“Watch her slowly die
Saw it in her eyes
Choking on a bed”
“Words cannot express/Words are useless”
–Public Image Limited, “Death Disco” (aka “Swan Lake”)
One of the greatest gifts that rock/pop music has given me is an appreciation for the way words and sounds can express unspeakable and taboo thoughts and feelings. In the passage above John Lydon howls with harrowing intensity about watching his mother die of cancer. The cold metallic textures of the guitars create the sound of hopeless despair while the trance-like bass and drums ground things so deeply into the ground that it brings to my mind the image of a coffin being buried in the soil.
This is not pleasant. It is not an easy song to which to listen. For many it may even seem masochistic to subject oneself to something that sounds so unhinged. I, for one, find it beautiful. The song has accompanied me for more than two decades of my life. I return to it multiple times a year.
If you’re lucky (and I am indeed lucky) you have a few people in your life with whom you can talk about anything, including those dark and heavy thoughts, feelings and memories that haunt us and that which many people have no desire to hear. I have people in my life who are so deep and expansive that almost nothing is taboo. But every once in a while I remember the moment my grandmother called out to me in the wee hours of the morning. I have no idea how long she had been calling out for me. I only know that I ran to her bedside, that she was choking and that I dialed emergency services. I watched her lips turn blue. I froze. I didn’t deliver CPR. I didn’t do anything. In fact, I don’t remember how I passed the time until the firetruck arrived. I just remember that she was suddenly lying on the living room floor as they tried to resuscitate her. She never recovered consciousness. Family came from everywhere. The hospital was flooded with extended family. This is all a blur. The only thing I remember with clarity was weighing in on the fact that we should pull the plug. I remember saying goodbye to her. I remember a nurse brushing her hair: a memory that still fills my heart with the unspeakable beauty of humanity.
I digress. Or perhaps I do. I have lost track of my original intention. Give me a moment…
Despite the moments of love and beauty, watching my grandmother die, remembering my own helplessness…it’s lonely and painful. It was harrowing. And sometimes to feel understood I need something that can mirror this. No matter how many wonderful people I have in my life, it is an experience I went through alone. As John Lydon sings in the closing moments, “Words cannot express/words are useless”. I was the one there at that moment. I was the one to whom she cried out to save her. And perhaps I was the one who failed her. When I hear this song I feel accompanied in that memory. Nothing is sugarcoated. I am given permission to freely feel the naked raw emotions. There was nothing beautiful in that moment. And, on the surface of things, there is nothing beautiful about the song. But that’s what makes the song so beautiful to me: it is real, primal and, therefore, perfect in the way it captures an aspect of human experience about which many, unfortunately, do not wish to talk about or feel.
At first glance this may sound elitist or snobby, but I assure my readers that I am coming from a purer place than that when I say: we need art that is challenging; art that may at first glance seem unbecoming or awful. Or at least I do. Though it was never something I gave thought to when I was younger and discovering such music, I believe my experiences with art like this is partly what has given me the gift of finding beauty in the unconventional and the mundane. There is some beauty that you have to sit with to discover; that requires mental and emotional investment. Art that doesn’t come wrapped in a sweet and tidy package. (To be clear I also love music that is melodic and more instantly appealing. I just don’t limit myself to that.)
I doubt my readers will do it but I cannot help but hope that they might listen to the song. And just when they decide it is an irredeemable piece of noise to stay with it. Maybe to even wonder what it is that is so frightening or unpleasant. And if not, that’s okay as well. I just wanted to share my love for something that I think is beautiful even if painful and difficult.