There’s a scene from an episode of the beloved TV sitcom “The Office” in which the petulant, irascible Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) is deeply bummed out about something or other, storms out of the workplace to the parking lot, hops in his car, rolls down the window and cranks R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.”
The Jim character runs to the car window in an attempt to talk Dwight off the ledge. “C’mon, Dwight,” he says. “Use words.”
Dwight simply turns the song up even louder.
The thing is, sometimes words are nowhere near enough. Or at least, words devoid of a melody, a song structure, a perfect framing of a particular emotion.
People who love music lean on it routinely. Sometimes, we employ it to celebrate a positive emotion – falling in love, feeling liberated, and hearing in a song a reflection of life’s temporal beauties.
But at other times, we lean on it with more weight, seeking much more support, understanding and an echo of humanity during a dark hour.
Often, songs that support us during these times end up being the ones that hold the greatest, most profound meaning for us over the longest expanse of time.
Like everyone who manages to survive for 45 years, I’ve been going through some stuff lately. Loved ones dying; others falling ill; losing best friends of the four-legged variety well before their time; watching family dynamics change, sometimes for the worse.
During these times, I’ve turned to music to teach me how to cope. Invariably, it has helped.
The most direct, impassioned, well-observed and disquietingly frank of the many songs I love that deal with death is certainly Peter Gabriel’s “I Grieve.” It’s a tough listen, almost excruciatingly so, as Gabriel recounts his feelings while watching a loved one die. (“It was only an hour ago/It was all so different then/Nothing yet has really sunk in/Looks like it always did/This flesh and bone/Is just the way we are tied in/But there’s no one home/And I grieve/For you/You leave/Me,” Gabriel sings above a mournful musical bed.) The tune would be oppressively depressing, were it not for the fact that, just as things are becoming overwhelming, Gabriel switches meter and key, and the song turns defiantly jubilant, the singer celebrating the fact that “Life carries on in the people I meet … and in the rot and the rust/in the ashes and the dust.” This is catharsis through song, pure and true.
The Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” is another evergreen farewell song. Its lyrics, by the all-but-peerless Robert Hunter, are image-heavy and evocative. They employ the reliable metaphor of the river as the only thing that is eternal in our temporal world. (“Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll”). The narrator – Jerry Garcia, in one of his greatest recorded vocals – is world-weary but intent on finding a healing balm through nature. “Fare you well, fare you well/I love you more than words can tell/Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul,” runs the song’s emotion-soaked coda. This one feels like a gift for all the grieving.
Patti Smith managed to turn her grief over the death of her husband, Fred Smith, into images of enduring poetic power with her tune “Paths That Cross.” Focusing on her loss, Smith finds strength in the power of her own words – what the religious convert calls faith and the poet knows as hard-won hope. “Speak to me heart/All things renew/Hearts will mend/Round the bend/Paths that cross will cross again.” Sublime stuff.
It’s moving to watch kids use music in the same way that adults do. My son has been going through a lot of the things that have deeply affected our family of late right along with us, and the music I hear blasting from his bedroom lets me know he’s seeking catharsis through song, too. Jeff Buckley’s “Eternal Life,” U2’s “Stuck in a Moment,” Radiohead’s “House of Cards” and “Videotape,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – he’s using these songs to work through his own feelings, and as sad as that would make any parent, it’s also pretty cool.
As a major prog-rock fan, I’ve often found myself turning to the Rush album “Vapor Trails,” which is essentially a concept album revolving around lyricist/drummer Neil Peart’s attempts to deal with the loss of both his 19-year-old daughter and his wife of several decades within a single 12-month period. It’s heavy stuff, but not heavy-handed. “Sweet Miracle” in particular resounds with hope against all odds, and it is a deeply inspiring piece of work.
There are so many more. All of them share a desire to make sense of loss and tragedy through determination, will, imagination and the decidedly human belief that things can get better – that even though constant change is quite likely the only constant in human life, the human spirt has a rather unbelievable capacity to endure.
So if you happen upon a guy sitting in his car with the music blasting a la Dwight Schrute, don’t ask him to “use words.” Just leave him alone and let him crank it up.