Death is an odd thing. It is a constant, silent companion throughout life – either as a small spot on an unimaginably distant horizon, or the sharp punctuation of unforeseen tragedy – but in order to keep on living positively, we keep it far from sunlight, perhaps so as to not dwell on our own ultimate end.
Hardly surprising then if it rarely appears as a subject in Western song, unless it is in the common hymns we sing at funerals, the overwrought fixations of goth, or case-specific ‘memorial’ songs such as Tears in Heaven.
Recently, I had one of those odd moments where death was made real to me from an unexpected angle. Texting an old friend for the first time in probably over a year, she replied with “sorry – can’t talk now. At ******’s funeral.” The name was her partner’s and it transpired that he had died suddenly and unexpectedly in bed from an aneurysm while they were on holiday. An early death, he was only in his 40s, and she had been with him for just 5 or 6 years after long decades of loneliness following the dissolution of a youthful first marriage.
Something about the singular nature of this one tragedy – small as it might be in the ledger of human affairs – shook me deeply, and even now I can feel it crawling under my skin. Perhaps it is just another small chip at the edge of my own sense of mortality – the death of a near peer adding to the increasing roll call of the dead in the family generations above me. An Auntie here… a grandma there… a cousin recently… all steadily accumulating like silt in the mind as I reach the second half of my own life.
All of which cheerful musing brings me to this song – which I don’t think I’ve written about. The musical inspiration came loosely from a spell of fascination with Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue – a beautiful album, itself inseparable from tragedy, as Wilson died young and was clearly troubled in many ways. Primarily written on piano, it is full of rich textures, plangent chords, and a sense of unknowable depth underneath a Californian sun.
I’m not much of a pianist, but freed from the constraints and habits of the guitarist, I hit various chords I couldn’t tell you the names of and the melody came fairly easily, as sometimes happens.
With the subject of death in my mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that I ended marrying the music to words on this theme. Instead of focusing on the wordy grandiloquence that normally accompanies the subject, I decided instead to look at the practical banality of death. Stripped of its mystique, death leaves ordinary lives continuing in ordinary ways. I imagined visiting my friend, and being invited in for awkward small talk over tea and biscuits, and the inevitable tears.
And so emerged a kind of short vignette along those lines. I abandoned a more philosophical third verse in favour of some instrumentation, because sometimes less is more, and sometimes there just aren’t the words. Perhaps there is a kind of understated Englishness to this.
I suspect the mournful mood won’t sit well with the set of songs I’m assembling for my second album, so it may be that the story of the song ends here.
“I guess you’d best come in,”
She says with a sad shrug,
“Hang your coat up there, don’t worry about the rug.”
Steam starts to crawl up the window,
Making tea for two,
And a plate of biscuits too,
‘Cos that’s what people do
She takes him from the mantlepiece,
And wipes him with her sleeve,
Looks down into his eyes,
And her shoulders start to heave
Through all the sobs and the hiccups,
Fighting down the tears,
She tells him of her fears,
They’ve never seemed so near.