Under normal circumstances, an afternoon spent listening to an advance copy of Obscurities, Stephin Merritt’s new collection of rarities and outtakes (available from Merge Records this August), would be my idea of happiness. But these are not normal circumstances. I’m almost 98% certain that I’m going to die today.
As I write this, I’m on a plane from San Francisco to Chicago, and it’s…. What the fuck?! Did you feel that? That is not turbulence. Something is very, very wrong here. Either Godzilla just bitch-slapped our plane or the pilot doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. I’m usually a pretty calm flier, but I’m also a reasonable person, and I know the difference between “please fasten your seat belts” and “please brace yourself for the gruesome inevitability of burning metal and melting flesh.”
At moments like this, I need music. Some people find comfort in the Lord’s Prayer, I find it on my iPod. That’s how I ended up listening to Obscurities on what will likely be the final day of my earthly existence. When you think you’re dying — much like when you think your heart has been broken beyond repair — you look for significance in every lyric, as if the perfect string of words sung to the perfect melody will somehow nullify your pain. I settled on the Obscurities track “Plant White Roses,” because the lyrics are vaguely morbid. It has something to do with flowers being watered with tears and a loved one disappearing. Maybe not exactly analogous to my situation, but close enough.
While I am a devoted fan of Stephin Merritt and all things Magnetic Fields, the last ten to fifteen minutes of your life is maybe not the ideal time to be discovering new music, even new music by an artist you adore. I don’t have a strong opinions about what happens after we die, but I’m reasonably sure that even if there is an afterlife, and even if there is music available in the afterlife, there’s no guarantee that a new arrival will get access to it immediately. Best case, you’re stuck waiting a week or two while your paperwork gets processed and the only music is the occasional Muzak version of “Tears In Heaven” that’s pumped into heaven’s Ellis Island. I don’t know how your brain works, but the last song I hear always manages to get stuck in my head indefinitely, playing on a constant loop until a new song comes along to replace it. And I don’t know if I necessarily want to be humming “Plant White Roses” for two goddamn weeks, even in the afterlife.
Oh come on, really?! Jesus, why is this fucking plane shaking so much? Did the pilot know we were heading into this? That’s just irresponsible. They should’ve delayed the flight, or cancelled it. Didn’t we learn anything from John-John? (I’ve often wondered what a Kennedy listens to while his plane is going down. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I’m convinced JFK Jr. crashed into the Atlantic while blaring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”) But honestly, I can’t say I’m surprised. I had a feeling that my number was up even before the flight took off. Right after the airline attendants made the announcement about shutting down all electronic devices, I noticed that the teenage girl sitting next to me was still using her iPod. I eyed her nervously, and as the plane taxied down the runway, I became convinced that her iPod would interfere with the pilot’s instruments, resulting in a fiery crash. “Can’t you wait five goddamn minutes?” I wanted to scream at her. “I don’t want to die because you need to hear Bruno Mars again!” But I didn’t say a word. And much to nobody’s surprise, the plane became airborne without incident.
She’s still mindlessly bopping her head to her iPod, even as I write this. Whatever she’s listening to — Katy Perry, judging from the bubbly thin sound — it seems to have distracted her from the distinct possibility that she won’t live long enough to buy her first pair of Juicy sweatpants. I envy her vapidity. I’m frantically scrolling through songs on my iPod, looking for something, anything, that’ll give my death some significance. When I was in my 20s, the faintest whiff of death could be forgotten with some mindless pop. (At a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, the Spin Doctors are like morphine for a cancer patient.) But I’ve reached an age when I appreciate just what a rare opportunity it is to perish on a commercial aircraft. Not many of us get advance warning that the end is seriously nigh. If I’m going to die today, at least I’m going to die with some musical context.
Ironically, the best songs about death are not actually songs you want to listen to while you’re dying. It’s like listening to a song about masturbation while you’re masturbating. “Pictures of Lily” is only funny until it pops up on your iPod shuffle while you’ve got your dick in your hand. A lot depends on the genre of your death. The grim foreshadowing of “Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon, or “Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)” by Johnny Cash are really more suited for a hospital setting. When you’re plummeting towards the earth in a man-made projectile of doom, you want something with a bit more percussion.
