would indicate a relatively stable, happy individual, these past few months I’ve been stricken with a pretty heavy case of sadness and dismay (malaise, if you will), the cause of which I can’t quite nail down. I hesitate to call what I’m experiencing “depression”, because that seems heavier than what I’ve been feeling, but I can’t say for certain that it isn’t depression. Whatever it is, it’s trying its damnedest to hang on, and I wish it would fuck off already.
Seeing Suicidal Tendencies live back in September (at an outdoor festival where I legitimately thought I might die from heatstroke or dehydration or exposure or dust inhalation or some combination thereof) reminded me how fucking good and important their music and message are. That quote from up yonder at the top of this page (“Life can be hard. Be harder.”) was gifted to us from Cyco Miko that day.
I was on a major ST kick up until about 2-3 weeks ago, and as he has done many times before, Mike Muir played a major role in helping me get my shit correct. I plan to write more about Suicidal Tendencies in the future as well, but for now, a few of the songs that kept me going…
“You Can’t Bring Me Down” is likely the band’s best-known song after “Institutionalized”, and for my money, it’s one of their best. It’s the opening track on their 1990 masterpiece Lights…Camera…Revolution!, and it serves as their show opener to this day.
The album prior to Lights… was something of a breakthrough for the band, and the addtion of rythm guitarist Mike Clark brought about the completion of their evolution from hardcore punk to thrash metal. I didn’t hear most of 1988’s How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can’t Even Smile Today until about 10 years ago, but I definitely remember reading about it in magazines when it came out. I can say with certainty that I’m a better person for having finally gotten into it.
Album opener “Trip At the Brain” is one of my favorites, and is a textbook Suicidal song – lyrics combining positivity with confessions of human error, all packed into a fast, explosive earworm of a motherfucker of a song. Plus the video features a cameo by John Cusack!
One more from Suicidal, this one from 1992’s The Art of Rebellion, their most commercially successful album (it peaked at #52 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, and has been certified gold by the RIAA). You might’ve heard “Nobody Hears” on the radio back in the day; it’s one of only two ST songs to reach the Billboard Top 40 (the other is “I’ll Hate You Better”, from the same album).
"I'm screaming inside, why can't you hear?
You're looking right through me like I'm not here
My Suicidal kick morphed pretty seamlessly about 2-3 weeks ago into a Hip kick. I plan to write more about The Tragically Hip another time as well (oh, I’ve got plans, friends), but here are the basics:
- They formed in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1984.
- They had the same lineup from 1986 until 2017, when they broke up following the untimely death of their lead singer/lyricist/all-around amazing human being Gord Downie, who died from a brain tumor at the age of 53. Fuck cancer so hard.
- They were massively popular in Canada, but were mostly unknown in the United States. (Their final concert in 2016 was broadcast and streamed live by the CBC and was watched/listened to live by 11.7 million people. It’s amazing and you should watch all of it.)
Though I’ve been aware of them since at least the mid-90’s, I sadly didn’t start getting into The Hip until about two months ago. A casual mention on Letterkenny (which you should be watching) finally compelled me to visit Google Play Music, where I clicked on the most popular song there, “Wheat Kings”, from their massive and massively important 1993 album Fully Completely. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I loved it immediately. Unconventional vocals coupled with jangly chords are one of my primary musical weaknesses (the other being unconventional vocals coupled with badass riffs), and while Gord’s vocals are much more unique on other Hip songs, “Wheat Kings” stands as a master class in jangle.
Reading up on the band, and more specifically about Downie’s cancer diagnosis and their final tour, has helped my mental state as well. The way Gord Downie continued to face and fight each and every day until his passing has stood as an inspiration to me, as well as a reminder that no matter how shitty things may seem to me in the moment, they could certainly be worse. You’d think that the challenges of my previous three years would be enough of a reminder of those things, but you’d be mistaken. Being human and all, I need pretty constant reminders regarding what does and does not matter in this life, and Gord Downie’s story, like my sisters’, serves as one of those reminders.
Downie’s lyrics, too, have really had a major impact on my life over the past couple of months. Here are a few of my current favorites…
“Fiddler’s Green” was inspired by Downie’s young nephew, who died of a heart condition during the recording of the band’s second full-length album, 1991’s Road Apples. According to the great and infallible source that is Wikipedia, “Fiddler’s Green is a legendary afterlife where there is perpetual mirth, a fiddle that never stops playing, and dancers who never tire. In 19th-century maritime folklore it was a kind of afterlife for sailors who have served at least 50 years at sea.”
I’m particularly taken by the line “the same wind that moves her hair moves her boy through Fiddler’s Green”. I think of it when I sit on my porch swing and the wind moves the chimes my mom gave me.
The second album I listened to was 1996’s Trouble in the Henhouse. It’s a great album, and quite honestly sounds as much like the year 1996 as I can imagine anything sounding, in the best possible way. “Ahead By a Century” is one of the band’s best-known songs, was the last song they ever played live, and was the most-played song on radio stations across Canada on the day Gord Downie left us to walk among the stars.
"No dress rehearsal, this is our life..."
My absolute jam this past week or so has been Fully Completely. The entire album really is amazing, but if I had to narrow it down to three favorites, I suppose I’d go with the bouncing opener “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)”, “We’ll Go Too”, and the aforementioned “Wheat Kings”.
"There's no simple
For anything important
Any of us do
And, yeah, the human
Of living with
It didn't come
It doesn't matter..."
Here’s the band tearing the goddamned stage apart with “Courage” live at Woodstock ’99:
I’m not sure why “We’ll Go Too” jumped out at me one night while I was listening to the album at work, but I’m glad it did.
And it's long since past closing
You cannot know
You cannot not know
What you're knowing
What can you do?
They've all gone
We'll go too..."
And here’s a live version I highly recommend:
“Wheat Kings”, like much of The Hip’s work, is very much about Cananda. More specifically, it’s about the wrongful conviction and eventual release (20 years later) of a man named David Milgaard. It’s an interesting and infuriating story.
"Twenty years for nothing well that's nothin new, besides
No one's interested in something you didn't do
Wheat kings and pretty things
Let's just see what the morning brings..."
As much as it pains me that I took so long to come around to The Tragically Hip, and to think about the fact that I’ll never get to see them live, I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have appreciated them back then anyway. Like many amazing and mystical things, they presented themselves to me when I needed them most.
Again I ask: what’s the point of all this? The answer, as usual: hell if I know. I just had some shit on my mind, and I wanted get it out. I suppose if I had to draw a conclusion from all this – a thesis statement, if you will – it would be that music is fucking important. It’s the true universal language, and without it, so many lives would be hollow, or worse, non-existent.
What are some songs that help you make it through the hard times and the bullshit? Share them in the comments, won’t you?
Thanks for reading, friends. See you next time.