The other day as I listened to songs on my iTunes playlist, I thought about how many of my favorite musicians are dead. Most of them died early, too. Jim Morrison, 27. Jimi Hendrix, 27. Karen Carpenter, 32. Keith Moon, 32. Bon Scott, 33. Lowell George, 34. A few others lasted a little longer. Harry Nilsson, 52. Jerry Garcia, 53. Prince, 57. Gary Moore, 58. Miles Davis, 65. Lou Reed, 71. These and a potpourri of other dead musicians helped compose the score for my life narrative. Each of them played a role in altering my impressions of reality, firing my emotions, and teaching me how to cope with sorrow.
For years, the musicians who most inspired me were inseparable from their music, and understandably so. Many of us find comfort in dwelling on the past, and it’s our habit to seek answers from the luminaries of bygone days who might offer us direction. We think pensively of lost moments that can never be recovered, and in the process, we look for mentors, healers, and prophets to sooth our wounded psyches. But I’ve grown to despise melancholy. All too often, it distracts me from my immediate present and thereby damages my ability to better manage my future. Reflective thought might be the mind’s greatest pleasure, but it needs to entertain the past, present, and future, not just a distorted screening of the past.
The pleasure melancholy brings is both deceptive and solipsistic. It’s easy to paint the past in cloying shades but difficult to try piecing together fading memories under the harsh light of empirical reality. Look at all those dead musicians who destroyed their lives through blind self-indulgence, mental illness, and so on. What are we to think of them now, we the living? True, some were just victims of bad luck, but this aside, are any artists ever really prophets of a new way of knowing, or do they just channel some form of heightened energy-awareness entrusted to them by the laws of nature? They turn out to be well-suited couriers delivering an expedient message at a synchronous moment in history, and the rest becomes legend. If the message has legs, then the longer they’re dead, the greater their legend becomes, especially when historians stir tragedy into the mix. The entire process is a malleable invention.
Equally strange, why do people consider the invention of their own self-aggrandized legacies so intriguing and important? These legacies are neither despite the fact that our minds like to trick us into thinking otherwise, and music creates some cognitive dissonance on this account. By default, a playlist that triggers memories from early childhood to the present breeds nostalgic thoughts. But what a waste of time, at least so far as I’m concerned. I can’t afford to let the ghosts that once enchanted the younger me remain static. They must be able to assume new identities to keep company with my new perceptions. Otherwise, I’ll lose the present by being trapped in the past.
When I’m in the right frame of mind, I hear old music in new ways. Jim Morrison isn’t the Lizard King anymore. He was a daring, confused, and incredibly talented kid who might have become a powerhouse blues man and an accomplished poet had he been able to stay the course. Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” is less a blithe pop culture throwaway and more an astonishing demonstration of rhythmic minimalism and startling vocal migrations. It’s easy to imagine Jimi Hendrix as a guy who could have spent a fair amount of time playing with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, the three of them composing music that we’ll never hear or understand. Every musician’s reputation is as much a reinvention as it is an eternal recurrence, and we live in a world of illimitable possibilities. All music is protean, and those who compose it are shape-shifting phantoms. Lou Reed got it right with this stanza from “Magic and Loss”:
As you pass through fire, as you pass through fire
Trying to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
You cannot remain the same