The year 2011 was one of the best and most difficult years of my life. I was truly in love for the very first time and had finally managed to move to the big city. I also survived the death of my partner, Blair. I’ve already written extensively on this in other posts, so I won’t be telling that story here. The story I am going to tell begins 3 years afterward and leads up to the present day.
In the summer of 2014, I decided to channel my grieving process into making mixes for Blair. It had been 3 years since he died. I needed a place to put all of the songs that made me think of him; to tell the story of my relationship with a celestial body and to continue a tradition that started while he was still alive. Music has been an essential part of processing everything that happened to me, and it felt like the right way to honor his memory. This year marks the fifth mix, and I decided to share them with those willing to listen. You can play each mix by simply clicking on the title.
In the summer of 2014, I felt the need to do something more than light a candle and retreat from the world on the anniversary of your death, so I made you a mix. I liked how it came out, and so the next year I did the same thing. And then again the year after that. Last year I decided to start making them for your birthday instead. Over time it had become less about grieving the loss, and more about appreciating the love. It became a form of catharsis that I actually enjoyed. Creating mixes was always one of your favorite things to do for people you cared about, and it has now become one of mine.
I’ve tried to make each playlist according to your rules. I have given each one a healthy mix of genres. I’ve made sure each song transitions into the next as precisely as I could manage. Each one tells a different story from beginning to end. I’ve even tried to limit the overall length to just over one hour. You would probably say I still need to cut a song on each of them, and you would probably be right. But they are what they are, and I intend to keep making them.
I am a constant satellite
of your blazing sun
I obey your law of gravity
This is the fate that silence carved on me…
I was growing tired of being cast as a victim, both in my own thinking and the way that I presented myself. There will always be things beyond my control but that doesn’t mean I need to live at the mercy of the wind. Vienna Teng’s “Gravity” seemed like the perfect place to start this whole thing. How does one describe a relationship with a celestial body? How does one love something so massive and so distant? Just listen to this song. I used to call you Apollo. That sounds rich and poetic in this context; it was initially just a Battlestar Galactica reference. But I suppose names are allowed to carry multiple meanings, and in this case, it’s especially fitting.
I won’t write a paragraph on each song; that would get tedious. Some of the songs have their place in the greater theme of love and loss, others are songs I thought you might like. There are songs about the slow, tedious lull of depression. There are a few about appreciating the journey in spite of its ending. I can remember saying, for the first few years after you died, it felt like I carried a ghost in my pocket everywhere I went. This pervasive heaviness warped everything and everyone around me. A lot of it was in my head, but for me, it was very real. In more ways than one, this mix was a means of finding my way out beyond that heavy place.
I’m leaving this behind… the gift of guilt.
They say that when you lose someone you love, a part of you dies with them. I know this to be true. “Finality” by Woods of Ypres captures that sentiment beautifully. It expressed the raw pain of the reality I was facing and does so more profoundly than I was capable of doing myself. It also created a nice poetic contrast to the opening track.
We didn’t spend our lives together
And I will miss you forever
I decided to end things on a more hopeful note. “Erifsievol” spells “Love is Fire” in reverse. It’s a song about how we keep going in spite of the pain, trauma, and loss that love causes. It equates love with fire; a brilliant, almost living element that we are continually drawn to in spite of the ways we know it can hurt us. It felt like a fitting metaphor to close out on.
2015: Universal Flame
The show must go on…
I made a mix for you when we first started dating that opened with Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” and I wanted to pay homage to that here. Recorded months before the late Freddie Mercury’s death, “The Show Must Go On” provides a particularly heartbreaking account of facing one’s own mortality.
Cynic’s “Carbon-Based Anatomy” is a beautiful interpretation of death and life as I have come to understand it. It’s not biblical or black and white; it’s about being something more than matter. We are human until we are not. There’s so much more beyond what we understand.
Drop the knife
leave your arms behind
just for a moment…
Calm the mind
the longing never ends,
not while you’re human
I finally started listening to Tom Waits. I still don’t get all of it, but the ones that hit me are strange and beautiful and heartbreaking. I included a Janet Jackson song as the penultimate track for old times’ sake, and closed out with Devin Townsend Project’s “Universal Flame.” More than any other song I have come across, “Universal Flame” captures that mix of pain and beauty and rage and despair and appreciation and hope that accompany the grieving process. It’s not just the words, but the way they are sung and the urgency of the music.
