All things must pass away

“Hallelujah, you were an angel in the shape of my mum, you got to see the person I have become, spread your wings, and I know that when God took you back, He said, ‘Hallelujah, you’re home’…”  Ed Sheeran

Music can be such a powerful force.

It can make us joyous and get us up off our feet, it can soothe our aching wounds, it can take us back in time, it can bring us to our knees.  In celebration or in desolation, it’s always there to help us crystallize our thoughts and emotions about the joyous and tragic events of our lives.

Through the years, popular music has tended to be mostly sunny and optimistic, but there have been hundreds of examples of songs that deal with loss and grief.  For example, we can reach back to George and Ira Gershwin’s groundbreaking 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess,” which includes a heart-wrenching song of longing called “My Man’s Gone Now”:   “My man’s gone now, ain’t no use listening for his tired footsteps climbing up the stairs, old man sorrow’s come to keep me company, whispering beside me when I say my prayers…”

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Five years ago, on her 90th birthday

Earlier this month, I lost my mother, who passed away at age 95.  It was quite a long and wonderful life she had, but it still hurts mightily — for me, for my sister, for the grandchildren and other relatives, and for the many who called her their friend — to lose her.

“Sometimes I feel my heart is breaking, but I stay strong and I hold on, ’cause I know I will see you again, this is not where it ends, I will carry you with me…”  David Hodges/Hillary Lindsey/Carrie Underwood

These kinds of events take your breath away in their suddenness and their finality, and no one knows exactly what to do, or feel.  It just doesn’t seem real, like a nightmarish scene from a bad movie.  And those left behind to mourn are searching for ways to cope, to heal, to put it all in perspective and somehow make sense of it.

“Like a comet blasting ‘cross the evening sky, gone too soon, like a rainbow fading in the twinkling of an eye, gone too soon…”  Michael Jackson

The Internet is full of documented scientific studies that show conclusively that music can reduce the intensity of pain, improve sleep, reduce stress, enhance blood vessel function, raise spirits and enhance mood, induce meditative states.  I’m pretty certain, though, that mankind has known this for many centuries before science proved it.  As they say, music has charms to soothe the savage breast:  “Music, sweet music, you’re the queen of my soul…”. Hamish Stuart

Musical eulogies come in a variety of forms, and they can provide just the right words and musical passages to help with what you’re going through.  Hymnals are full of songs to help deal with loss.  Gospel music reaches to the heavens to search for answers in life and death.

Country music is famous for its down-home laments about heartbreak and suffering: “The roses aren’t as pretty, the sun isn’t quite as high, the birds don’t swing as sweet of a lullaby, the stars are a little bit faded, the clouds are just a little more gray, and it feels like things won’t ever be the same…”  Gordon Garner

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With granddaughter Emily, 1994

If it makes you feel better to get right down into the depths of grief and have a really good cry, there are so many songs that can accompany you on that journey.  Some are merely about relationships that ended, but once you’ve lost someone, the same song takes on a more profound meaning: “She’s gone, she’s gone, oh why, oh why, I better learn how to face it, she’s gone, I can’t believe it, she’s gone, I’ll pay the devil to replace her…” Daryl Hall and John Oates

If, instead, you feel the need to snap out of it and celebrate the wonderful memories you have of the person you’ve lost, there are plenty of tunes for that too (“Celebrate good times, come on…”)  When I lost my dear friend Chris nine years ago, we didn’t have a funeral, we had a “celebration of life,” and it was wonderfully cathartic.  We listened to “Reelin’ in the Years,” among many others, and cherished him for the way we know he would have insisted that we focus on the positive and not dwell on the loss.  My mother felt much the same way.

Pop music can be so fleeting, but it can still tug at the heartstrings when it addresses serious topics, and very effectively:

“And I know that you’ve reached a better place, still, I’d give the world to see your face, it feels like you’ve gone too soon, the hardest thing is to say bye bye…”  Mariah Carey

“I’m so tired but I can’t sleep, standing on the edge of something much too deep, it’s funny how we feel so much, but we cannot say a word, we are screaming inside, but we can’t be heard…”  Sarah McLachlan

“Now you’re gone, now you’re gone, there you go, there you go, somewhere I can’t bring you back…”  Avril Lavigne

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With granddaughter Rachel, 1997

Even hip-hop, infamous for its rage and bombast, can offer solace. In 1997, rapper Puff Daddy and Faith Evans collaborated on “I’ll Be Missing You,” which used The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” to create a eulogy to The Notorious B.I.G., who died that year.  “Every step I take, every move I make, every single day, every day I pray, I’ll be missing you…”

Perhaps words of any kind are distracting, and you need instruments without voices.  Classical music is often ideal in that situation.  Or perhaps jazz, or “easy listening” music like Sinatra or Nat King Cole.  Anything that lets you float in your thoughts.

