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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I say a little prayer for you

Let us all hail Jerry Wexler.

102521-jerry_wexler_617_409Who?

He is the savvy producer and executive at Atlantic Records who, in 1966, recognized how the phenomenal gospel-based talent of Aretha Franklin had been used so ineffectively by Columbia Records during their five-year contract.  The minute she was free to sign elsewhere, Wexler brought her into the fold at Atlantic, a hotbed of rhythm and blues artists since the 1940s, and paired her with the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio veterans, helped produce game-changing tracks like “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and turned her into the iconic artist we all revere, and now mourn.

Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” has died, a victim of pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Can you even imagine what our musical landscape would be like if Aretha had called it quits after her lackluster career singing dreary pop standards on Columbia?  Thankfully, we need not do so.  The wonderful chemistry between Franklin, Wexler and the Muscle Shoals crew (and, later, in Atlantic’s New York studios with some of the Muscle Shoals personnel) is well documented in the extraordinary musical works they produced:   ct-aretha-franklin-photos-20180813“Baby I Love You,” Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “The House That Jack Built” and “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”

All of these Top Ten hits came in the space of only two short years, and established her as the undisputed star of female soul singers, and among the best in American popular music in general.  Critic Ritchie Unterberger of AllMusic recently wrote, “Aretha is one of the true giants of soul music and, indeed, of American pop as a whole.  More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged.”

Franklin’s story, sadly, is riddled with early trauma.  She was born in 1942 to a Baptist preacher father and a pianist/vocalist mother, and they both influenced her love of gospel music.  But their marriage was tempestuous and ultimately doomed by infidelity on both sides, and Aretha stayed with her father when her mother moved out.  Aretha was only 10 years old

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The Reverend C.L. Franklin and Aretha

when her mother died of a heart attack.

 

As her father became a renowned traveling preacher on the Southern circuit, Aretha tagged along, singing solos on numerous hymns, sharing her amazing vocal range and impressive piano skills, which she had picked up on her own.  Her father helped her secure her first recording contract at age 14, covering gospel favorites on the little-known “Songs of Faith” LP.

By the time she reached 18, possessed of a powerful four-octave voice packed with emotional intensity, Franklin moved to New York City, hoping to follow the path of Sam Cooke, another spectacular vocal talent who had evolved from gospel to secular music and become a chart-topper (“You Send Me” and others).

The legendary John Hammond signed her to Columbia in 1960.  But he made the tactical error of envisioning her as a jazz singer tinged with blues and gospel, and he steered her toward middle-of-the-road fare like “Over the Rainbow,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Skylark,” “People” and “You Are My Sunshine.”  Franklin’s then-husband, Ted White, became her manager, who wanted her to try a little of everything, from Dinah Washington standards to remakes of recent pop hits, which consequently left radio stations and audiences confused.

The passion and spirit in Aretha’s voice finally surfaced at Atlantic once Wexler found the right CS324702-01A-BIGenvironment and accompaniment.  “I basically took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself,” as Wexler put it in Craig Werner’s book Higher Ground, an illuminating exploration of how Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield launched the soul music revolution of the 1960s.

Her defining moment, then and ever since, was when she took Otis Redding’s great 1966 song “Respect,” changed the arrangement and a few of the lyrics, and made it something else altogether.  If you listen to Redding’s original version now, it sounds positively lame without Franklin’s signature chorus “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care of T-C-B,” which helped turn it into a feminist and civil rights anthem just as those movements were coalescing in 1967.

When The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” ruled the album charts in the summer of ’67, it was “Respect” that was the Number One song in the country, her second of six consecutive Top Ten hit singles in 1967-68.  What’s more, her first four albums on Atlantic (“I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” “Aretha Arrives,” “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now”) all 89ff36-20130219-aretha-franklin-time-magazinereached the Top Ten, an unprecedented feat at a time when urban audiences weren’t buying LPs yet.  Clearly, there was no stopping her over the next three years.

As Time wrote in its cover story on Franklin in June 1968, “Aretha’s vocal technique is simple enough:  a direct, natural style of delivery that ranges over a full four octaves, and the breath control to spin out long phrases that curl sinuously around the beat.  But what really accounts for her impact is her fierce, gritty conviction.  She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip.”

Aretha herself said at that time that she chose songs she could sing with sincerity because they frame her own perspective on life.  “If a song is about something I’ve experienced, or that could have happened to me, then it’s good.  But if it’s alien to me, then I can’t lend anything to it.  That’s what soul music is — just living and having to get along.”

