IT’S TAKEN ME A WHILE to conclude my list of funeral songs (see 14 and 23 June). I fear it risks becoming a bit self-indulgent. And it’s emotional. So let’s wrap it up here.
Last time, I wrote about last times, specifically the difficulty of knowing when something actually is the last time. I suppose, in the scheme of things, when I come to meet my maker it won’t matter too much whether I listened to “You Can’t Always get What You Want” a month before, a year before or that very morning. Maybe I could even play it as I go (you could do a lot worse). I don’t suppose it would make a difference.
It isn’t so much that I may not listen to some of my favourite music many more times in my life, though that of course is bad enough. It is more that I will never know the last time that I hear some of my most treasured musical moments. That makes me sad. It’s hard enough facing up to the idea of your own mortality. But if you have to face going, you want to say goodbye to the people and things you loved.
If I was dying, I’m sure I’d want some extra time in order to play all my favourites again, and to seek out those potentially great albums I never got round to hearing. Life seems unlikely to grant such a neat ending. But the alternative would involve playing “Desolation Row” every day, along with hundreds of other classics. That doesn’t seem terribly practical either.
And obviously, if all I cared about was the music, that would make me a bit of a saddo. Even more so than I actually am. Of course, what makes the music special is often its association with the memories of people you love. Here then, to end, are some songs that get on my list because of the people they make me think about.
For my son, who heard this while still in the womb, as a heavily pregnant Laura came with me to see the Jayhawks in London. And who as a baby would fall asleep instantly if you played this, however fractious he was.
And because it was the song Laura was listening to on headphones in her hospital bed when I brought Sam from the special care unit, and she saw her baby properly for the first time (having been away on wings of sedation when he was delivered by caesarian section).
For my older daughter, Kate, who sang this with me at a karaoke session on a caravan park in Scotland when she was six years old. (We also did Puff the Magic Dragon, but that has less appeal. Although there is that charming reggae version by Gregory Isaacs…)
It’s another song like Madonna’s Holiday or Bunny Wailer’s Dreamland. On the surface full of hope and optimism but some quality of dread or desperation in the singer’s voice undercuts that feeling.
I smile at the line: “Oh Daddy dear you know you’re still number one.” which is nice for a father to hear. But the zest with which Cyndi follows it up with “but girls just wanna have fun”, suggests there are plenty of other numbers on her phone. An impression reinforced as she repeats the line, but just can’t wait to complete it, interrupting herself as she sings: “they just wanna have – that’s all they really want – some fun”.
Which is all a dad wants for his girl really.
Oddly, it was hardest to choose a song for my younger daughter. Which surprised me because she’s probably the one most like me in magpie attraction to variety of music.
In the end I chose the relentless positivism of this song. There are two reasons for that.
The first is because I did another play list once, for Nicola’s 21st birthday. I intended to burn it on a CD and make it part of her present, but never completed the job. This song was on it, and I found it intriguing that many of the songs on the birthday list were the same ones as on my funeral list. I don‘t know what to make of that.
But the main reason for choosing this is because it is so genuinely optimistic, and it will always remind me of speeding down the motorway, in a rented white van with Nicola and Sam, bringing her home from three years at university, playing Fleetwood Mac and the Ramones at high volume.
I’m not superstitious. I can have thirteen songs in my list if I want to.
In some ways this is just a straightforward sad ballad. I’m not even sure that it is my favourite Everything But the Girl song. But it has a place in my memory of how I fell in love with Laura and my life changed. (And, I have to be honest, how I changed the lives of other people around me.)
We used to play EBTG a lot together, early on. We didn’t know how serious this was, but we knew we had to see each other. The problem was that we were both married to other people. Neither of us planned for that to happen, to fall so inconveniently in love. If we had known it was likely, I suspect we would have found ways to avoid it. But by the time we realised, it was too late.
We were stuck for some months in this limbo world where on the surface our normal lives carried on unchanged. Most people we knew had no idea that anything was wrong. But in our hearts and minds everything was transformed and I found myself an actor playing a part in my own life. Pretending to be the person I was before it all changed. Somehow the longing I felt for Laura – the desire to be with her that started when I woke up and kept me lying awake when my wife and children were asleep – somehow that passion stayed off my face when it felt as if it must have changed my features forever. We knew we had to be together, but it felt impossible and we felt so guilty, because in order for us to be together it would cause other people we loved a lot of pain. All at once our lives were asking us a question that had no right answer. It isn’t a place I would wish on anyone.
I remember listening to this song repeatedly one night while my wife was out with a friend and my two young daughters were asleep. At some point that evening I remember I spoke to Laura on the phone. Our desire to be together – our frustration that we were each alone in our homes but out of reach of the other – made the telephone line hum in the silences between our words. I told her about this song, which is basically about one person missing another, and how much it made me want to be with her.
After we hung up I went upstairs to check on the children. I stood in each of their bedroom doorways to listen. Their breathing was quiet and regular. My older daughter had my old teddy bear beside her bed, cast carelessly on the floor in that way children do with things they love. She lay on her back, arms spread out as if she had been dropped asleep into the bed. It was a pose that advertised innocence and complete trust that her world was benign. The sun would come up every day as normal and nothing would disturb the loving home she had lived in all her life. Her younger sister lay curled up with her thumb in her mouth. As I watched her, she stirred slightly and a small frown momentarily crossed her brow, before she settled again.
