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Music offers comfort and community as pop heroes depart

“From pure sensation to the intuition of beauty, from pleasure and pain to love and the mystical ecstasy and death – all the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed. The rest is always and everywhere silence. After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley

Music has something to teach us at every stage of our development, should we be open to its lessons. But can it also teach us something about death?

Lately, it would seem so.

During a year in which we’ve lost some of the most luminous stars in our musical solar system – David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, and a disturbingly lengthy list of others – it has not been possible for even the casual music lover to avoid ruminations on mortality. There’s no way around the cold, hard fact – we are witnessing the end of the road for the greatest generation of popular musicians. Our heroes are dying.

This week, we began to experience another immutable truth: Sometimes, we watch people die when they know they are dying.

The news came Tuesday that Tragically Hip singer and front man extraordinaire Gord Downie has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. But when the band announced that it would engage in a series of Canadian concert dates that in all likelihood will make up its farewell tour, a new twist entered the tale.

A move like this is almost unprecedented. Never before has a major artist staring death in the face decided to say goodbye in such a public fashion.

It’s true that the eminently gifted, unfailingly sardonic singer/songwriter Warren Zevon, diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma and given a matter of months to live, discussed his end in a deeply moving episode of David Letterman’s late night show, wherein he uttered the poignant and now-legendary line, “Enjoy every sandwich, folks.”

“I’ll Be Me,” a film frankly documenting Glenn Campbell’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease during the Campbell Family Band’s “Goodbye Tour,” served as a public farewell of sorts as well, although it’s fair to conclude that Campbell could not be fully aware of his participation.

And Bowie bid his devout worldwide audience adieu in a manner in keeping with his lifelong insistence on doing things his own way – he wrote, recorded and released “Black Star,” one of the most profound ruminations on death in the history of recorded sound, and then succumbed two days later to a terminal cancer he’d kept hidden from the world.

But what Downie and the Hip are doing is singular, for they are offering fans a chance to grieve with them, while simultaneously celebrating the legacy of Canadian music’s premier alternative rock band.

The 11 concerts across Canada slated for the end of July and early August – including a pair in Toronto and one in Hamilton – are sure to be deeply emotional affairs for band members and fans alike. As any Hip fan will tell you, they feel a bond with Downie, one fostered by his art and one that in many cases, has endured for decades. This bond feels to them like a deeply personal relationship. Their grief over the suffering of a man who is technically a stranger is a highly developed form of empathy.

When fans of Bowie and Prince mourn their deaths, they are engaging in a similar form of empathy.

“This is a healthy thing, I believe,” says Jennifer Koch, executive director of the Community Music School of Buffalo. “When we’re grieving for the loss of someone whose music has meant so much to us, we’re also grieving for the person we used to be when we first fell in love with their music. Take Prince, for example. When he died, people who fell in love with his music when they were young, in the 1980s, are saying goodbye both to him and to that part of their lives.

“It’s painful, but this process offers us an opportunity to reflect on who we once were, who we are now, and how we got here.”

If it’s true that music can help us attempt to articulate something that is unspoken, then it makes sense that it would aid us in our quest to understand the deepest mystery of the human condition – death.

In her 2007 memoir “Room for Doubt,” author Wendy Lesser recalled an experience in which music allowed her to grieve the death of a close friend, a loss she had been denying until, in the midst of a performance of a Brahms composition at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, she came face to face with her grief.

The reverie I fell into as I listened to Brahms’ music was not about God triumphing over death, but about music and death grappling with each other. Death was chasing me, and I was fleeing from it, and it was pounding toward me; it was pounding in the music, but the music was also what was helping me to flee. And, as in a myth or a fairy tale, I sensed that what would enable me to escape – not forever, because all such escapes are temporary, but to escape just this once – would be if I looked death … in the face: if I turned back and looked at it as clearly and sustainedly as I could bear.”

These are difficult times for music fans of a certain age. But if we allow the music to point the way – to show us how to let go, just as it taught us how to embrace and celebrate life – a subtle solace can be gained.