Sometimes a song can offer a thesis. It’s usually on life, love and the meaning of it all. Sometimes a song can revisit you after a long hiatus. I have no idea why it barges centre stage into the crowded theatre of the mind, yet barge in it most certainly does. You know when it chooses to stick around, because that damn ditty plays on you. Wherever you go, melodic thoughts intrude, and before soon you’re chanting the song silently word for word with such metronomic repetition that not even the eulogy you’ve memorised for your best friend’s funeral is enough to dislodge it.
We often talk about this human syndrome of having a song stuck in our heads. Lodged with a stubbornness the equal of a goat, that’s how songs seep into the psyche. We even share a laugh when that song turns out to be about the worst piece of shit bubblegum pop the hit parade ever produced. Indoctrination by music is rarely predicated on the quality of the tune in question.
But other times, the song that sticks contains the germ of a idea: a thesis, I suppose you’d call it if you were using it as the intellectual centrepiece of a Masters’ dissertation. It then spends three verses, a middle eight and repeat chorus to test its thesis out on you, the listener. Or maybe, more accurately, what its unstated intention is is to invite you, the listener, to test its thesis for it by living according to the principles extolled in its message. Yes, that’s what it’s doing. That might explain why every great lyrical song is more than an enigma, it’s an insight into the mystery of life.
An old song came back to me this morning as i was busy making other plans. Its name is Live Your Life, by the American Otis Taylor. Aimed at the bullseye between our eyes, the lyrics are really quite straightforward. He sings:
Live your life before you die. Only might be for a little while.
By a little while, he means life can be curtailed at any time without any due notice. Implicit in there somewhere is this notion that as westernised humans, we’ve come to expect longevity, and if your three-score and tenth birthday party never transpires, there’s something frightfully tragic about it. Actually, when you put your social historian/demographer hat on, you’ll see that expectations of a long and biologically untroubled life is very much a late twentieth century indulgence. For much of history death prevailed in infancy as much as in adulthood. It percolated up as much as down. And when it did, the suddenness of finality was not lost on those bygone generations. If they didn’t see death coming, they certainly saw it everywhere.
Anyway, back to Otis Taylor. And the band plays on…
Death won’t touch you, on your heart. It’ll just come around. It’s gonna walk on in and knock you down.
Here his thesis is starting to develop. Causation, the central tenet of most theories, comes walkin’ on in on this little number to knock us down from our exalted position of delusion. The causation rooted in these lyrics says if you live your life before you die then death cannot harm you. It can only snatch you away before you know it. Ergo, if you choose to live life then death cannot enter your heart in some dismal prelude to a mortal end characterised by regrets and the endless act of dying while very much alive.
But what is the magic formula here for a death no more painful than drawing a line in the sands of time? How are we expected to – in Taylor’s words – live your life before you die? Again, the songwriter offers an almost irresistible position in building his case for a life script that conquers death. He sings:
Take time to laugh. Or maybe time to cry. Climb a mountain. Swim the sea.
And what quality do all of these lyrical prescriptions share? They all invoke a vitality – eros – which is the counterforce to the spirit of death – thanatos. They ask you to feel and to do. When inviting you to feel, they steal tears from the sorrow of dying only to fetter those tears on what is more deserved of them, that being life itself. Laugh in the face of death? No. Laugh along with life, fostering the conditions for that laughter to play out. Don’t embolden death with the power of your laughter, nor pleasure it with your tears. Climb above your lowly mortality to reach the highest peaks. Suspend yourself again as you did pre-life in mama’s womb but this time in mother nature’s own amniotic fluid, the ocean. A funeral should be a occasion to celebrate a life well lived, but how often do we feel like heading out to a party when following the hearse to the crematorium?
The conclusions of this treatise with its simple thesis of live the middle ground now if you don’t want the end to live for you stand up to scrutiny. If the premises hold that if a life well-lived is no less than a life with the marrow sucked dry, therefore death has no carrion to feed on when inevitably it comes, then the conclusions are clear: take risks. Don’t fear uncertainty nor shy away from the unknown. Let the light of life dazzle death, consigning it to the shadows until that fateful day when finality doesn’t revel in making a show of taking you away. Sure, we could die a terminal death through a cruel, clinging illness. But by stacking up enough of the life affirmative stuff in our armoury of getting older, even a protracted death can feel more like a soldier’s death: sudden and honourable. If that theory sounds optimistic as it does untested, then that’s a fair kop. But I’m going on that proviso until you prise it from my cold, dead hands.
I, for one, don’t intend to give the scythe-toting hooded one the pleasure. More so in a bizarre era typified by mass quarantining for fear of death (we say our current Covid self-sacrifices are all utilitarian-backed and done for the common good, but the truth is the organism is us fears for itself more than others). Hey, whoever said backing words with deeds wasn’t a challenge? But if we turn the page on this world in existential fear NOW then perhaps something transformative can come of it.
Like Kazantzakis said, leave nothing for death but a burned-out castle. And thanks, Otis, for the invocation to live your life before you die. Wise words. I’m not sure about swimming the sea (never truly got over watching Jaws as a 6 year-old boy). As for the mountains, I’m already packing for this winter. And when I reach the top, I’m planning on having a good weep. But not for death. Hello Life.