What is your signature song?

johnhancockA few weeks ago, a friend posed the following question on Facebook:

What is a song that speaks for you in some way? A song that means a lot to you. A song that you would want played at your memorial. Your signature song.

Now, if I was just an ordinary casual music listener, this might be an easy task.

Rather, I’m an obsessive music geek, who has collected and studied and enjoyed thousands and thousands of songs over many years, over numerous genres, songs that speak to and/or for me on a variety of levels, from emotional to spiritual, from soothing to rage-venting, with lyrics simple and sweet, to abstract and esoteric, to direct and political.

To be asked to choose just one song, then, well, I don’t think it’s possible. And yet, I can’t resist the opportunity to spend a great deal of time pondering it, trying to narrow down the list, trying to determine what the phrase “signature song” really means to me.

The question was posed on January 27th, it’s now February 17th, a day has not gone by without my having thought about this, and the only thing that has become clear is that the crux of this question, the thing that makes it unique, as opposed to the typical “what’s your favorite song?”, is the phrase (my emphasis added in bold) “a song that speaks FOR you”. This, I suggest, is WAY different than asking what song “speaks TO you?”

All songs, especially those we like, speak TO us, by their very nature. Music is a form of communication, after all. But, only so many songs speak FOR us, communicating what we see, what we feel, what we experience, what we believe in, or what we don’t.

And then there’s my personal conflict, a conflict between what I experience and what I believe and aspire to.

If the purpose of a song, chosen to be played at one’s memorial service, is to represent the kind of person that we were, encapsulating not only what we felt about the life we lived, but also what we had hoped for, for ourselves, for others in our lives, or perhaps even for all humanity, in other words, an honest expression of what life was truly like for us — a Song Of Today — as well as an idealistic picture of what we believe is possible if elusive — a Song Of Tomorrow — then, in my case, it calls for two songs, two very different songs. If I’m to be authentic, I would like to be remembered for both.

Even then, picking just two songs is painfully difficult, and so I’d say that the two I’ve chosen for this post represent a snapshot of what seemed to fit today, what messages mean the most to me right now, and it’s very likely that if I try to answer this question again in the future, even days from now, that I might very possibly choose two very different songs.

The Unifying Theme
Love

A Song Of Today: Love Reign O’er Me
I think it’s safe to say that when most people long for something in their life, something that transcends material needs, if we think about it long enough we really do wish the same for all. And yet, in the immediate expression of personal longing, especially for something so fundamental as love, it’s understandable that it may be expressed with “me” language.

And so lyrically, yes, this first song — Love Reign O’er Me by Pete Townshend, performed by The Who, from their epic 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, which I wrote about a couple of years ago — sounds somewhat self-interested.

And yet, there is the suggestion in the lyric, however subtle, that longing for love is universal, in the line (my emphasis added in bold):

Only love can bring the rain that make you yearn to the sky.

But then there’s the music, music that transitions from a gentle rain of tender love to a thunderstorm of longing, a longing for love to reign down, not just rain down, on one and all. And, as I struggle day to day with how the news is dominated by all of the most horrible things going on in the world, this song speaks for my deep, desperate, urgent longing for love, rather than hate, to reign.

A Song Of Tomorrow: Box of Rain
Keeping with rain as a symbol, perhaps because I live in Bellingham, I turn to Box of Rain, from the 1970 album American Beauty by the Grateful Dead.

The music for this song was written by bassist Phil Lesh, in honor of his dying father, Phil had asked longtime Grateful Dead lyricist, Robert Hunter, to write the lyrics, and Phil has said that he was amazed how perfectly Hunter had captured the sentiment he had hoped to express to his dad.

It’s a beautiful gesture of love, and the lyrics are filled with images of love’s healing power, not necessarily divine love, but maybe more importantly the love of one human being for another:

What do you want me to do
To do for you, to see you through?
A box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through.

Gone, here, is The Who’s anthemic angst, and in it’s place a sweet melody and lovely, loving imagery, a beautiful hippie song, really, in all the best idealistic ways, filled with hope for tomorrow.

And, in terms of a song for a memorial, you couldn’t do much better, given its origins, with a line that speaks to how precious and brief life may be:

Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there

I just hope that these two songs won’t be needed for my memorial for quite a while longer. 🙂

(I couldn’t find a video that had the lyrics, and so here’s the song, followed by the full lyrics.)

Look out of any window
Any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
Birds are winging or
Rain is falling from a heavy sky –
What do you want me to do,
To do for you to see you through?
This is all a dream we dreamed
One afternoon long ago
Walk out of any doorway
Feel your way, feel your way
Like the day before
Maybe you’ll find direction
Around some corner
Where it’s been waiting to meet you –
What do you want me to do,
To watch for you while you’re sleeping?
Well please don’t be surprised
When you find me dreaming too

Look into any eyes
You find by you, you can see
Clear through to another day
I know it’s been seen before
Through other eyes on other days
While going home –
What do you want me to do,
To do for you to see you through?
It’s all a dream we dreamed
One afternoon long ago

Walk into splintered sunlight
Inch your way through dead dreams
To another land
Maybe you’re tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
With words half spoken
And thoughts unclear
What do you want me to do
To do for you to see you through
A a box of rain will ease the pain
And love will see you through

Just a box of rain –
Wind and water –
Believe it if you need it,
If you don’t just pass it on
Sun and shower –
Wind and rain –
In and out the window
Like a moth before a flame

It’s just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
Or leave it if you dare
But it’s just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there

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