August 26, 2002: Remembering My Mother in Music

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Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that small numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically, and anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I have little compunction sharing some thoughts on this plaintive anniversary. Indeed, for me these occasions are much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.


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As I have mentioned in other pieces (most recently on my birthday), one of my earliest and most positive memories of art and discovery is associated with my mother: listening to Nutcracker Suite and drawing pictures. Tchaikovsky has a real Proust-like effect on me (and, I suspect, a great many grown-ups who have indelible memories of the Nutcracker or Fantasia, or both), but on a purely aesthetic level it is like Bizet’s Carmen: I can (and do) enjoy it on purely musical terms. Moreover, I prefer it that way (and having seen my share of holiday performances and the opportunity to enjoy a full performance of Carmen, I’m happy to have those experiences and need not go there again). Anyway, there are more than a handful of favorite moments (coincidentally or not, conductor Fritz Reiner’s version from 1960 is the first compact disc I ever purchased, in 1986), but the one that gets me every time is the sombre yet majestic “Coffee: Arabian Dance”.


There’s no shame in my game. I cannot deny my past and the fact of the matter is, back in the ’70s I thought Jesus Christ Superstar was pretty awesome. Moms, sis and I knew this one by heart (at least Side A of the 8-Track, which received heavy airplay in the Ford Grenada). This was in the pre-Kiss and post Fantasia time period, and of course before I discovered the original “rock opera” Tommy (not the last time ALW would be influenced by a rock band). In any event, this was my first and last dalliance with Andrew Lloyd Webber and while I can hardly stomach it now, oh how I loved it then. And you know what? A handful of moments are still worth reliving.


I’ve also alluded to the fact that we worshipped at the altar of the White Album, and we’d listen to the cassette (taped from the original double record) constantly in the car. Our favorite singalong was (obviously) “Rocky Raccoon”, but one of my favorites that I can never hear, now, without thinking of my mother and those million car rides is another great song by McCartney, “Mother Nature’s Son”:

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It was pretty cool to watch movies with my mom, who was much more lenient than Pops when it came to the Rated R ones. One we watched many times (which I haven’t seen in ages and suspect I’d like much less now) was The Big Chill. Of course, the soundtrack was ubiquitous at that time and did for Motown what soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for bluegrass and Goodfellas did for oldies (or at least Tony Bennett). It’s silly to contemplate now, but it was almost a novelty to hear Smokey Robinson and The Temptations in the very arid early years of the ’80s. Indelible baby steps for an impressionable young honky:

Beethoven. I’ve spoken often in regards to my worship of Ludwig Van. Everyone encounters the symphonies first, but once I latched onto the piano sonatas, that was it. It still is. I’m not sure if I ever succeeded in getting my mother to really appreciate the immortal  Mondschein, but she at least tolerated how often it was played during the late ’80s and early ’90s in her house. Since I’ve already thrown Barenboim a bone, I’d like to give props to Freddy Kempf’s superlative rendition of one of the truly sublime compositions ever written:

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The other great discovery and love of my life around this time was Bob Marley: kind of like Beethoven and the symphonies, it’s impossible to have ears and not be exposed to Legend at some point in high school or college. When the amazing Songs of Freedom (by far the best box set of all time) came into my life during grad school I latched onto it like a remora. This career-spanning set opened a large door wide on Marley’s music (particularly the mostly unknown, and remarkable, work from the late ’60s and very early ’70s), and eventually, reggae. Moms needed no convincing, she formed her own deep love and appreciation for Marley and would sing his songs on my answering machine. Suffice it to say, our shared love of the great man is one of the very special bonds in my musical and spiritual life.

I think she saw pretty quickly that I was going to be a special case, and there is little doubt that regardless of anyone’s opinion, I was off and running early on, and little could come between me and music. Nevertheless, her encouragement (from Kiss to The Beatles to The Doors all the way through classical and then jazz) was generous, ceaseless and always appreciated. It’s kind of neat to consider that a CD she originally bought for me my senior year of college (when I explained to her that it was very important for both my studies and my sanity to procure this album) is one I wrote about almost twenty years later. I can’t think of a more beautiful song from a more perfect album to commemorate my gratitude.

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Not too much needs to be said by way of introduction to Jimi Hendrix, but my mother definitely dug some of his (less experimental? more accessible?) work. This one was, and is, a no brainer: a song he wrote about his mother (who passed away when he was ten years old): “Angel”:

August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of our lives. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-reall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those awful moments when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then this song (by the great Israel Vibration) broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life:

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Finally, and this one is the most important, for me.
The ’70s: this one reminds me of coming home from school and spending time in the house in between games of soccer or kickball or whatever else I was up to in those days. I have a memory: it was either autumn or winter, but it was a day I couldn’t play outside, so I was stuck inside the house and my mother had first dibs on the sounds. She was a huge fan of Janis Ian (as I would become, and remain) and I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider Between The Lines one of the better albums of that time, or anytime. “At Seventeen”, “Tea and Sympathy”, “Light a Light”: this is as good as it gets. But it’s the swan song, “Lover’s Lullaby” that affects me most; it haunts and restores me in equal measure. This one makes me think of my mother, so young; myself, so young, and even the beautiful Janis Ian, so incredibly young and so unbelievably beautiful. Sentimental? Not so much. True, this is wistful on multiple levels, and while my nature is to embrace or confront things that I consider cliche, it still took me quite a while before I could bring myself to listen to this song after my mother’s death.

I can, now, and when I do I naturally think of her. And inevitably I think about myself:

Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,

Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 –Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”



  1. xoxoxoxxoxox

    First of all, I totally remember Boo wearing that floral dress in the picture of the two of you. I thought it was such a “cool” dress for an “older” woman. I also loved Boo’s go-to “punishment” of a young-disobedient Sean: knowing how crucial music was to you, the harshest punishment would be to take away your stereo speakers! Brilliant! (My parents would take my phone knowing how it pained me to remain silent for any period of time.)

  2. Mike Shields says:

    Thank you for sharing this

  3. Takes balls to put things this emotional out there, but I am glad you do. I suppose some fancy shrink would say it’s part of the grieving process, others might say this personal Thanatopsis is indicative of a larger struggle to deal with the nature of death itself. I don’t know who is right, but as all of ou parents get older, it’s nice to see the fond memories you have of her

  4. Aunty Pat says:

    Very Moving, Sean. I miss my older sister, more than I can say! Of course we grew up with music being an important part of our lives because of our dad was a musician. Thanks for sharing!


  1. […] have written more than once about my mother (here and here) but I haven’t said a great deal (here) about my old man. That is, in part, because he is […]

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