Sometimes the lyrics aren’t quite right for what you’re feeling, but the music… the music is exactly what you need to hear.  For instance, check out the majestic chorus of the amazing Leonard Cohen piece, “Hallelujah,” a waltz/gospel piece written in 1984 and interpreted by dozens of artists in arrangements that are alternately melancholy, fragile, uplifting or joyous.

Of course, there will always be specific songs that acutely remind us of the departed — songs you danced to together, songs you laughed to together, songs you sang with them at the top of your lungs.  And songs that you know they loved deeply, songs that will now always, always remind you of them.  If they liked Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra or even The Beatles, like my mother did, well then, perhaps that’s what you need to crank up.  Whatever works.  I feel pretty confident in saying that, somewhere, there is music that will help.

If I may be so bold, let me strongly suggest:  Immerse yourself in music.  It can be profoundly beneficial.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Just hearing something as iconic as James Taylor’s line “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…” will take on a whole new meaning for you now.  It may make you cry initially, but eventually it will help you heal.

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The Hacketts in 1990

Losing a loved one is so profoundly painful.  But it’s a certainty.  We will ALL lose people we love.  Grandparents, parents, friends, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren.  It never seems fair, or right, or in any way good, but we all must eventually find a way to cope with the loss, to fill the void, to find the answer.

One of the time-honored ways for easing the pain is to surround yourself with friends and family who share your loss.  They get it.  They know exactly what you’re going through, and can call up a fun memory, an old story, a time from the past when it was all good and fun and right. “With a friend at hand, you will see the light, if your friends are there, then everything’s all right…”  Bernie Taupin  

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With the family in 2013

You can also look through old photos, which can be wonderfully comforting.  They transport you to an earlier time.  They can remind you, emphatically, why you miss this person so much. “Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer, I was taken by a photograph of you, there were one or two I know that you would’ve liked a little more, but they didn’t show your spirit quite as true…”  Jackson Browne

But music…well, if you’re like me, and you’re motivated to compile a mix of songs that focus on what you’re going through, you might look at these selections:

“Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton

“See You Again,” Carrie Underwood

“She’s Gone,” Hall and Oates

“All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison

“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel),” Billy Joel

“Supermarket Flowers,” Ed Sheeran

“Gone Too Soon,” Michael Jackson

“Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen

“Here Today,” Paul McCartney

“Candle in the Wind,” Elton John

“Dreaming With a Broken Heart,” John Mayer

“I Grieve,” Peter Gabriel

“Everybody Hurts,” R.E.M.

“Let It Be,” The Beatles

“Heaven Got Another Angel,” Gordon Garner

Music is a remarkable medicine.  Let it help you cope with loss.

“The darkness only stays at nighttime, in the morning it will fade away, daylight is good at arriving at the right time, it’s not always gonna be this grey, all things must pass, all things must pass away…”  George Harrison

 

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Wrote a song for everyone, wrote a song for truth

“I would write five songs to get one song.  I’d have a big junkyard of stuff written as the year went by.  If something wasn’t complete, I just pulled out the parts I liked, like taking bruce-springsteen-october-2016-ss01the parts you need from several cars, and you put them in the other car so that car runs.” — Bruce Springsteen, on the songwriting process

To the layman, the art of writing a song seems magical, almost otherworldly.

Many people find it hard enough just to write a coherent sentence or a paragraph, let alone an essay, a speech or, God forbid, a book.  The idea of conjuring up song lyrics and then putting them to music is… well, a Herculean task, and pretty much impossible.

So how do the songwriters do it?  How do they do it even once, never mind dozens of times?  How do icons like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney write memorable song after memorable song every year from their teens until well into their 70s?

images-25Clearly, it’s a very rare, God-given talent.  And it is mysterious.  Even the songwriters themselves are hard-pressed to explain exactly how it works or where the songs come from.