As I stood there I felt I hung above a dark precipice. My children were here, innocent and asleep, knowing nothing in the world as strongly as they knew that their daddy would be there for them when they woke in the morning. But forty miles away, alone in her house, was a woman I missed so hard it was a physical pain. I couldn’t balance forever on this cliff edge. But it was so dark that I didn’t know which way to fall, which way was safe. I knew that either way it was a long way down, and I couldn’t see the ground.
“Put away that torch you carry”, sings Tracey Thorn, her voice breathy and forlorn. “It’s doing you no good.”
I think I knew that night that I would in the end have to do as the song said. Lay to rest the ghost of my unhappiness. I didn’t yet know which way I would jump, but jump I must. Maybe I could be with Laura for good, with all the pain and upheaval that entailed. Or else I had to end it with her, drown the torch I carried. I didn’t know which it would be. But I knew that before long I would have to close my eyes and leap one way or the other.
It has become a bit of a trend for people to choose their own music for funerals. And why not? If you want to go out to the sound of a few of your favourite album tracks, that is fine by me. Especially if the alternative is the vicar’s selection from “Crematorium Classical Greats” or “20 Favourite Committal Hymns”. It’s a pity that the alternative for many funerals appears to be nothing more than endless replays of “I will Always Love You”, or the “Wind beneath My Wings”. I don’t want to have any of these on my conscience. And I don’t expect that my friends and family want to hear them. Especially on a day when I hope they will already have quite enough to be miserable about.
No, the music to be played at my funeral needs to be a last slice of the music that moved me while I was alive. The songs that made me happy or sad or just made me laugh. I don’t care whether they conform to some kind of funeral etiquette. They don’t have to be about loss or sorrow. I just want the people I love and leave behind to come along to say goodbye. And while they are there I want them to smile a bit as they remember the music I played. They can shed a tear too, of course. But after that, take the rest of my record collection and have a bloody good party, and comfort yourselves with this thought.
You may miss me when I‘m gone. But I’ll miss you more.
A short while after writing my list of songs for my funeral I went out for a run. I ran down the hill, past Lewisham station and up onto Blackheath. The weather was warm and bands of pale cloud were pasted loosely across a china blue sky above the green grass of the heath. I did what I usually did when I ran alone: I listened to music. I held my iPod in my hand and put on a thick headband to hold the earphones in place.
It can be tricky deciding exactly what to play when you go out for a run. You can never be entirely sure what your mood will be once you’ve been running for ten minutes. But you can bet it will be quite different to the mood you were in before you set out. This time I picked out an old play list I had made months before. I couldn’t remember the details of what was on there.
Fifteen minutes later I was running through Greenwich Park and it felt like my feet were barely touching the ground. I was running on a carpet of exhilarating music, song after beautiful song. I remembered now that I had made the playlist the last time I got to thinking about songs for my funeral. On that occasion I didn’t just write a list. I got as far as digging the songs out and deciding on a running order. So “Constant Craving” by kd lang gave me wings of song across the open heath and “Fisherman’s Blues” by the Waterboys lifted me up a steep hill, my lips echoing in breathless whisper its small whoops of joy. I ran beneath chestnut trees as Ken Boothe crooned “Everything I Own” in a voice as clear and pure as the crystalline bowl of the sky which hung above me.
And the strange thing was, almost none of the dozen or so songs in that playlist was in the list I’ve set out here. Each time a new song started I cursed myself. Of course, I thought, how could I forget this one? How could I leave this off my list? Surely I have to have that track, “Two Hearts” by the Jayhawks, in my list? How could I not include Nick Cave’s echoingly gloomy and lovelorn “Lime Tree Arbor”?
I found it all oddly reassuring. It made me smile as I ran, in a way that people I ran past may have found even more unsettling than the sight of my deeply unfashionable headband. Of course I could compile two such different lists of favourite songs. Music is just like that isn’t it? One day a particular song is absolutely the best thing I have ever heard. A week later, I will have remembered that something else is actually the best. A week after that, it may be something else again.
A three minute pop song, at its best, is a time capsule of deep emotion, frozen forever at its feverish height. In a way, the very disposability of pop music adds to its emotional impact. A fragment of a lyric, a sigh in the singer’s voice, the way the drummer hits the snare just so on one beat but not on the next. All these things may mean nothing in isolation. But in the tornado of a song that just has to say something, and it just has to say it NOW, they can pack a punch. And of course the punch can be weaker or stronger depending on the mood of the listener.
So none of us should be surprised that last week the hollow weariness with which Ian Maculloch sings Echo and the Bunnymen’s achingly beautiful “Rust” was the perfect song for me to contemplate the end of my time. But today it feels like the ideal farewell would be something less defeated, more defiant like the Four Tops.
Music’s like that. A thing of beauty is indeed a joy forever. But sometimes one thing feels more of a joy than another. And other times the joy may rest elsewhere. To a great extent you get out of music what you put in, and the pleasure it gives can depend on what you bring with you, the angle you approach it from, and the way you look at it.
Life’s like that too. Isn’t it?