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Punk and Death: Coping with Personal Tragedy Through Music

Updated on July 3, 2013
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"Sad Astronaut" by Lagwagon.

Everybody mourns in their own way. Musicians often write songs.

There isn’t a more satisfying and self-validating way to promote one’s expertise within a specific genre of music than creating a top-ten list. Top-ten lists are unapologetically hyperbolic. They serve their purpose by either validating the author or the reader. If the reader believes that the list is an accurate representation of a genre’s apex the author can add the seal of approval to his credit. If the reader disagrees with the author than the reader feels that the self-proclaimed “expert’s” knowledge is less than his own. Everybody wins. Everybody gets to feel like an expert. Lists are a victimless crime. I say “crime” because they are an affront to my belief that music isn’t a competition. Why do we need to grade musicianship or poignancy and critique lyrical syntax? I think that this breed of undue arrogance can be easily avoided by admitting in the list’s headline that it is a representation of the author’s personal favorites and in no way aims to set a standard by which all other songs or bands of the sort should be compared. I could probably narrow my favorite metal bands or punk bands down to a list of ten, but I would do so with the knowledge that the brutality of metal and the anti- authority nature of punk rock really can’t be quantified. I usually take the editorial approach and write about a handful of my favorites and their inherent contributions to a scene or genre.

Sometimes a song’s level of resonance with a listener lies in the songs emotional depth. For this reason we have songs classified primarily as love songs or unrequited love songs. We have break-up songs and expressions of undying love. These types of songs can be extracted from a band’s catalog and classified based on the mood they inspire and the message they contain. However, love songs aren’t usually a deviation from a band or artist’s style. I can’t think of a band that only wrote one love song throughout their career except for maybe Anti-Flag’s cover of The Buzzcocks “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen in Love With).” Personal experiences with love are an inherent part of life. Love naturally inspires art and music because it is such a powerful emotion, as is lost love. But what about the most permanent loss that anyone can experience? What about death? I don’t mean black metal obsession and glorification of death. I don’t mean gothic morbidity. I mean personal experiences of tragic loss transposed into music. Music can be an emotional outlet for pure individual grief. As there isn’t one way to fall in love, there isn’t one appropriate way to mourn a loved one. Rarely can an occurrence be so powerful that it inspires a completely different outlook on life in the beholder and the expression thereof compel an introspective reflection within the listener in regard to their own similar experiences as well as empathy for the songwriter. Expressions of grief seek empathy, and real empathy can stop the world for a moment or two. Even if the song hints toward optimism in the wake of grief, the message is still self- evident. Death is the only certainty in life. It is unavoidable and pervasive. Songs about losing a loved one are usually based on singular experiences. They are a tribute to one person and homage to the life they’d lived except in the case of Jim Carrol’s terrifyingly autobiographical list of deceased friends presented in his song “People Who Died” and NOFX’s tribute to influential punk rock musicians in “Doornails.”

Speaking of NOFX’s song “Doornails”, I’d like to start my own look into death and its effect on music by first narrowing my search down to the punk genre. Punk rock’s tough exterior doesn’t provide emotional immunity. The contrast of remorse and grief to punk’s usual tell-tale aggressive and upbeat style is a stylistic deviation that has a tendency to stand out. I can’t list every song that memorializes the deceased in punk history, nor would I want to. The following exploratory look into punk’s vulnerable side is comprised of music that I find particularly heartfelt and unique.

Suicide is horrible and unfortunate. It’s an act of desperation by someone who feels as though they are out of options. The emotional impact it leaves on those left behind is different than had the deceased succumbed to illness or other external extenuating circumstances. The suicide of a loved and well respected individual can create a ripple effect through family, friends, admirers, and community. The tortured artist is a familiar term. An abundance of creativity and sensitivity can make life unbearable for some. Songs about those lost to suicide can celebrate the life of the deceased, but they also factor in the “what if?” and “why?” scenarios. What if they had known they weren’t alone? What if I’d been there for them? How could this have been avoided? Why did they think they were out of options? Sometimes loved ones are remembered through dedication. Sometimes they are memorialized and remembered through song, but rarely do they have entire albums written about them. Former Lagwagon, Mad Caddies, Rich Kids on LSD, and Bad Astronaut drummer Derrick Plourde lost his battle with his own inner demons in 2005. He is the first to be mentioned in NOFX’s “Doornails”, but it is Derrick’s former band mate, close friend, and Lagwagon singer Joey Cape who wrote and dedicated an entire album for him. If this were in list format, Lagwagon’s entire 2006 offering “Resolve” would occupy one of the spots. Joey Cape’s way of dealing with the sudden loss is a personal manifestation of his entire grieving process. The song “Sad Astronaut” explores the utter loneliness of mind body and spirit at the moment the trigger was pulled. The lyrics are Cape’s lamentation of his absence at the moment of Derrick Plourde’s death. It doesn’t seek to alter the tragic outcome. Rather, he recreates the event from a hypothetical perspective of his “mind’s eye.” He imagines himself there because the solitude and horror of the actual sequence of events is too unbearable to imagine. The pain of the image of his friend dying completely alone hurts too much, so he places himself there with him. He wants to express to his friend that he actually was there, because both of them died in different ways on that bed in that empty room. Physical death and incapacitating emotional dread and grief both personify the extinguishing of life. Although physically alive, the singer is relegated to an empty shell of clichés and regrets. The rest of the album follows the five stages of grief (or death) paradigm. The song’s run the complete course from denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance though not necessarily in that order. It is a gut wrenching foray into the psychology of death through music.

The untimely and tragic nature of suicide can hardly have an optimistic spin put on it. Even perennial jokesters Blink 182 put out a revealingly somber track with “Adam’s Song.” If the permanence of death is questioned by the possibility of something hereafter, then songs like The Bouncing Souls sentimental yet quietly optimistic “Todd’s Song” and For Squirrels’ “Mighty KC” (written about the late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain) cast a ballot for celebrating the life and anticipating the reunion.

I started thinking about music in memoriam when I was working on the Glenn Danzig versus Michale Graves piece a few days ago. I started to think about the difference between music written about death, music inspired by death, and music written specifically about the dearly departed as a tool for coping with one’s own grief. I came to the conclusion that it isn’t always easy to make the distinction. Songs about death, written for any genre of music including classical requiems, can be rather cryptic. Rarely are specific names used in the lyrics like Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn.” Sometimes the listener is given insight through a backstory into a song by the artists themselves. Had I never seen footage of Graves playing “Gorch”, I never would have known for sure that the song was written about his friend’s death and the following emotional whirlwind that he experienced even though the lyrics paint such a blatantly obvious picture. Maybe this oversight holds true to the Joshua Bell observation that people often fail to really truly and completely listen to music. We often use it to score our lives. It accentuates the moment for the listener. There is something of a sixth aesthetic sense that people need to tap into to really see and hear art for what it really is and to appreciate what’s really going on, to read between the lines so to speak. Art deserves focus. It is open to interpretation because it is created for an audience, but the audience would only benefit from the realization that what is special to them is also special to the creator. Sometimes people don’t simply write songs because they want to. Sometimes they have to. They have to mourn and grieve just like the rest of us.

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