Written by Brandon Biallas
We all grieve over lost loved ones and have our own unique ways of coping with that grief. For many people, music serves as a means for diving headfirst into those emotions by helping us learn how to live with them. After experiencing this firsthand, this T&E writer came to a realization about death that ultimately helped him accept it in a way he never dreamed possible
If anything is certain in life, it’s that talking about death makes most of us extremely uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because we have a hard time rationalizing it or truly knowing for certain what happens to us and the people we care about when we die. Regardless of the reason, I firmly believe that by ignoring the elephant in the room, we are doing ourselves no favors. Having frank discussions about heavy topics like death allow us to shed light upon the darkness, and opens us up to new understandings about life, death, and our places in the universe.
I was on the way to Bisbee, AZ to play the Sidepony Express Music Festival with my band at the time. The possibilities were endless as we eagerly awaited what the weekend had in store for us. That’s when suddenly a mutual friend messaged me about some tragic news that would rock me to my very core. The unexpected death of a loved one is not news you’re ever prepared to hear or process and my case was no different. Her name was Janelle and she was very close to me. We had the type of bond you share with someone that leaves an indelible impression in your heart. I distinctly remember being in utter shock, feeling an emotional blankness due to my inability to fully process the gravity of the situation in that very moment. My bandmate, Kim, was driving at the time and asked me what was wrong when I suddenly got quiet. After I told her what happened she immediately offered to turn the car around and take me home. I declined. The thought of being surrounded by music and people I love couldn’t have been more comforting. The welcoming, art-loving community of Bisbee seemed like the best place for me to be that weekend.
Jannelle was a musical soul through and through, but not in the way you might expect. She had highly specific music taste based around nostalgia, deep lyricism, humor, and sadness. Some of this music taste we shared in bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and The National, and other bands she introduced me to, like The Antlers and Local Natives. She was undoubtedly one of the most cultured people I’ve ever met and I gained a lot of wisdom from our conversations about music, life, and everything in between. After her untimely passing, I struggled to find any meaning in it. To me her death seemed like a randomly cruel accident in an indifferent universe. However, I was comforted by one random idea that struck me like a jolt of lightning many months later, while hanging out in Cottonwood with a dear friend of mine.
We had just finished exploring Dead Horse Ranch State Park and decided to do some window shopping, and a familiar song came over the speakers in a local pet shop we stumbled into. It was “She’s So High” by Tal Bachman. It’s a pleasant little pop-rock tune about a guy who respects and loves a girl he sees as so high above himself. He compares his muse to such famous feminine figures as Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Aphrodite, in that order. It’s exceptionally charming and this was one of Jannelle’s frequently played songs as we’d drive in the car on our many adventures. When I heard that song again standing in the pet shop, I was instantly transported back in time, driving around with Jannelle, the sounds of her giggling at the over-exaggerated delivery of the lyrics pleasantly ringing in my ear. She liked to pretend Tal Bachman was singing about her on occasion, which was always a funny thought experiment. These were all memories I hadn’t thought about in years, memories up until that very moment, I assumed were lost forever. This completely blew my mind, and became integral to the grieving and acceptance process.
Music serves as a time capsule for memories we thought we’d lost. Much in the same way, I believe that music can serve as a time capsule for the people we love. Those memories are permanently ingrained in my brain from the moment Tal Bachman plays that opening guitar riff. I feel so fortunate our minds work that way just when we think we’ve forgotten the smallest of details about a person or significant events from our past. Although death can feel sudden and empty, it’s moments like this that make me believe we’re only truly dead when no one is left to remember us and the legacies we leave behind. So if anything else is certain in life, I’ll remember her and the legacy she left behind until the day that I die.