Songs of the Dead: Music That Inspires Memories

Music is memory. We all have songs that transport us back to a particular time and place — or a particular person. When I hear “Fireflies” by Owl City, a spark of freedom ignites in me as I imagine my sixteen-year-old self driving to school on a frosty, dark morning in my banged-up Ford Taurus, chasing the possibilities ahead of me like so many fireflies.

My life is mapped out in music notes. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses sends me to a muddy field near my middle school, where I’m trudging across with a baguette in hand, my best friend throwing back her strawberry-blonde hair in a laugh, both of us wearing baggy black T-shirts and no makeup.

To fall in love all over again, I only need listen to Yann Tiersen’s “La valse d’Amélie (Version orchestre)” or Foster the People’s “I Would Do Anything For You,” and I will be a freshman on my snow-covered college campus with warm chicken spaetzle in hand from the dining hall, heading back to my dorm to check for his latest message.

Of course, songs are not simply markers of happy nostalgia; they paint the spectrum of human emotion, from memories of bittersweet longing and painful breakups to car rides with friends and wedding days. And death, too: funerals, wakes, the favorite songs of those who can no longer hear them.

For me, it doesn’t hurt to listen to the songs of the dead, even if they bring to mind tragedies and music libraries cut short. Three songs in particular serve as memorials, records of a life.

“Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol

In October 2006, an elevator in an Ohio State dorm descended with its doors open and a group of students inside. Eighteen-year-old Andrew Polakowski tried to climb out of the elevator — but the car dropped, crushing him to death.

Andrew was a business major from Erie, Pennsylvania. Everyone said he was social and friendly. He had wanted his dorm neighbor to teach him to play “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol on the guitar, and his neighbor said, “He would come in every day and play the song over and over and over. He was relentless.”

I read this story in the local news when I was fourteen, not yet in high school. I hadn’t considered what college I might attend, what I’d major in, or what the future might hold. Even at that age, fed by the internet and TV shows, I remember being fascinated by the myriad ways people could die. Children, especially teenagers, think about mortality more than adults assume.

But this death wasn’t distant and sensational to me. It didn’t trigger morbid curiosity. It felt real in a way I hadn’t felt before — a reminder that people could and did die when they were young for entirely preventable reasons. In one of the articles, the assistant vice president of student affairs at OSU said, of the two recent deaths in the dorms at the time, “Both of the incidents are reminders to all of us that even if you think you’re invulnerable or immortal at age 18, life is still fragile.”

I listened to “Chasing Cars.” I really listened. It’s a love song that paints two people frozen in time, their feelings for each other bigger than their bodies, weightier than the world. I wondered about the title — what did it mean?

Gary Lightbody, the lead singer of Snow Patrol, wrote the song in a garden after a white wine binge. His father had told him once, after noticing his son’s infatuation with a girl, “You’re like a dog chasing a car. You’ll never catch it, and you just wouldn’t know what to do with it if you did.” It’s a universal feeling, that idea of chasing after an unobtainable dream.

Even now, when the song comes on the radio, I think of Andrew, of this person I’ve never met, who I can never meet, whose passing doubtlessly haunts his family and friends, fourteen years after the fact. The man — kid, really — who had wanted to learn this song had lived in the dorm behind the one I would spend my freshman year of college, five years later.

When I listen to “Chasing Cars,” I’m reminded of the fragility of life and how when we cross paths with strangers, no matter how distantly, they can leave indelible marks on us. I imagine chords strummed on a guitar, over and over, and I am driven to be relentless.

“Forget what we’re told / Before we get too old / Show me a garden that’s bursting into life.”

“The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed

This one is hard for me to write about, so I’ll start with the easy part. When Simon & Garfunkel first released “The Sound of Silence” in 1964, it was not an immediate smash hit. In fact, the album as a whole was a complete commercial failure, and the duo disbanded as a result. But when a mixed version of the song aired, it gained traction and the singers exploded into stardom. The lyrics seem to capture the tumultuous spirit of the 1960s, but Simon wrote the song at twenty-one in his bathroom, where he’d play guitar in the dark to the sound of the faucet running: “Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.”

Come 2016, Simon & Garfunkel gave their blessing to Disturbed for their cover of “The Sound of Silence.” While the original version is soft and wistful, Disturbed’s cover is intense and haunting, preserving the gravity of the song while adding a flash of satisfying melodrama.

That June, I was between chapters of my life, living at my in-laws in Georgia for a month before my husband and I moved back to Ohio. At twenty-three, I didn’t have a new job lined up, I had just decided to start a writing YouTube channel, and I was engaged, not married. It also felt like the dawn of a new political era: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had emerged as the presumptive nominees for the US Presidential election, and the Brexit vote loomed to determine whether Britain would leave the European Union.

And it felt like violence was everywhere. Perhaps violence is omnipresent across time, but thanks to the twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media, it had sunk its fangs more deeply into my mind that year. That month, singer–songwriter Christina Grimmie was shot and killed during an autograph signing in Orlando. But that wasn’t the worst violence to happen in Florida that month.