Oh come on! What the hell is that? Is the plane upside down now? Are we burrowing into the center of the earth? We should not be shaking this goddamn much. This is not normal. If it’s going to happen, if this is really the end, could we please just crash already and be done with it?
What was I talking about? Final song! I don’t mean to be a fastidious music nerd, but I want that final song to hit on all cylinders. If you’re on death row in prison and the pork chop in your last meal is undercooked, you send that motherfucker back. And by the same token, if there’s a pretty good chance you’ve going to leave this mortal coil in Delta’s economy class, you don’t have to settle for Elton John’s “Where To Now St. Peter?” (Too religious.) Or Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” (Too obvious.) Or Iggy Pop’s “Nice To Be Dead.” (Too ironic.) Or Bright Eyes’s “Arc of Time.” (Too emo.) I’ve had luck in the past soothing my plane crash anxiety with metal played at an oppressive volume, like Slayer’s “Death Head.” Which is weird, because I’m never the guy at a party who says, “Let’s crank up some Slayer!” But when I’m emotionally preparing to be erased in a mushroom cloud of burning gasoline, Slayer is suddenly my favorite band of all time.
Not this time, though. Slayer isn’t doing it for me. I also try Megadeth’s “Black Curtains” and Metallica’s “Fade to Black.” Nope. Nothing. And then, by sheer accident, I stumble upon “Ghost” by Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s a song I haven’t heard in ages, and hearing it again brings back memories of a girlfriend I dated back in the 90s. Katie? Karen? I forget. Something with a K in it. We were together for a few months while we both lived in Chicago, and then she moved to Los Angeles for a job. I flew out to see her once or twice, which was always terrible. Rather than taking our relationship out behind the barn and shooting it between the eyes, we let it die slowly, with all the pain and futile screams and foaming at the mouth that comes with a natural death. For some reason, the entire time I was in LA, we always went out to eat in Chinatown. I ate nothing but dim sum for an entire summer. I don’t even like dim sum, but her friends insisted. “Oh come on,” they goaded us. “It’ll be an adventure.” So we painted on fake smiles and filled another night with the white noise of polite conversation and feasted on mystery meats wrapped in bamboo leaves and downed endless frosty glasses of Tsing Tao. And nobody ever mentioned the sad-looking elephant in the room. When a relationship is dying, everybody wants to plug the holes with a dumpling.
That last summer, we listened to In the Aeroplane over the Sea incessantly, probably just to fill the empty spaces. And when she drove me to the airport, “Ghost” was playing in her car, and we were both singing along with it. “Ghost, ghost, I know you live within me…” Maybe that’s what gave her the idea. Before she let me out of the car, she made me promise to haunt her if the plane crashed. She wanted us to agree on a specific code word, something I could say to the psychic she’d hire after my death. This way, she’d know it was really me and not just some random apparition trying to cop a feel. We decided on “mustachioed,” because facial hair on spectral beings is a subject that’s unlikely to come up organically in conversation, especially with a psychic.
“But what if I crash in New Mexico?” I asked her.
“So what if you do?” She said, crinkling her nose.
“I’m not walking all the way back to Los Angeles on foot. That’s, like, a thousand miles. Even for a ghost, that’d take at least a week. Why wouldn’t I just stay close to the crash-site and haunt somebody in Santa Fe or Albuquerque?”
“You’re so unromantic,” she said, rejecting my attempts at a goodbye hug.
That was the last time I ever set eyes on her. Not because my plane crashed, but because I was a heartless bastard who didn’t see the upside of making a cross-country trip to Los Angeles to watch her have sex with an endless deluge of argyle-sweater-wearing (and likely mustachioed) frat boys for the rest of eternity. But what was I—
“We’re making our final descent into Chicago,” a voice interrupts my train of thought, booming over the plane’s intercom. “Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full and upright position.”
Wait, we’re what? When did we…? Seriously?
And that, my friends, is how you use music to distract yourself from death.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in MTVHive.com.)