Monday, June 9, 2008
Finding this song about death in the ICU almost seems too easy when you consider the name of the band, Death Cab for Cutie (DCFC), but I had actually listened to this song for a long time before my friend Laura Morrison made me listen closely to the lyrics at a palliative care conference. (For your indie-rock Jeopardy knowledge, the name of the band comes from a send-up of Elvis in The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour.)
For those of you that don't know any 20-somethings, Death Cab for Cutie is an alternative rock band from Washington State, often hailed as a darling in independent/alternative music circles. The common themes of DCFC's music are love and loss with some very catchy melodies and intelligent lyrics quite distant from most pop cliches. A critic noted Ben Gibbard, the lead singer/songwriter, often writes to
'immortalize watershed moments. Whether that moment for each of us is the moment love begins or ends, passing romances, death or chance encounters, there is a Death Cab for Cutie song about it.'Therefore you can see the popularity amongst teens and young adults.
(For subscribers, If you do not see the Immem widget for listening to the song, click on the title to go to the original post on Pallimed: Arts & Humanities)
DCFC have a few songs to be featured in upcoming posts, but for now we will focus on "What Sarah Said," from the 2005 album "Plans." (I highly recommend the whole album.) It opens with a haunting piano melody reminiscent of the repeated beeping from telemetry monitors in a hospital. Within the repeating melody you hear a second melody beginning with ascending notes with a hopeful sound, that slowly fades and descends into a soft melancholy plateau in the background. The same ascending/descending 2nd melody comes back again in the second verse with the ascending portion coming with the only positive emotion in the lyrics "But I knew that you were a truth..." The ascending portion of that melody never makes its presence again in the song until near the very end. Every line in this song represents the difficulty of being the family or friend of someone ill and dying in the ICU. The two lines I find most insightful are:
"And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time"Even making a simple plan of what you will do in the next five months, five hours, or five days, is dependent on actually surviving. Father Time and the Grim Reaper are connected by their tool, the scythe, which marks the end for one year's crop so another may grow. And it is nearly impossible to walk through a hospital without finding a television left on in a room where no one is paying any attention, and so it sits blaring reality shows and local news, everyone oblivious to its constant chatter. Even the patient for whom the TV is left on, will often dismiss the importance of leaving it on. The final lines encapsulate what palliative care staff see daily as family and friends witness the dying as a final act of love by just being present.
"And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself"
"But I'm thinking of what Sarah said that "Love is watching someone die."So who's going to watch you die?.."This presence at the bedside of a dying person can be a demonstration of your love, but it can also tax and exhaust family. A variation on this line ("Love is watching someone die") is occasionally heard from palliative care professionals to allow family credit for the 'work' involved in being present at the deathbed. It is interesting to take the line "So who's going to watch you die" out of a palliative care context, as people may have a much different perception. It would be relatively easy to assume you are watching an action movie and the villain is saying this as some sort of threat to the good guy. Superficial, threatening, maybe hateful. But in the right context the same words can bring forth thoughts of love, loss and tears.
You may also notice that with the first mention of "So who's going to watch you die", the music is relatively absent except a few piano chords, until the keyboards come back in with a insistent driving rhythm, followed all together with a guitar strum (inhaled breath), a fingerpicking guitar melody (will to live), cymbals/hi-hat (neurological activity), organs (the EKG), snare drum (interventions of medicine), the main piano melody (emotions and love), and the lifting second piano melody (hope). All this as if the person had been brought back to life one last time. But then sadly just as the instruments regain some strength they begin to fade again each one going out one by one. To help you see what I hear, I have made a video to show these different elements. (To hear all the instruments clearly, use headphones and an original recording.)
Now available on You Tube (8/5/8) if you want to embed it on your site or see it in full screen version.
(Removed because of YouTube's copyright rules 12/08 - but still available on Google Video)
Yes there is a two-tone sound reminiscent of a doorbell at the end of the song. It is hard to hear in this video clip, but it is there. Do you hear anything different in the instrumentation?
DCFC's new album "Narrow Stairs" came out in May 2008. (It is very good.)
"What Sarah Said" by Death Cab for Cutie (Gibbard/Walla) from the album "Plans" (2005) from Atlantic Records.
And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time
As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of piss and 409
And I rationed my breaths as I said to myself that I’ve already taken too much today
As each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me (Away from me)
Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines in a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds
And I knew that you were a truth I would rather lose than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself
'Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room&
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes ‘round and everyone lift their heads
But I’m thinking of what Sarah said,
"That love is watching someone die."
So who’s gonna watch you die?