Local author and editor Mark Baumgarten collected essays from local musicians and writers that will be bound into mini-books and distributed at the Capitol Hill Block Party this weekend. Each essay is a response to a prompt: “The missiles are on their way, the plates are shifting, the aliens have landed, the meteor has breached the atmosphere . . . You have five, maybe 10 minutes left on this Earth. What song is going to play you out?” The following is Seattle Weekly music editor Chris Kornelis’ contribution.
Janeane Garofalo said it would be the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No”; for NPR’s Michele Norris, it would be Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as performed by k.d. lang. According to Larry Miller, the overbearing dad in 10 Things I Hate About You, “The last song I want to hear before I die hasn’t been written yet, and won’t be for another hundred years.”
Over the past two years, many performers have told me the last song they’d like to hear before they die—it’s a question on our regular “Reverb Questionnaire” feature. But after hearing the responses from Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, co-hosts of the syndicated public-radio show Smiley & West, I’m considering retiring the question, as I can’t imagine hearing a better answer.
At first they said they were stumped; nobody had ever asked them before. But just as they were throwing their hands in their air, Dr. West offered: “I don’t think I’d want to hear a song. I’d want to hear a loved one’s voice.” Smiley agreed: “I was about to say, I’d want to hear my mama’s voice. I’ve never heard a song sweeter than my mother telling me ‘I love you and I’m proud of you.’ “
I’ve been fortunate to have lived my entire life never having to wonder if my mother loved me or was proud of me. But I agree wholeheartedly with West and Smiley: There’s not a song I want to hear as I pass from this life to the next as much as a voice of comfort from a loved one. I can still hear my mother singing “Baby’s Boat the Silver Moon Sailing in the Sky,” a song she sang when I was upset as a child, and it brings me peace even now. It’s hard for me to think of a song I’d rather hear than that. But now that I have a son of my own, I don’t want to consider the idea of a parent being at their child’s side when it’s time for them to go.
None of us are ever prepared to lose the ones we love. And when my grandpa was nearing his coda, nobody ever told me “Your grandpa is dying.” After the day came, we all gathered at my grandparents’ house, talking, crying, and eating a lot. As I sat at the desk of my grandpa’s office writing his obituary— surrounded by knickknacks, photos, and taxidermy that would tell any anthropologist, 100 years from now, that here sat a man who loved his family—my grandma kept me fueled with hot cups of Yuban and chocolate-chip cookies. Hours after her husband of more than 50 years had left, she couldn’t stop being the consummate host.
When the details of the funeral were coming together, my grandma asked my brothers—one older, one younger—and myself if we would perform a few songs. It was a reasonable request, but also a unique one: The three of us have played music our entire lives, but outside the requisite school concerts, we’d rarely performed together. So we didn’t have a canned set list to turn to.
“Amazing Grace” was one of Grandpa’s favorites, so it was a given. And all three of us wanted to play “Tom Dooley.” Grandpa kept a country-and-Western compilation CD in his truck, and on trips to his ranch to catch fish or shoot vintage 7-Up bottles or targets with an ancient .22, we’d always listen to The Kingston Trio sing “Tom Dooley” and Lefty Frizzell’s take on “Long Black Veil.” But we had a feeling that “Met her on the mountain/Stabbed her with my knife” wouldn’t work with our crowd, even though Grandpa would have appreciated it. Funerals aren’t for the dead.
We settled on “Amazing Grace” and Albert E. Brumley’s gospel classic, “I’ll Fly Away,” one of the most upbeat songs about death ever written. It approaches the end of life on earth not as a dark day, but as a “glad morning”; not as retiring to the earth, but being set free: “Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.”
We decided we’d each take a verse and sing the chorus together. That was kind of a bad idea. I didn’t have a guitar to hide behind like my brothers did. It was my job to stand there and sing when it was my turn, and I drew the last verse: “Just a few more weary days and then I’ll fly away/To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away.”
When it came time to sing it, I couldn’t make the words happen. My younger brother was standing to my left, and I gave him a gentle kick just before the last verse. He knew what it meant, and he took the verse for me.
Back at the house after the funeral, I played bartender, mixing bottomless martinis well into the night. My uncle Joe, an Arizona rancher with deep lines and a hushed boom of a voice, had been unplugged from his hospital cords to make the drive up to eastern Washington for the funeral with his wife, my grandpa’s daughter. He asked me to make him a spicy bloody Mary, and I mixed him a glass of Ketel One, tomato juice, Tabasco, and olives. I handed it to him, and he looked at me calmly with the eyes of a man who’d seen more of life and death than most. He told me he’d liked seeing me give my brother a kick during “I’ll Fly Away.” “That’s what brothers are for,” he remarked. (Uncle Joe died a few short months later, and my older brother sang at his funeral. That’s what nephews are for.)
When it’s time for me to check out—on a “glad morning” years from now, if I’m making requests—I hope my brothers are up for doing me one more favor. The song, as Dr. West said, isn’t as important as the voice, and the voices I’d like to hear are those of my brothers. And if it isn’t too much trouble, I’d like them to sing “I’ll Fly Away.” If they’re unavailable for the gig, I’d appreciate it if Alison Krauss would sit in.
After the performance, I hope to make a quiet exit and join my grandpa and the creator of all things for an onion sandwich and a bottle of whiskey. Walla Walla Sweets and Canadian Hunter will do just fine.