Songs of Death and Grief — for Victor and all of us

Another old friend died this week, another sad reminder that we are all temporary here. Though not totally unexpected, Victor’s death still caught me off-guard and hit me harder than I was ready to handle. I slipped into a deep funk yesterday, worried I’d linger for days in the sadness welling up inside. I felt like I was sleepwalking, barely going through the motions of a day. Only when I shared a couple of stories about Victor (and he left a lot of them) did my spirits lift.

As is often the case, I found solace in song — several songs in particular as well as a couple of albums dedicated to exploring death and dying.

Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Blue Mood” described me all too well yesterday. It’s a song I rarely play, and not specifically about death, though it references the deaths of John Henry Faulk and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It tends to evoke as well as express the sadness of the ages even as he acknowledges,

But it’s gonna pass in time,
In a day or two, well, I’ll be fine.
But tonight, those blues got the last old laugh on me.


No song that I know of better expresses the yearning at the heart of grief than Emmylou Harris’s lament for her friend, Gram Parsons, “Boulder to Birmingham.” This line in particular perfectly acknowledges the worst pain of unexpected loss:

Well, you really got me this time.
The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive…


Lou Reed recorded his album, Magic & Loss, after the deaths of two friends. The songs run the gamut from defiant (“Warrior King“) to warning (“Sword of Damocles“) to dirge (“Goodby Mass“) to a too-familiar lament, “No Chance.” But it’s the closing song that sometimes helps jar me out of a downward spiral and back to honest, and, yes, good grief.

There’s a bit of magic in everything —
And then some loss to even things out.


I guess it’s Warren Zevon’s last album, the incredibly personal, “The Wind,” recorded as he was dying of lung cancer, that I felt paints the fullest picture for my old friend’s circumstances. Victor wrote powerfully and beautifully of a lifetime of interesting experiences, especially as he fought for his life against liver cancer. One of his pieces that I only just read yesterday had him co-writing with Zevon, so it felt even more appropriate to return to these songs. Warren remained joyfully defiant even as he faded, and while the whole album is well worth listening to, I found myself drawn to the first and last songs to reflect on yesterday. Others on the album that made me smile in my grief as I remembered Victor were “Disorder in the House” and “Party for the Rest of the Night.”

The opening song,”Dirty Life & Times,” though is the one that seems like it could have been a co-write Victor and Warren shared.

Now they’ll hunt me down and hang me for my crimes
If I tell about my dirty life and times.


It’s merely a matter of time before someone else I know dies. Persistent and inevitable as dawn and sunset, death walks with us our whole lives despite our attempts to avoid thinking about it — or worse yet, feeling it in the pain that losing a loved one brings.

When my dear friend Duane died, I found that it was actually easy driving while crying if you just let the tears flow freely — it’s almost like a slow rain cleansing the windshield. It’s the attempt to hold back the tears that obscures our vision, just as our attempt to divert our attention from death leaves us more vulnerable when it arrives, as it always will.

I don’t write about death to focus on the loss or the sadness or the grieving. I write about death so we might learn to acknowledge its ongoing presence in our lives. Only in that way can we learn and grow from the many losses each of us will face before it’s our turn to die.

Back to Warren Zevon for our closer today, the gentle, final song he left us with.

These wheels keep rolling,
But they’re running out of steam —
Keep me in your heart for awhile.


Death is inevitable, as is grief. For me, music helps me climb my out of the deepest pit of despair so I can remember the stories that keep my memories of family, friends, and loved ones of all shapes & sizes (talking about pets here) with me.

Farewell, old friend.

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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