Monday, September 16, 2013

Damn Life

Everybody knows the Kübler-Ross model of grief. First the grieving person faces denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, then, finally, acceptance of their situation. Like many things that everybody knows, it's bullshit. Kübler-Ross herself originated the hypothesis dealing with terminally ill patients facing their own deaths, though she later expanded it to encompass all grief. She did not believe that her stages were the only emotions people experienced, only that they were common; she did not believe they happened in any predictable order; and she did not think that one simply moved through them. In the real version of her model, they are states that may be visited repeatedly while processing the life-altering event. Beyond the popular misconceptions about what the model is, there is no compelling evidence in scientific studies that the stages even exist, and the idea that they do may be harmful in pressuring people to fit their emotions to them.

My own experience of grief is like a fire, flickering and flaring up and dying down, with hot spots moving and the flames dancing unpredictably. You can't point to one place in my emotional landscape and say what it is; the map is forever changing. One hour I am filled with joy for having experienced what came before; the next, with anger and looking for somebody to blame; emptiness and blankness; guilt and self-loathing; then resignation; paralyzing sorrow; an urge to do something useful to honor the lost or to avenge the loss on the guilty; elation at release and freedom; hopelessness, and hope renewed; then, hope dead, peace and tranquility restored. (When this process has struck me during the working week, I'll tell you, the mental gymnastics involved while keeping external placidity and professionalism are nothing short of Olympian.) And then I sleep, and I wake, and it all starts again.

And that's how this song goes.

Arguably the emotional climax of Music for a New Society, occupying the penultimate spot in the tracklist, "Damn Life" starts out with warm-up-y piano and synth burbles before absurdly breaking into Beethoven's Ode to Joy. It begins in disconnected jagged fragments of lyrics over that damned joyous beer-hall melody, the wistful and hard-panned guitar and synth, and the eerily funereal lagging kick-drum-driven beat. "Damn life. Damn life. What's it worth. Getting on without... This city... It's just self-pity. Damn life. You're just not worth it. You're just not worth it. ... Oh no, respect, respect, what's respect? Cause and effect. Self-respect." It might be funny if there were any sign of humor in his voice. There is not. Just dejection, depression, despair.

Then the tempo quadruples. Piano chords. Guitar scales. Tambourine. Constant drum fills. Fucking ? and the Mysterians "96 Tears" style bubbly organ. He's talking about somebody else now? "She was the one that got left behind, she was the one got lost." He sounds almost happy. "Never took from anybody, self-sufficient at any cost." Then... non-sequitur? "No, nothing can break this heart of mine!" Celebratory and defiant vocals. God, the drum fills. It's like somebody different in the kit. "It stands invincible all the time. Can't always get what ya left behind. Seek and you shall find, yes seek and you shall find. Oh, the daaaa" and here everything slows and Ludwig returns, "aaaaaaaamnlife!"

And back to the slow chorale, sans vocals, the drummer lagging even further behind the beat. And now the Mysterians return, then leave again.

And again we're left with the Ode and the mysterious lady. "So she's still wandering her heart away; doesn't even know if it's night or day." And here... his voice... is that all... contempt? "And even if someone helped her up, she'd stand little hope of recognizing those friends she had." Yes, definitely contempt. "And in many, many ways, those friends were GLAD." Holy shit what just happened. There may even be an element of triumph in that final scream.

I have listened to this song so many times now, and every time I still wince at the end. My heart cannot help but go along for the ride. Sometimes I sympathize with the depressed narrator, sometimes with the defiant, sometimes with the contemptuous. Who is "she"? Nico? His stalker? Who knows. It doesn't really matter.

Feeling this song might make me a worse person. But it represents the fire of loss better than almost anything else I can think of. There are better-known songs on Music for a New Society, but there's nothing more powerful. Make this your own at your own peril, but it bears the truth among the flames.

1 comment:

Inverarity said...

(I love Beethoven, and the 9th Symphony, and the fourth movement. But the characterization I've often read of the choral parts as reminiscent of beer halls isn't completely unfair.)