But don't forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
Yes, you're older now
And you're a clever swine
But they were the only ones who ever stood by you
Sometime last year, when I had yet to experience the kind of monumental pain that comes with loss, I had a conversation on social media with a fellow Hanson fan about one of the band’s best loved songs. The fan said she hoped that Hanson wouldn’t play 'With You In Your Dreams’ at the next concert she was due to attend. She had just lost a parent and was worried that WYIYD was going to make her sad during the concert; in other words, it would be a bit of a mood dampener. A mutual friend jumped in the conversation, agreeing with her. I disagreed with both and a debate ensued: why should artists censor themselves, I argued, and refrain from playing some of their most emotionally-charged, powerful songs? What about songs about breakups then? Should they avoid those too? What about songs about drinking - upsetting tee-totals? Or songs with religious undertones, maybe atheists wouldn’t like those. Where would it stop?
Then my father died, and everything changed. Only then, remembering that conversation, I realised I’d been a total jerk. BTTI was coming up a couple of months later and I suddenly knew what my fellow fan had been talking about: about not wanting to dissolve in a puddle of tears, mascara streaming down your face, in front of another 400 people, not to mention the band. I understood how she didn’t want to be sad for a handful of hard-earned days on a tropical island.
As it happened, they didn’t play ‘that song’ and I survived BTTI unscathed, although there were times when songs that were most definitely not about grief felt like a stab in the heart - like when Isaac decided to play something he’d written at age 14 called ‘A Life Without You’. It was about a teenage breakup (it was an Isaac song, after all) but to me, it was about the life still ahead of me, without my dad.
It was just a song, but for people like us, who live and breathe music every single day, there is always a song that mirrors what you’re going through. Music is like no other art form or medium; it’s way more powerful than a painting, a movie or a novel. People who don’t listen to music - I often wonder, how do they live? What do they find comfort in when their heart is broken? An episode of Big Brother, a re-run of At Home with the Kardashians?
I can’t help thinking that, deep down, I’m lucky - lucky that I have songs in my life, snippets of auditory magic that have taken me by the hand, walked with me and stayed with me at the worst possible times. If that sounds like a good metaphor, actually that’s not even the case: I had my music with me when, day in, day out, I'd walk to the hospice where my mother, like my father a few months earlier, was spending her last few days. I walked there and back four times a day, twice daily in the ruthless midday heat of northern Italy in June. It was like being catapulted into a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, minus the tumbleweed.
Out in my own private meteorological hell, with nobody to drive me and no public transport, I’d just plug in my headphones and walk. During those walks, I listened to NEEDTOBREATHE over and over, letting their uplifting sound push me along, one foot at a time, for those 1.8 km that felt more like ten. I’d listen to ‘Rise Again’ (‘heaviness is only temporary/the daylight will soon break in) and found solace in ‘Multiplied’ (“May this offering stretch across the skies/And these Halleluiahs be multiplied”) even if I’m not religious. ‘Wasteland’ described the landscape around me but with a light at the end of the tunnel; “Hard Love” encouraged me to grit my teeth and hold on a little longer. And ‘Happiness’ - well, “Happiness” was like stepping into a Star Trek-style holodeck for a couple of minutes and shower in atomic particles of joy.
Strangely, during that time and in the weeks that followed my mother’s death, I hardly listened to Hanson. When I found myself awake at 3 or 4 AM, as my mind insisted in replaying me the movie of the last few days over and over, it wasn’t Hanson lulling me back into some kind of slumber, playing on a low volume through my headphones. It was NTB’s entire catalogue I'd put on shuffle, and eventually doze off to: it was their 'noisy' music with its drum crescendos, duelling banjos and Bear's rich, soulful voice that somehow got me through the night.
It’s not that Hanson’s music wasn’t right - it’s just that I’d found something that fit the moment. The thing is, it doesn’t matter who the singer is: when the rubber ring song appears, you just grab hold of it and hang on for dear life, praying that it will still keep you afloat if you allow yourself to stop treading water for a moment. “Go on,” the song seems to say, “take a breather. I promise I won’t let you drown.”
Music, huh? The things it does to you. It rips your heart into pieces you one moment and heals you the next. It will stir emotions inside you like nothing else, and leave you like the elegantly dressed gentleman in that Friedrich painting, standing on top of a rocky precipice, staring at a foggy landscape. Note how he doesn’t fall. Romantic poets used to call that experience ‘the sublime’ - and frankly, I can’t think of a more fitting description for that moment when music saves your life.
These days are tough, these days are long
Sometimes it's hard, you carry on
But I hear a voice singing and I know it's true
The Wanderer by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
You can find NEEDTOBREATHE's music on their YouTube channel.
This is a clip of Hanson performing 'With You in Your Dream' in London in 2013. I was at that show so it's extra special to me.