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Deep Voices: Music for mourning
Solo piano, ’90s indie, and Bill Callahan
My son Renzo died on Christmas Eve. Two and a half days before, he had an aneurysm caused by a rare condition in his brain called AVM, which we did not and could not have known he had. Though what I suppose would be called extraordinary measures were untaken, he did not survive. He was 22 months old and the absolute love of my and my wife’s life.
Though Deep Voices is ostensibly a newsletter about music, I’ve written about Renzo here before, as my understanding of and need for music are impossible to disentangle from my personal life. Before Renzo was born, we joked about naming him Arthur Russell Schnipper or Frank Ocean Schnipper. We settled on Renzo, to honor my wife’s Italian heritage, and his middle name is Rollins (after Henry). I had hoped being named after Henry, a hero of mine, might give him strength. I think it did. Renzo was a charming, sweet, funny, strong-willed little boy. And like Henry, he was a real hunk. I miss him desperately.
It’s been a month or so since I wrote those above two paragraphs. I originally wrote a sentence about how the pain of his loss was “unbearable,” and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that word. Because it’s wrong. The pain is incalculable, but I am choosing to bear it. The other choice is to recede, take to bed, to die, and as tantalizing as an abyss may sometimes seem, I am choosing to be survive. I love my wife. I want to be there for her. I want to love life again. So each day I focus on making it through, hour by hour, and sometimes I imagine a future. I have moments of pleasure and joy. I’ve returned to work and I see friends. I go thrift shopping and drink tea, play Wordle in the mornings with Allegra. We watch Borgen and the episodes of Queer Eye that don’t feature death or children. After leaving the hospital when Renzo died, thank god, we never had to go back to our apartment. Six months in the works, we closed on a new apartment the day before he died. It has high ceilings. I fill it with music.
I don’t want to be overwrought here, but I love very little like I love music. And I like making this newsletter and I’d like to continue it one day in a more standard fashion. Fifty-five editions of me trying to convince you to embrace the weirder side of sound, urging you that there is so much humanity in the nooks and crannies of art, a mission I want to return to. But that seems impossible without talking about Renzo’s death. It’s something I need to go through, not around.
I recently read an essay in the New Yorker that I enjoyed very much called “The Case Against the Trauma Plot” by Parul Seghal. In the piece, she argues against dramaticized trauma as an often lazy stand-in for substance in both a character and a story I agree with Seghal, trauma can be a cheap pathway to depth. I don’t want to read about it. To be honest, maybe I’d even go further than Seghal—forget getting rid of the trauma plot, let’s get rid of plots altogether. I like books where people walk around and nothing happens. They think about life. Normal things happen. Days pass, you fall in love, whatever. For me, who has on and off spent my life writing about my life, and for whom having a son turned me into the most wonderfully normal version of myself, this is what I hoped to talk and write about. I wrote a piece a year ago about dressing Renzo, about him figuring out who he wants to be. Not a lot of stakes, blessedly.
Instead of continuing to forge ahead on that path of contemplation and nice sentences, now the worst thing anyone can imagine happening has just happened. “Trauma came to be accepted as a totalizing identity,” she writes. Right now, that’s true for me. Except there is no narrative, no forward motion, no moral, no denouement. In fact, there’s no plot, just trauma.
As I have in most other times of pain (though now past pain feels like no pain at all), I have tried to find solace in music. That has been more difficult than I imagined. Many things have sounded not right, I don’t know how else to describe it. I put on albums I have loved and find them to sound grossly haunted or indelicate and uncomfortably angular. For the first week after Renzo died, I pretty much only listened to Bill Callahan. He has a deep, clarifying voice, up there with James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman as a candidate for god’s narrator. So for a little while, I let him be mine. His songs with images of birds fleeing, horses sleeping, brambles, voids, wells, of feelings of being hot and alone, carried a little bit of the heft for me. I spoke with a rabbi who said, during shiva, each person who visits can lessen 1/60th of your grief. Though he wasn’t there, Bill carried his share.
In a funny coincidence, a few years ago a friend and former colleague of mine got married to Bill. They have two kids and she and I would sometimes text and share photos of our children and talk about parenting. After I let her know about Renzo, I told her I’d been listening to Bill’s music. “The man knows pain,” she said.
In addition to Parul Seghal’s text, there’s one other recent story I read that resonated with me: “Shitty Music Has Helped Moron Through Hardest Times In His Pointless Life,” an unbylined story in the Onion. “During some of my lowest moments, when I feel like I just want to disappear or that I can’t possibly go on, I always put on my favorite record, and for a moment, everything feels all right,” says their strawman, Todd Beram. Sounds about right. The piece ends with Beram’s claim that the Smiths have saved his life, which is, even at a time like this, a step too far for me. Instead of Morrissey, this week’s playlist is what I’ve been listening to during some of my lowest moments, when I feel like I just want to disappear, or that I can’t possibly go on.