“Songwriting is a very mysterious process.  It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really 2e0a4cf67d454c9de58e985e44e318d3688beff0control.”  — Tracy Chapman

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.  It’s a mysterious condition.”  — Leonard Cohen

Those fortunate few who have the ability to craft a song concede that they often struggle to produce something they’re satisfied with.  The late Leon Russell, an exceptional pianist, arranger and recording artist, admitted that songwriting never came naturally to 0798c90a-49f7-42a3-aa91-de253523e4e8-large16x9_1280x720_60719P00WWVGPhim.  “Songwriting was very tough for me.  I would go in and sit, and hope for inspiration to come, but it was rarely forthcoming.”

Most classical music composers studied the intricacies of music for many years before attempting to write an aria, sonata or symphony.  By contrast, many pop songwriters confess that they had little or no musical education.  McCartney, the most PaulMcCartney_wide-f63b946213ed3b3b0fd9ed854a92e1be36a852a2-s800-c85successful songwriter of the past half-century, says he can’t read nor notate music.  It just comes to him by playing around with notes and chords as he plays guitar or piano.

“If I was to sit down right now and write a song,” McCartney said, “I’d use my usual method:  I’d either sit down with a guitar or at the piano and just look for melodies, chord shapes, musical phrases, some words, a thought just to get started with. And then I’d just sit with it to work it out, like I’m writing an essay or doing a crossword puzzle. That’s the system I’ve always used.”

neil-diamondNeil Diamond may have put his finger on it when he explained what he saw as a major deficiency in his songwriting toolbox.  “I don’t deny now that it would have been nice to have had more background in music theory.  But because I never had any of that, songwriting is easily the hardest part of what I do.”

C1A2RBlB6BS._SL1000_.pngPaul Simon admits that it takes him a long time to write songs.  “For me, the music — or more accurately, the rhythm — usually comes first, and then a melody will suggest itself.  This may take weeks, even months.  Then I struggle a long time to settle on the lyric.  It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true.  If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks.”

1208-ctm-kchdonhenley-1Some artists have had considerable success by regarding songwriting as a process.  Here’s Don Henley‘s take on it:  “My process hasn’t changed much at all.  I still use legal pads.  I do a lot of writing in my head when I’m engaged in other activities, like driving, or loading the dishwasher.  I find that when I’m doing menial tasks, my mind lets go of all the clutter, and then the creative stuff can bubble up from the subconscious.” 

The late great David Bowie, whose lengthy career underwent numerous stylistic bowie2_2446365bchanges, said he found it helpful to have rules and a structural process, but he never minded breaking those rules now and then.  “I think process is quite important. To allow the accidental to take place is often very good.  So I trick myself into things like that.  Maybe I’ll write out five or six chords, then discipline myself to write something only with those five or six chords involved.  Of course, I’ll cheat as well.  If I’ve got the basis of something really quite good coming out of those five or six chords, then I’ll allow myself to restructure it a bit, if I think, well, that could be so much better if instead it went to F-sharp, or something like that.”

Artists of all types talk about having a muse — an intangible inspiration, stimulus or creative influence.  In Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine goddesses (daughters of Zeus) who presided over the arts and sciences, and the Muses could be very unpredictable.

carlysimon-1119-1447935762Songwriters point out that their muse ebbs and flows, and can sometimes seem to disappear for long stretches (the so-called “writer’s block”).  Carly Simon offers this recollection:  “My songwriting artistry has gone through many phases, including one time where it has been very quiet and abandoned me completely for a few years.  That was really frightening.  I didn’t know if I’d ever get it back.”

ìììSongwriting is a curious art form that, like most art forms, cannot be rushed.  It is for this reason that artists and their corporate benefactors are often at odds about how much time is necessary to produce quality work.  As rocker Nick Cave puts it:  “My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times, and I feel it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.  My muse is not a horse, and I am not in a horse race.”

