Sunday, April 18, 2010

Performing at a funeral

This story starts on a tuesday, mid afternoon, at the Ottawa Folklore centre. I was picking up my a repair done by my friend Brian, who runs the shop. As I was leaving the repair room, Brian asked me if I knew anyone that could play a funeral the following Friday; I suggested a few names, then offered up my own services. A young man named Mike Doucet had recently died in a single car accident, they had to crane his car out of the Rideau river. Mike had apprenticed with Brian while in high school as a co-op placement; Mike’s dad called Brian in search of a musician for the memorial. There was a need for transportation and room in the budget for another musicians, I gave my friend Gareth a call and he confirmed right away. Later that evening, I had a long chat with Mike’s dad Jack, all about Mike’s life and passions. The similarities between our own live’s we interesting, he was only a year younger then me, performed music often, was athletic and worked in restaurants. After his shifts at bistro he worked at, he would wear an old straw hat and play ukulele for the customers. Jack and I talked about the moments that music would be appropriate during the ceremony and talked about styles of music that Mike enjoyed. When I received an email from Jack detailing some artists that Mike had on his Ipod, I knew the show would go well; it was all country, folk and blues.

Then came the song choices. I made a list of tunes I thought would work then scanned the internet for songs and lyrics. I’ll show you the list as I present the tale. Around 5 on thursday evening Gareth came over and we went over the songs. The two of us have similar sensibilities when it comes to music, so the jam went surprisingly well. Gareth has made some some life decisions recently that were are of no real issue to either of us, but are considered taboo by some, I enjoyed chatting about his life and passions. After a few hours I was confident about our show the next day, I spent the rest of my night memorizing lyrics. My friend Lefty McRighty has put out an invitation to his musical friends to join him live on his show at CHUO for the sake of the funding drive. The rain was thick so I didn’t make it out, but I bet though would have been hella fun.

Ten AM friday, G picked me up and we were on our way to Manotick. It was grey and a bit rainy, typical funeral weather. On the drive to the outskirts of town I noticed an old field that my pals and I used to cut through to get to an old scout camp fire, it was know covered in homes that were all identical. Further down Prince of Whales drive was the house a friend of mine used to live in that over-looked the Rideau River, I was surprised how close the country side was from there. Manotick seems like a beautiful little town, there’s so much to explore outside the city.

The parking lot was packed as good looking young people in nice dark clothing jogged in to avoid the rain. The church looked big from the outside, but the main room wasn’t huge, with little effort my voice rang out. We met with the minister in the office to the side of the main room and discussed when to perform during. He used the word, “celebration” which I quite liked, a celebration of a beautiful life. We tuned up our instruments downstairs and took our place at the back of the church, which was almost completely filled a half hour before the start time.

We all stood or sat in silence for a while, until finally the priest lead the pall bearers, wheeling the casket into the room. A quick prayer was made and we broke into our first number as they advanced.

Bro Hymn by Pennywize. They’re a california punk band that I listened to quite a bit around the age of 12 and 13. Bro Hymn is a memorial song about a friend who took his own life that was re-released on a second album for another friend who died. It’s message is of unity, togetherness in a time of great pain and a general declaration that we’re all bonded. It’s a song that’s always touched me and that speaks honestly about young pain. I slowed it down considerably from the original, found a comfortable key, slightly reworked the melody and included Mike Ducet’s name into the lyrics. That first sight of the coffin brings the realization that what we’ve heard is true and a group pain is tangible. Gareth and I sang together on the “whoa-o-o-o” chorus which is like a sorrowful wailing, the minor melodies made my spine tingle. Slowly they advanced up the isle and waited until the song was over. I knew I had made the right choice and that everything was going to work out from there on in.

The minister spoke, prayed and Mike’s best friend delivered a eulogy. I got the impression that mike was something of a golden child, the type of person who brings joy to all those around and who’s sharp intelligence was balanced by a relaxed yet exuberant attitude. Death is one of those instances which forces you to question your own sense of spirituality or metaphysical approach to the world. It’s impossible to believe that all the wisdom, love, personality and energy of a person could come to any abrupt end. Energy can’t be created or destroyed, so what happens? I consider this one of the many incredible mysteries that makes up life. Death is an inevitable occurrence that we have no way of totally controlling or understanding. It is something we can always learn from though and celebrate. The theme of music was running through the preacher’s sermon, how it’s the artists that inform and enrich society. That during the civil war, songs of hope were what sustained the populations. He mentioned that even the pope agreed that the Beatles have influenced culture in a massive way. It seems like Mike influenced many people through his personality and music. He could speak intelligently about a million different subjects with a million different people. The stories about him made me think of the few people in my life who, when conversing with, open up brand new sides of my personality and way of thinking about life. I think Mike was probably one of those people who opened the minds of many.