I was sitting in my husband’s childhood bedroom when I first heard about the Pulse nightclub shooting. Forty-nine people dead, fifty-three wounded, in a terrorist attack. Most of the victims were Hispanic and part of the LGBTQ community — the deadliest attack since 9/11 and the deadliest in LGBTQ history. In the back of my mind, I knew the Pulse wouldn’t be the last mass shooting Americans faced, but I never fathomed it would be surpassed by an even more horrific shooting less than a year later.

Guns, guns, guns. Sandy Hook and the Aurora theater shooting were still fresh in my mind. I was enraged at how the conversations about gun control kept cycling through the same arguments, with nothing changing. I hated how the assailant at the Pulse nightclub confirmed many Americans’ worst fears about Muslims. I hated how the fact that the victims were Hispanic and primarily gay would make it less tragic to certain people, whether they admitted it or not.

I couldn’t stop reading articles about the shooting. I felt disgusted and defenseless in a country that prided itself on its superiority. I felt unsafe in my own skin. I keep thinking about a news article that described the aftermath on June 13:

“Thumping music once echoed through Pulse nightclub, but for the past 24 hours the only sounds have been investigators picking their way through the carnage and constant ringing. The sounds come from the phones of those still dead inside, called by desperate friends looking for them.”

The song I’d been listening to on repeat that week suddenly took on a new tenor. All I could think about were those phones breaking the silence, and all the politicians talking without listening. Garfunkel once expressed that “The Sound of Silence” is about “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

I laid awake imagining that nightclub filled with bodies and the ringing of loved ones trying, hoping, to reach them.

“And the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains / Within the sound of silence”

“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Every time the drums start up and Phil Collins’ soft voice begins, “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord,” my father-in-law would crank up the radio in the front seat — and my husband would groan. Across his childhood, his parents would listen to that song on full volume, and he’d have to suffer through each minute of the repeated chorus. Slow and repetitive agony.

I laugh when this song comes on during car rides with my husband, even though my father-in-law has been gone for three years now. I turn up the volume in his honor.

For years, I hadn’t really paid attention to the lyrics, thinking it was a sexy sort of come-on song, the singer feeling electricity in the air at night and savoring a long-awaited moment. But the truth is more complicated. The song stemmed from Phil Collins’ grief in the wake of divorcing his first wife in 1980. Years later, he said, “I wrote the lyrics spontaneously. I’m not quite sure what the song is about, but there’s a lot of anger, a lot of despair and a lot of frustration.”

In much the same way, my father-in-law left behind a complicated legacy. The owner of a classic car parts business, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to create his own wealth. His father had died in a drunk-driving accident when he was a kid, prompting his mom to say, “You’re the man of the house now.” As a teen, he jumped on moving trains to catch a ride and sold fish on his bicycle on the shores of Lake Erie. He persuaded a pretty waitress to marry him with peanut butter parfaits, and they moved down to Georgia to start life anew after each of their rocky first marriages. He was the type of man who would chuckle as he made a light-hearted risqué joke about his wife and then, moments later, succumb to complete stone-faced moodiness at having to wait more than five minutes for the check at a restaurant.

He was the same father who reprimanded his son about not having a job at family barbecues, but who always hugged his son and said, “I love you” and teared up when my husband-to-be moved away to Ohio to be with me. His wife and son hated working for him at the shop because he perpetually expressed his disappointment through bitter outbursts and tense silences. Even family vacations could be stressful, no one wanting to step on the landmines that would ignite his ire.

With him being a devout conservative, and me a card-carrying progressive from his worst nightmares, he often prodded me about my political opinions, much to the angst of my conflict-averse husband. I didn’t like how he treated my husband-to-be or my mother-in-law-to-be. I didn’t like how he talked about people who weren’t exactly like him. I didn’t like tiptoeing around my words and thoughts so as not to trigger him. Still, I tried to respect him because my husband did, and because I saw the softness in this hard-edged man: the way he unabashedly enjoyed the Twilight movies, how he cradled their sixteen-year-old calico cat in his arms, his tears at seeing his son graduate as valedictorian.

In 2017, he died of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. His last words to his wife were “I love you so much.” My husband asked me to make a list of his father’s favorite songs: “Come Sail Away” by Styx; “Love Shack” by The B-52s; “American Woman” by The Guess Who. And, of course, “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.

When I hear the lyrics now, sometimes I see my father-in-law in the words “Well, if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand.” But other times, I think of all he didn’t get to do in life, so constrained was he by running his business that, at 61, he hadn’t had the chance to travel to the Badlands and the Pacific Coast Highway like he’d often talked about doing when he retired. My husband always says, “That’s why we should do things now rather than waiting.” So, I see my father-in-law, too, in the burst of drums and a line from the chorus:

“Well, I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord”

These songs are both a remembrance of loss and a celebration of life. Maybe we can all find some form of immortality in the songs that remind others that we existed here on this earth. As for me, when I die, play “500 Miles” by Peter, Paul & Mary in my honor — a song I’ve been learning to shape in my own reedy voice. Someday, I’ll be traveling on a train far from here, headed who knows where, and “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone.”

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer.

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