Tuesday, 30 August 2016

A Song to Grieve - June and Everything After

But don't forget the songs

That made you cry

And the songs that saved your life

Yes, you're older now

And you're a clever swine

But they were the only ones who ever stood by you

Sometime last year, when I had yet to experience the kind of monumental pain that comes with loss, I had a conversation on social media with a fellow Hanson fan about one of the band’s best loved songs. The fan said she hoped that Hanson wouldn’t play 'With You In Your Dreams’ at the next concert she was due to attend. She had just lost a parent and was worried that WYIYD was going to make her sad during the concert; in other words, it would be a bit of a mood dampener. A mutual friend jumped in the conversation, agreeing with her. I disagreed with both and a debate ensued: why should artists censor themselves, I argued, and refrain from playing some of their most emotionally-charged, powerful songs? What about songs about breakups then? Should they avoid those too? What about songs about drinking - upsetting tee-totals? Or songs with religious undertones, maybe atheists wouldn’t like those. Where would it stop?

Then my father died, and everything changed. Only then, remembering that conversation, I realised I’d been a total jerk. BTTI was coming up a couple of months later and I suddenly knew what my fellow fan had been talking about: about not wanting to dissolve in a puddle of tears, mascara streaming down your face, in front of another 400 people, not to mention the band. I understood how she didn’t want to be sad for a handful of hard-earned days on a tropical island.

As it happened, they didn’t play ‘that song’ and I survived BTTI unscathed, although there were times when songs that were most definitely not about grief felt like a stab in the heart - like when Isaac decided to play something he’d written at age 14 called ‘A Life Without You’. It was about a teenage breakup (it was an Isaac song, after all) but to me, it was about the life still ahead of me, without my dad.

It was just a song, but for people like us, who live and breathe music every single day, there is always a song that mirrors what you’re going through. Music is like no other art form or medium; it’s way more powerful than a painting, a movie or a novel. People who don’t listen to music - I often wonder, how do they live? What do they find comfort in when their heart is broken? An episode of Big Brother, a re-run of At Home with the Kardashians? 

I can’t help thinking that, deep down, I’m lucky - lucky that I have songs in my life, snippets of auditory magic that have taken me by the hand, walked with me and stayed with me at the worst possible times. If that sounds like a good metaphor, actually that’s not even the case: I had my music with me when, day in, day out, I'd walk to the hospice where my mother, like my father a few months earlier, was spending her last few days. I walked there and back four times a day, twice daily in the ruthless midday heat of northern Italy in June. It was like being catapulted into a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, minus the tumbleweed.

Out in my own private meteorological hell, with nobody to drive me and no public transport, I’d just plug in my headphones and walk. During those walks, I listened to NEEDTOBREATHE over and over, letting their uplifting sound push me along, one foot at a time, for those 1.8 km that felt more like ten. I’d listen to ‘Rise Again’ (‘heaviness is only temporary/the daylight will soon break in) and found solace in ‘Multiplied’ (“May this offering stretch across the skies/And these Halleluiahs be multiplied”) even if I’m not religious. ‘Wasteland’ described the landscape around me but with a light at the end of the tunnel; “Hard Love” encouraged me to grit my teeth and hold on a little longer. And ‘Happiness’ - well, “Happiness” was like stepping into a Star Trek-style holodeck for a couple of minutes and shower in atomic particles of joy.

Strangely, during that time and in the weeks that followed my mother’s death, I hardly listened to Hanson. When I found myself awake at 3 or 4 AM, as my mind insisted in replaying me the movie of the last few days over and over, it wasn’t Hanson lulling me back into some kind of slumber, playing on a low volume through my headphones. It was NTB’s entire catalogue I'd put on shuffle, and eventually doze off to: it was their 'noisy' music with its drum crescendos, duelling banjos and Bear's rich, soulful voice that somehow got me through the night.

It’s not that Hanson’s music wasn’t right - it’s just that I’d found something that fit the moment. The thing is, it doesn’t matter who the singer is: when the rubber ring song appears, you just grab hold of it and hang on for dear life, praying that it will still keep you afloat if you allow yourself to stop treading water for a moment. “Go on,” the song seems to say, “take a breather. I promise I won’t let you drown.”

