On the healing--and death defying--power of music

At 52, I’m starting to experience some of the downsides that come with reaching “middle age”.  No, I’m not talking about some of the vagaries that come with reaching this milestone, such as how my knees feel or the fact that I need glasses or that perhaps I should experiment with Viagra. I’m talking about some real life tragedies that tend to happen to folks around my age, such as the loss of friends, or caring for our increasingly infirm parents, or the ravages of diseases that are starting to show up with an alarming frequency. Over the last few years, I’ve had my fair share of these tragedies take place and, in each, the power of music to alleviate some of the pain and stress has been overwhelming. In this essay, I’d like to share three examples of something you already know—that music can provide a tonic to the toils and troubles of an everyday existence. And, as you’ll see, music may even help you defy death. Yes, love is a drug we all should be taking, but I find it goes down a little easier with some Guy Clark on the side.

Last spring, I lost my best friend Jack to a wicked—and shockingly fast—bout with kidney cancer. We—I mean his family and mine—did everything together and his death has created a hole in my life that will never be filled. At his wake, his wife Doreen asked me if I would emcee the event and play some music—I’m a songwriter and front a roots-rock sextet called Barlow Road. So of course I would to this—but what should I play? The obvious answer was to play some songs that Jack liked—play some of “his” stuff. And so I did—along with my friend Glen on guitar, we managed to pull off some decent versions of Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” and John Prine’s “Illegal Smile”. That second one should give you a little insight into Jack’s personality, heh-heh. In addition to these two songs, I also wrote a song for Jack—but unfortunately he didn’t get to hear it. I’ve done this before—that is, writing a song for a friend that died—and it’s amazing how fast and easy these songs came. I’m sure you’ve all read myriad accounts of the songwriter’s methods and muse—what comes first, the melody or the words? How long does it take to write a song? Do you do a lot of editing? And so on. But the interesting thing about my two songs “for dead friends” is that they came so easily.  I mean, I think each song only took about an hour or so to write—I don’t know what it is about death, but it brings out the Speedy Gonzalez in me. In the end, the music we played that day clearly provided some catharsis for everyone at Jack’s wake. Given the number of people singing along and the tears flowing down their cheeks, it seemed like folks needed it—they craved it—because music was such a large part of Jack’s life. Obviously, music can have that kind of power. And even though, at our never-to-be-missed Friday pub gatherings, there is an empty chair around the table where Jack used to sit, the music in the background is trying its best to fill in some of the void that comes naturally with the passage of time.

As another example of the healing and death-defying power of music, I need go no further than the story of our band’s lead guitarist—Rick. Here again, I hate to say it, we’re dealing the big “C”—what the hell is it with the big “C”, does anyone in their lifetime truly escape it? In Rick’s case, we’re talking about an exceptionally rare form of cancer that should have done him in months ago—but it hasn’t. Why? Well I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that he plays so much music. I mean he plays all the time and I truly believe that music has kept him going well beyond the doctor’s predictions and his Telecaster and Twin Reverb have simply told cancer to “fuck off”. When he plays with Barlow Road, he leaves it all on the stage—literally. He sweats like a pig at a Hawaiian BBQ, breaks strings, and sings like it’s the last thing he’s ever gonna do. I think this gives him LIFE, it exercises him, it energizes him, it gives him something that chemotherapy simply can’t provide—it nourishes his soul. This guy is a master, a real pro, a pleasure to watch and to play with. As long as he can keep playing, I know that he will continue to avoid death’s trap door. The music is that powerful.

Finally, I’ll close by filling you in on the most recent example of how life just keeps on giving and how music can help ease the pain. Recently, my wife was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s—at age 51. No doubt a cheap shot, a kick in the crotch, and something that takes your breath away. But for now, it’s OK, everything is going as smooth as it could be, and we’re adapting. Yes, things are different—my wife is different. But, along with the love and kindness of family and friends, we’ve also got music to help out. As you start to travel the cruel, wicked, and twisted road that is Alzheimer’s Disease, of course you might forget this or that or you might have difficulty with multi-tasking, but you can still listen to music, sit back, and let it work its magic. Which is why, tomorrow night, we’re heading into Portland to see Slaid Cleaves. Because we both know, without having to say anything, that the music will provide us with a temporary cure for everything that ails us. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ll take Slaid over any doctor, any time. 

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Comment by Kyla Fairchild on November 14, 2013 at 6:03pm

This is beautiful Matt and I couldn't agree more with everything you wrote. Thanks for posting.  Sorry for the loss of your friend. 

I saw Slaid and Scrappy at the Tractor on Tuesday night and if the show they delivered in Seattle was anything like the one you saw I know that you got your temporary cure.

Comment by Matt Mesa on November 14, 2013 at 7:11pm

Thanks Kyla. We had a great time last night, front row center, about 6 feet from the boys. Great room too--the Secret Society Ballroom. What's next?

Comment by Kyla Fairchild on November 14, 2013 at 7:17pm

Not sure what's next in your neck of the woods but I'm headed out in a few to catch The Donkeys and the Fruit Bats, who are playing their album Mouthfuls from start to finish.  Should be good!   Alejandro Escovedo is in town on Saturday and Black Joe Lewis at the end of the month.  Assuming they'll both be making a stop in Portland as well. They've both got "the cure", at least in my book.

Comment by Matt Mesa on November 14, 2013 at 7:20pm

Wow, I'll have to check out the PDX listings for this weekend, although the Black Lilies are going to be in Hood River on Saturday--for free. Shorter drive for me, seems like a must.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.