Springsteen, a notoriously prolific songwriter for most of his 50-year career, concedes even he has had times when he couldn’t come up with anything:  “I wish I could write every day, but I’ve sometimes gone for long periods of time without writing because I didn’t have any good ideas, or whatever is in there is just sort of gestating.  Sometimes, I’ve had to force myself to write.  I think what happens is you move in and out of different veins.  You’re mining, and you hit a vein, and then you go with that, and then it dries up.”

hqdefault-10Patience and perseverance are crucial for songwriters, they say.  Many failures come before they hit on a song they really like.  Gerry Goffin, the lyricist and ex-husband of songwriter Carole King, was part of the famous Brill Building stable of songwriting teams who reported for work each day and were expected to crank out hit songs like some sort of factory assembly line.  Goffin was pragmatic about that kind of creative environment:  “You’ve got to realize it’s a hit or miss process.  But my advice would be, Don’t be afraid to write a bad song, because the next one may be great.”

a45512834_s800b1b5My daughter Emily Hackett is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who writes on her own or in collaboration with others.  Either way, she says, it’s a process of exploration.  “There’s a lot of discovery in songwriting.  If you’re doing it right, you’re constantly discovering new avenues.  You could take a certain road for five or ten minutes and not get anywhere, but that’s okay.  Try a different road.  Eventually you’ll land on the right path, and the song will unfold.”

TomPetty-2The late Tom Petty drew an analogy between writing a song and catching a fish:  “Songwriting is pretty lonely work.  I think a lot of people don’t have the patience for it.  You’re not necessarily going to get one every time you try.  In fact, most times you try, you’re not going to get one.  It’s like fishing.  You’re fishing, and you either caught a fish, or you didn’t.  If you did, there’s one in the boat; if you didn’t, there’s not.  But you’ve got to go back and keep your pole in the water.  That’s the only way you’re going to get a bite.”

We music lovers should be grateful that songwriters are often almost addicted to their art.  They p01br0nwenjoy writing songs, certainly, but sometimes it becomes an obsession that haunts them, and doesn’t let go until the piece is finished.  John Lennon had this to say about that:  “It’s like being possessed.  It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep.  That’s always in the middle of the bloody night, when you’re half awake and your critical facilities are switched off.”

dolly-parton-yellowCountry songwriter Dolly Parton has said she looks forward to those times when she isn’t touring or leading a busy life so she has the opportunity to focus on writing new songs.  “I always long for that block of time and space when I can go on a writing binge, because I’m really addicted to songwriting.”

keith-richardsSome songwriters are amazed when they come up with a great song and wonder why no one had beaten them to the punch.  Says Keith Richards:  “With most of the songs I’ve written, I’ve felt there’s this gap waiting to be filled, and I think, man, this song should have been written hundreds of years ago.  How did nobody else pick up on that little space before?”

joni-mitchellOther tunesmiths are such perfectionists that, once they’ve recorded and released a song, they find themselves forever unhappy with the result.  Here’s Joni Mitchell talking:  “When I listen back to my early music, it’s always, ‘Why didn’t I put a guitar fill there?  Why did I sing the line like that?  And why am I whining?'”

R-6446275-1427469478-5531.jpegSome pop songwriters have found themselves facing lawsuits because their song sounds like another song that’s already been written.  In 1976, a court found George Harrison had “subconsciously plagiarized” The Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord,” and awarded millions in royalties, which later spurred Harrison to write “This Song,” with these lyrics:  “This song has nothing tricky about it, this song ain’t black or white, and as far as I know don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so this song we’ll let be…”

Lennon once said:  “You know, there are only so many notes.”  Springsteen maintains, “Everyone steals from everyone else.”  Folk singer Pete Seeger famously wrote, “So sing, change, add to, subtract.  But beware multiplying.  If you record and start making hundreds of copies, watch out.  Write a letter first.  Get permission.”  

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As a postscript here, I wanted to mention how, since the dawn of the Internet, songwriters have watched helplessly as their intellectual property has been devalued to Songwriting-and-writers-blockthe point of absurdity.  Downloads and streaming services have given consumers easy access to so much music, but the royalties paid to the songwriters have been reduced to a mere fraction of what they used to receive.  It’s grossly unfair, and needs to be remedied.

The good news is, within the past year, the Music Modernization Act — supported by a broad cross-section of artists, producers and others throughout the music industry — has overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives and is currently pending before the Senate.  It will overhaul copyright law and result in songwriters and artists at last making their fair share of money from digital and streaming services.

The bad news is, a last-minute amendment to the legislation, proposed by The Blackstone Group (a multi-billion-dollar private equity and financial services firm that stands to gain handsomely), is threatening to kill the MMA bill dead in its tracks.  It’s a classic example of corporate greed and a blatant attempt to halt what is widely viewed as a long-overdue correction of songwriter remuneration.

I implore you, on behalf of songwriters everywhere, to contact your U.S. Senator and demand the removal of the offensive amendment and insist on passage of the MMA in its original wording.