_103066216_1968_bbc_3While her career was on fire, her marriage was in ashes, as White publicly berated her and physically abused her.  By 1970, she was on her own again, and another set of hits kept her all over the airwaves.  The great Paul Simon has said he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Aretha in mind, and he got his wish when her version followed his into the Top Ten in 1971, followed by the major pop hits “Spanish Harlem” (#2), “Rock Steady” (#9) and “Day Dreaming” (#5).

Even as her “Amazing Grace” album (1972) sold two million copies and became the best-selling gospel album ever, the disco era was on the rise, and curiously, Franklin’s light began dimming somewhat.  She still had the occasional minor hit, and she scored big on the more limited R&B charts, but her albums stiffed, and she found herself out of favor for a spell.

Aretha endured more heartbreak in 1979 when her father was shot during a home invasion and remained in a coma for five long years until his death in 1984.  As the dutiful daughter, she flew back and forth from L.A. to Detroit numerous times during

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The diner scene from “The Blues Brothers” (1980)

that period, and one particularly turbulent flight in 1983 affected her so traumatically that she refused to ever fly again.

 

Things had started improving again for Aretha when she did an incredible turn as a diner waitress singing and dancing to a frantic version of “Think” in the 1980 blockbuster film “The Blues Brothers.”  When she signed with Arista Records, she eventually re-emerged on the charts in 1985 with a huge album, the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” LP and the #3 hit single, “Freeway of Love.”   This also began a string of hugely popular duets with the likes of The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox (“Sisters Are Doing images-28It For Themselves” was #18 in 1985), George Michael (“I Knew Your Were Waiting For Me” was #1 in 1987), plus lesser numbers with Elton John, Whitney Houston, James Brown and Michael McDonald.

Another fallow period came in the 1990s, but she rallied again in 1998 with a noteworthy appearance at the 1998 Grammy Awards, substituting at the last minute for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti by singing a Puccini aria that met with mixed reviews (opera folks were appalled).  On a VH1 special called “Divas Live,” she made mincemeat of newer-generation stars in duets, among them Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

Aretha battled weight problems much of her life, which led to other medical issues, but she was always very private about them.  Even today in the wake of her death, little is known about the specific ailments that made her life difficult in the 1990s and beyond.

merlin_127020776_a4590586-9b4b-4eb5-b6bf-46eb7e918a06-superJumboStill, she was able to overcome them well enough to make several seismic public showings in more recent years.  She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by George W. Bush in 2005.  When Barack Obama stood before America for his inauguration in January 2009, he made history, but it was Aretha Franklin who pretty much stole the show.  Obama may have been sworn in as America’s first black president, but when Aretha stood to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she was, without a shadow of a doubt, its first Queen.

Rolling Stone ranked her #1 on its 2010 list of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” and Mary J. Blige had this to say about that:  “Aretha is a gift from God.  When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there’s no one who can touch her.  She is the reason why women want to sing.”

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At Obama’s inauguration in 2009

Music journalists didn’t care for how Franklin tended to maintain a very strict discipline over her career message, but I think it’s likely she insisted on that control because she didn’t want her life story to follow the weary stereotype of strong black women.  You know what I mean:  the tale of a lifelong struggle against demons within and without, culminating in an exhilarating victory over hard times.

 

In my mind, Aretha’s story is more one of incalculable influence, spine-tingling recordings, a voice unmatched by anyone anywhere.  As someone once said, “That woman could sing the phone book, and I’d buy it.”

Here’s what her contemporaries said in the wake of her passing a week ago:

“Aretha was a rare treasure whose unmatched musical genius helped craft the soundtrack to the lives of so many.”  — Patti LaBelle

“I was fortunate enough to witness her last performance — a benefit for the AIDS Foundation.  She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept.  We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.”  — Elton John

“Let us give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us for many, many years.  The memory of her greatness as a musician and fine human being will live with us forever.”  — Paul McCartney

“A salute to the Queen.  The greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.”  — John Legend

hbz-aretha-franklin-670443922-1534168488“Aretha, the power of your voice in music and in civil rights blew open the door for me and so many others.  You were my inspiration, my mentor and my friend.”  — Mariah Carey

“The greatest voice in popular music has been stilled.  For me, she was a musical lighthouse, guiding and inspiring with every note.” — Bette Midler

We will miss her majestic voice and her reassuring presence.  And we can all be grateful there are so many of her recordings available for us to crank up when we need a little pick-me-up.  Below is my Spotify playlist of “Essential Aretha.”  Turn it up!