Music, huh? The things it does to you. It rips your heart into pieces you one moment and heals you the next. It will stir emotions inside you like nothing else, and leave you like the elegantly dressed gentleman in that Friedrich painting, standing on top of a rocky precipice, staring at a foggy landscape. Note how he doesn’t fall. Romantic poets used to call that experience ‘the sublime’ - and frankly, I can’t think of a more fitting description for that moment when music saves your life. 

These days are tough, these days are long

Sometimes it's hard, you carry on
But I hear a voice singing and I know it's true

The Wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

You can find NEEDTOBREATHE's music on their YouTube channel.
This is a clip of Hanson performing 'With You in Your Dream' in London in 2013. I was at that show so it's extra special to me.


  1. Ironically I never listen to Hanson when I'm sad or unhappy or when life's lauded it's unfair card on the table again .I only listen to Hanaon when I'm happy , they makes me happy and I think subconsciously I refuse to associate anything but love bubbles and rainbows with them . Xoxox p.s one of your best post yet !

    1. Maybe that's what it is? Maybe Hanson equals Disney & Rainbows? Naaah ;)
      But I know what you mean, in all seriousness. I suppose Hanson is our happy place and even if most their music is anything but shallow or dumb, it's more celebratory than reflective. But so is NTB. Arhg, I don't know what to think anymore.

  2. i had to read this some how knowing what it was about , your right music can heal and rip you apart with in minutes , and the singer really doesn't matter as long as you relate to it and it helps , there are lots of things that helped me from bonjovi and ripped me in two as well , then there is hanson they always have songs that do all to me music is life and you can find a song from a musician you never thought would be of help that you grab by both hands and they start to pull you through ,

    thank you for sharing this its something ive been meaning to do myself , its strange how reading what others have been through and what you have been through yourself can bring a little more out of you that you never thought was there , you are a truly wonderful writer and a beautiful person
    shazie x

    1. Thanks Shazie for your kind words. You've been there too so you know what it's like. I know a lot of people can relate to this - whether you have lost someone or are battling with illness or depression or whatever - music saves us, every day. I have no idea of how people go without it.

  3. It's interesting how differently people feel about music during hard times. I've seen so many people say With You In Your Dreams got them through a really tough time, but I boycotted it the moment I found out my Dad got sick. Like Suze said, Hanson (and music in general) is a happy place for me too, and I didn't want to add to my sadness by playing sad music.

    Instead, I found myself keeping Inside the Box on repeat because it was new and exciting and a good distraction. Around the same time, I discovered Walk the Moon and kept both of their albums in heavy rotation too. I guess instead of opting for music that described how I felt at the time, I chose to bury my head in happier songs that helped me NOT think about what was happening. And now that it's been a year, I can't really listen to Inside the Box or Walk the Moon anymore without feeling sad. It's just kind of ironic because instead of avoiding the obvious sad songs, I sort of unintentionally created my own. Don't mind me, I'll just be the weirdo in the corner crying to Dance Like You Don't Care.

    This was a good introspective post, and I'm sorry you can connect to that feeling of dreading a song now.

    1. You know, I did worry that I'd now forever ruined NTB by associating them with such a sad time. But I think I'm safe, I've been listening to them since I've been back and although the memories pop up here and there, the music wins over the sadness.

  4. I love this post because of the way you described the role of music in your life (I feel the same way):

    "It was just a song, but for people like us, who live and breathe music every single day, there is always a song that mirrors what you’re going through. Music is like no other art form or medium; it’s way more powerful than a painting, a movie or a novel. People who don’t listen to music - I often wonder, how do they live? What do they find comfort in when their heart is broken?"

    Yes. Oh my goodness, yes.

    I am also in the "Hanson = happy place" boat. I've never cried over one of their songs or at one of their shows. I think that maybe this is because of how young I was when I became a fan. 20 years later I'm still conditioned to feel that sense of wonder/exuberance/joy that overwhelms any other emotion when I hear them play.

