“do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” – Flaming Lips
This weekend I heard the final mix of the now-released Trot Fox cover recording of “Do You Realize.” This coincided with my Uncle Tom’s 80th birthday celebration in Baltimore. All of this would sound both innocuous and tangential without some context. But there’s context aplenty and my head is spinning (and not just because I got up at 4:15 to catch the plane home from which I’m writing this).
If you already know the context, you can likely skip this paragraph, but Trot Fox is a wonderful band comprised of Claire Randall, Gabe Gordon, Declan O’Connell and Nate Mondschein, all but Declan former students of mine. Gabe and Claire, in addition to being life partners, were both part of the Resonant Motion team from its early stages and Claire also was a member of the Noah Baerman Resonance Ensemble. Was. Because she was murdered in December and now I don’t even feel like I understand verb tense anymore. Completing “The Rock and the Redemption” for release has felt like what I imagine Steve Cropper went through putting “Dock of the Bay” together after Otis Redding’s plane crash.
So about a year ago, with literally minutes remaining in a recording session at Converse Rubber Tracks, Trot Fox recorded this song live in one take. Mind you, I’ll admit that before this my entire awareness of the Flaming Lips consisted of knowing that they’d done a cheeky remake of Sgt Pepper and that when I was in college they did a that stupid but catchy song about the girl who puts Vaseline on her toast.
Fast forward and it’s as if the song is a eulogy-to-self, especially as she sings the above-quoted line at the beginning and end, the band sounds amazing, and in March I had the “privilege” (if anything about this could be viewed as such) of being the resident geezer in a room of her friends, collaborators, and family to record a choral overdub at the end of the song, arranged by two more students-turned-collaborators, Jess Best and Mel Hsu.
And Claire’s singing? It hurts. It hurts because it’s an emotional song. And it hurts because her performance is imbued with such strength and pain. And it hurts because she seems so present in the real-time interaction with the rest of the band, emblematic of how she differed from the archetypal good-singing diva. And it hurts because of Gabe and her family and so many others.
I listened 3 more times on the drive to the airport this morning, which felt necessary even though I nearly missed my exit and then forgot to empty my water bottle going through the TSA line. I hurt and I knew I was alive. And then I wondered, while going through the TSA line the second time, if that’s just masochistic. I mean, if that’s my rubric for knowing I’m alive, maybe I should just try stabbing myself in the forehead with tweezers?
And that’s where Uncle Tom comes in. On a basic level, celebrating his 80th was an occasion of unadulterated joy. And it was indeed joyful, yet the joy was inherently entangled with mortality and all that comes with that. Part of that was his gratitude (reaching a level I’m tempted to portray as wonder) to still be here and to be surrounded by loved ones, aware that subsequent parties are not guaranteed. Part of it was the absence of Margie, his wife and partner for decades (who many of you know as the inspiration behind my “Ripples” composition, album, and philosophy). By his side was Mery, his wonderful wife of just over a year, herself widowed. I spent the evening chatting with them after the party as they (and I) played with my 2 and 4 year old grand-nieces. Though I wasn’t making the connection to Claire consciously as we hung out (indeed it was in a sense a few hours’ “respite” from that), their longevity as humans inherently carries loss. Their departed spouses are imminently present in conversations, in photographs, and in any number of other ways down to the ubiquitous presence of Margie’s ceramics throughout the house. And now adorning the basement are three paintings from my mother’s (his sister’s) youth that Tom has now framed and hung, including one that my mother painted of my grandmother, who lives on in a great-granddaughter named after her. There is joy and there are scars.
I could go on about the cycles of life, but others have done that far more wisely than I could. And ultimately for me and for so many fellow grievers there is the difficult yet mundane reality that we who are still here will (to paraphrase my dear sis Rachel Green) experience grief as a natural consequence of love. I will, of course, continue to process the cognitive dissonance of moving forward while not “moving on” in the months and years to come, but this was a cosmically-timed perspective check. I am the better for having had Claire in my life, and in proportion to that the visceral aspects of listening to this song fill me with both the soul affirmation of love and the pain of loss – a cocktail that is pretty overwhelming but for me beats the heck out of a straight shot of detached avoidance.
If after all of this you feel up to listening to this utterly stunning work of art, I encourage you to download it along with a “purchase price” that will go entirely to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Or download it for free and share it. Or just stream it. Or save it for when you have the space for it. Or file it away indefinitely and savor the presence of those still with us while honoring the scars we all carry and the scars that lay before those of us privileged enough to get to stick around a while longer.