Life Moves On; Thoughts on Death in Music

File Mar 12, 6 44 20 PM
Life Moves On (St. Vincent) by Tre Simmons

Death hovers in the edges of our peripheral vision; it is a constant neglected force, always taken for granted until the moment it hits bluntly and without grace. We smush ants underneath our shoes as we trudge to and from work and school; we see roadkill and think nothing more or less about it, unless we’re forced to smell it or wash it clean. We fawn over our loved ones in equal measure of the time we spend forgetting about them as we become enveloped in ourselves. And then people die. Best friends, lovers, long lost compatriots, a favorite teacher, your sister’s childhood bestie, and so on. When it hits this personally, however close or far, the impact skews reality just a bit; no longer do we walk a linear path. That trudge to walk becomes a little harder; the world becomes a little darker, more vibrant, more psychedelic, more stressful. Such is the effect of having multiple deaths in a year that mean a little and a lot.

Beginning with David Bowie isn’t easy, even as someone who only ever saw him in his influence. I love St. Vincent; she channels Bowie and Prince and Byrne with such grace, such panache, and yet she still stands resolutely herself. I still don’t know what Bowie sounds like, even after going back and listening to his greatest works. He’s there in influence and stature, but to me he works in the corners and the channeling of himself through others. It’s fitting, as he’s meant to be rock’s greatest chameleon, always wearing different suits to see what he fancies and dashing them off when he’s summarily perfected it. And even up to his death, trumpeting nefarious jazz under the guise of ‘Blackstar,’ an album I’ve barely listened to, he worked with grace and the ability to streak himself across the stars, shining the brightest among many. And now he’s gone.

Prince was the one; Michael Jackson was the one for many, Whitney Houston for others, but Prince meant and still means the world to me. Overlapping raw sexuality with gender fluidity and performative promiscuity, while still maintaining an undying charisma, humor, wit and the ability to shade with the turn of his eye and the slight tilt of his brow. He did all of this while being a straight black male, and while I’m prone to not give credit to those in privileged positions, Prince did everything in ways no one expected and continues to be a shining beacon for the outcast, the sissy, the art damaged weirdo, the kid discovering their sexuality and gender and race in a world that doesn’t see it for them to succeed. ‘Kiss,’ ‘I Would Die 4 U,’ ‘Planet Earth,’ ‘Raspberry Beret,’ and so on and so on and so on; Prince eviscerates the jagged corners of identity always and forever. And the last we saw of him, on the most humorous and idiosyncratic note I can think of for anyone, is him riding down a street on a bicycle, with purple flowing cloth draped over his lithe frame, afro high and firmly intact. He was the one. And now he’s gone.

And Leonard Cohen, what can I say? The iTunes album description for ‘You Want It Darker’ depicts him as a man who was “at 35, old; at 82, eternal.” His voiced stretched into abyssal bass ranges, his producers mastering his baritone for perfect head rumbling effect. His voice reached into the depths of death and love; he smiled back, lit a cigarette, and proudly proclaimed, “I am ready to die.” Cohen is a champion of the Grim Reaper, and even more so infatuated with love, the elusive thing we all seek to drink from, to know, to encompass, to spread with every fiber of our being. He’s not Prince; he might be a ladies’ man, but imagining him as a sexual being at all doesn’t calculate in my mind. Rather, Cohen embodies the smooth corners and longing glances out of a window, scanning the hills outside as you wait for your loved one to return (in some grim world, they never do; in reality, they return routinely and you cook pasta with them.) Cohen is the art we see in a near-extinguished flame, flickering back to life and closer to death with every step it takes. Cohen knew what it meant to be human; death and love are all we have to look forward to. He knew this probably better than anyone, and he shone most bright when he asked us if we want it darker. And now he’s gone.

And Travis Green. He’s one of my best friends even though I only knew him for two and a half years. The empathy, the hilarity, the weed trails and wine breath having Travis Green. He searched for love and friendship and success and legend when he could, and he surrounded himself with elite talent. Off On A Tangent and Vintage are his children; we continue on in the hopes of becoming that which he never truly reached, as his life was cut short by what I can only imagine to be irrecoverable love lost. He likely felt alone; he felt the cold and numb of a biting, uncaring world. He got himself out of the way and he left us without hope. And then we situated ourselves and realized there’s always hope, in his presence and absence. He exists in every memory, every song, every melody we sing, every play we write, everywhere and everything. He’s gone of this mortal coil, and yet he’s in the soil, the trees, the campus, the spoken word. He’s never gone; nor are Cohen, or Prince, or Bowie, or anyone else who’s dead. They don’t simply not exist anymore; we’ll see them again. It might be awhile, but they’re around.

And this is what it means to be human. To see death, to see love, to see a world where people are resolutely dumbfounded with the idea of being nice to one another and yet are willing to sacrifice everything for people who need it, and all of the things in between these two extremities. We are born; we live; we die. And in the transit between these states of being, we experience. We love; we laugh; we mourn; we bawl; we yell; we enjoy. Death hovers until it can remove, but we linger endlessly.