After the eulogy and a few more prayers, we sang Bob Dylan’s “you ain’t going nowhere”. This song was chosen for a few subtle reasons. Firstly the tittle is repeated through out and I though that was apt, as long as Mike’s remembered and celebrated, he isn’t going anywhere. Secondly, the melody, especially in the chorus, is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard. The lyrics are a bit cryptic, but seem to generally refer to loving relationship, especially, “tomorrows the day my bride’s going to come. Were going to fly, down in the easy chair.” The list I was given showed the Mike had a strong taste for well written songs, I think this is one of Dylan’s best.

There was some reading from the bible, some chanting along, some standing and sitting. Throughout was the message of a greater power that connects us, with all the usual Catholic locutions holding it together. I question the masculinity of god and that we should be forgiven. I think viewing ourselves as powerful spiritual beings is the next step in human evolution. The Christian framework does provide a stability in this time of grief, but all cultures possess some kind of death ritual. I wonder what the various similarities and differences are?

3 I do however, love quite of bit of christian spiritual music, mostly in the black traditions. We sand “will the circle be unbroken” which is the story of about a person who’s mother dies and one verse at a time, describes the process of their loss. The chorus, on the other hand is uplifting. “Will the circle, be unbroken, by and by lord, by and by. There’s a better home awaiting, in sky lord in the sky” we had the benefit of my dear friends Kara and Brian singing along, this gave the audience the clue that they could sing along as well. With each chorus, more people joined in creating a powerful wave of voices that seemed to wash over me. I sang with gusto, it was a powerful feeling leading that group of beautiful voices. After the ceremony, a woman came up and told me how wonderful she thought that song was. She said she was mouthing the words and didn’t know if she was singing or not, but it felt like she was in a choir and it was a wonderful experience. It was strange and wonderful hearing my own voice get mixed in, I’m getting shivers thinking about it.

It was time for the sacrament, which feels slightly naughty writing down, since “sacrament” in french has always been a swear word in my house. The priest asked those not in the catholic church, who wanted to take part in the ceremony, to come and be blessed rather then eating the body of christ. This stuck out to me for some reason, it’s not that I want to eat the body of christ, but it felt a bit exclusionary. What if I needed a jolt of jesus? or something...

4.As the congregation lined up to eat the wafer, I played some traditional fiddle tunes on the banjo. Nice and slow, with passion and pauses, the instrument was uplifting. The banjo has often been described as angelic, that description was particularly fitting as the notes bounced off the ceiling, over the bustling crowd. St. Ann’s Reel, Whisky Before Breakfast and Black Berry Blossom, were all mixed together in my rhythmic and harmonious, (rather then melodic) way of playing claw-hammer versions of those tunes. The banjo sounded great, churches should give up organs and have banjos.

There were some final words, (I was thinking about the words I was going to sing, and the procession began the slow exit, being lead by Mike’s body in the casket. For a final song I chose...

Love is what I got, by Sublime. This song has been the corner stone of many a camp fires over the years and although I’ve never really discussed it with anyone, I think it’s THE song of my generation. It is a simple reggae/bluesy/ hip hop tune that rivals “Santeria” as Sublime’s most notable song. On the recording, the opening few acoustic guitar notes are catchy and immediately recognizable, Bradley’s voice is soft and sweet but with a bit of an edge, in the way that you can tell he’s a really cool guy. The lyrics are about all the crappy things that can happen in life, but it’s the few simple positive ones that make us deeply happy. The song song never settles on a genre, just like the band and that represents who us young people are of this generation are; constantly changing our outlooks, identities and relationships. We don’t have religion like our parents did, it’s music, in it’s many forms that is the metaphysical object which binds us together. “Love is, what I got” was repeated over and over again as the mourners left the main room and filed downstairs for the reception. We ran out of words eventually and started to vamp/jam away, I felt right doing it and it sounded good. As the last few people left the room, we repeated the chorus without instruments, our voices were the perfect cap. As we exited, people kept coming up to us used words like “perfect” and “so mike”. Some were shocked that we hadn’t been friends and that I’d picked the tunes myself because they were bang on. Mike’s dad said he half expected his son to jump out of the coffin and start dancing when he heard the group singing. I had the impression from a number of people that the music was the most healing and moving part of the ceremony. I though of those negro spiritual that my grandmother sang to me as a child, songs that offered hope, salvation, redemption and sorrow. Music is a powerful tool for healing and I think another segment or layer of my life’s work has been cracked open. That was one of those performances where I know in my core that I was at the right place at the right time, that my journey is progressing in the most beautiful way possible. Brian, who connected me with the gig said that Mike would have like it, but to bad about all the talking parts in between....



No comments:

Post a Comment