    That said, there are other songs by other bands that have reduced me to a streaky mascara puddle, and in some ways I appreciate that too. At the end of the day, I'm grateful for that feeling of being moved, one way or another, and absolutely can't imagine what life would be without it.

    Excellent post!!

    1. Well, you know what they say: "does it move you/does it soothe you'...

      I wonder if people who have been a Hanson fan for longer than I have a different type of experience of the band. I associate happy memories to them but obviously nothing connected to be a carefree teenager. I think if NTB hadn't 'been there' I would have turned to Hanson. I'm glad that Hanson have remained untainted by sadness though.

  5. This articulates so many of my feelings so beautifully.

    My grandpa, who was one of my favorite people ever, died in 2008. I avoided "With You in Your Dreams" like the plague after listening to it once shortly after he died. Nope, not again. Not ever again, I decided.

    Flash forward to MOE 2015 where I had successfully avoided all but the first few notes of the song for roughly seven years. Then during his lecture, Taylor played it as a solo. There was no avoiding it.

    During an already emotional weekend, here I am, totally unprepared for this song that was just dumped on me that I had no escape from. I was FORCED to deal with what it made me feel. I was so overwhelmed, and so mad at him. Maybe it was an irrational anger, but to be surprised with that song and all of those feelings was really overwhelming.

    More recently, a friend who is one of my most cherished people ever has been going through some really intense, serious, life threatening for some people, shit.

    During that time (which is still ongoing but there is marked progress), I listened to Hanson, but what i really found solace in was the band Fun. and, specifically, Nate Ruess's voice: so I played Fun. and Nate Ruess's solo album almost obsessively. Something about his voice has been so soothing- in part because there is this part of him- small guy with huge singing voice, that reminds me of my friend. That with some of the dark themes in the music, and the encouraging themes (depending on the song) was a great comfort. More than Hanson could have been. And I do believe that part of that was my fear to, for lack of a better word, taint, Hanson with sadness. They are my escape, my happiness, not my solace.

    So really, I get you. Thank you for writing this.

    1. You're very welcome - thank you so much for reading. So many people have been able to relate to this post, more than I expected.

  6. I made myself a playlist, a playlist for a happy time. A calming playlist that would get me through physical pain. It was about 60% Hanson (string theory was recently out and its got calming strings in it and I'm lazy with playlists).

    After my world broke in 2, the playlist went on anyway, something had to stay within the plan. It was played on shuffle that day, but that shuffle was the perfect order, the order I've only ever played it in since. It begins with a instrumental calming song 'Eve' that I walked down the isle to, and now which my daughter is named after. Continues with the Eels Last stop this town, then another similar instrumental song to the first 'Define Dancing' (they're from the Wall.e soundtrack if you're wondering), before going into Hanson's Breaktown. Some very fitting songs chosen with no realization. The playlist continues with less fitting songs... 'What a wonderful world'. How wonderful can the world be in this darkness, yet somehow it offers comfort and hope. In the middle another perfect song 'it only takes a moment'...(to be loved a whole life long) (hello Dolly soundtrack). A couple of songs later, Reaching for the Sky (part 1), the song she was born to... The second half offers promises and encouragement through grief, 'dream it, do it','tonight' ..a dream for a happier time, tomorrow is an open door afterall. A break from Hanson with Within Temptations 'whole world is watching' a song about overcoming the scars in your life. The playlist finishes with 'I was born' what a perfect ending. A song I now look upon not just for life's journey but to continue a life's purpose in death. She was born for something, even if she can't shape it herself.

    I've played this playlist so many times now, I've danced cuddled and rocked Eve to it. We used some songs for her funeral and memorial service. I've driven to work with it. I play it in the morning, in the afternoon. I play it when I want to think of her. String theory will never be the same to me again, Hanson's version is in the wrong order and should be intermingled with film soundtracks etc. But I don't think I mind if I hear Hanson sing it live again. It makes me feel and it makes me remember, even if a few tears are shed. One day I hope I might be able to use the same playlist for the purpose it was designed for, to welcome a life into the world... And then I'm sure the way I interpret the songs will evolve further again.

    Thanks for this post, and giving me the opportunity to write about Eve's playlist.