I won’t hold back anything
And I won’t care if you don’t hear
Because all I want is to be true
And say to all that I love you tonight
2016: Lightning & Snow
The last time I saw you, we had just split in two…
This mix begins and ends with cinematic overtures; kicking off with Hedwig and the Angry Inch and closing out with Battlestar Galactica. Unlike the previous mixes, I attempted to tell the story from the beginning and end it somewhere far beyond the present. I tried to capture the feeling of happiness before and after it was unceremoniously shattered. The way the entire trajectory of my life changed in a matter of seconds. In the months after, I had started listening to Ben Harper. I knew you were a fan and I was trying to feel closer to the things you loved. That’s how I found “Amen Omen,” the perfect articulation of that moment. That moment changed me; I emerged a different person on the other side of it. The moment that there was no coming back from.
What started as a whisper
slowly turned into a scream
In that first year, I listened to a lot of Nina Simone and Gossip. I remember obsessively playing “Some Nights” by fun in my first Brooklyn apartment, cringing through the auto-tuning and some of the cheesier lyrics. But that chorus. That chorus was exactly where I was at.
But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know anymore…
There’s a Janet Jackson track on here that reminded me of your song “Drifting Away.” I would have loved to hear your take on her new record. I also fell in love with your friend Audra Kubat’s song “Sparrow.”
Sweet love it passes
like water through these hands
and the more you try to hold the sparrow
the further that it flies away
I closed out the mix with “All Along the Watchtower.” You never got to see how Battlestar Galactica ended. You never saw the scene where Starbuck comes back from death and the key to earth is hidden in this song. It started with you calling me Punk; which became Starpunk, which I (less creatively) responded to by calling you Apollo. A story of two ill-fated lovers; whose endings felt strangely like our own.
There must be some way out of here
Said the Joker to the Thief…
2017: On and On…
If you could only see
the beast you made of me
This was the year I switched to making this mix on your birthday. I was in a different place and I wanted the mix to reflect that. This one bears a perspective that could only come with time. I had put “Howl” by Florence and the Machine on the first mix I made you. I’m repeating it here as a memento of the impact you’ve had, and continue to have, on the trajectory of my life.
Even though I was putting this mix together from a much happier place than I had been in years, it was still an outlet for me. A place to channel those harder moments and appreciate how far I’ve come. I also love a good slow, depressing song and I don’t see that ever changing. The common theme that emerged from this mix was perseverance. Continuing on in spite of what the world has handed you.
Even in death, our love goes on.
On the cosmic scale of things, our lives are short and fragile and small. Time moves ruthlessly in one direction and we are trapped in it’s acceleration. We are powerless to stop it, but we have a say in how it plays out. We have a say in who we love and who we choose to share moments with. In spite of the pain of losing you, I don’t regret sharing the time that we did.
There’s nothing that time can’t end…
I was biking into work one morning in the summer of 2017, music playing on shuffle from my phone in my back pocket when your song “On And On” came up. I realized then that it was the six-year anniversary of your death. It had snuck up on me, but I didn’t feel devastated by it. That felt new. I was reminded of a conversation I had with my friend Caroline in the first few weeks after you died. She had told me that your death didn’t mean our relationship was over. That I shouldn’t be afraid to talk to you. It was a challenging idea given that both you and I had long ago rejected the notions of heaven and hell, but I could allow myself to believe that there was something. In that way, it seemed fitting to close out this mix with one of your own songs. The soul of an artist lives on in their music. Your soul lives on in my memories.
It goes on and on and on…
2018: Extraordinary Way
And is it getting harder to pretend
that life goes on without you in the wake?
And can you see the means without the end
in the random frantic action that we take?
On your birthday seven years ago, I coordinated with a bunch of your friends and family as well as my own, to have a moment for you. It was my friend Kristen’s idea and I am eternally grateful for it. I went out on my rooftop in Williamsburg with a bunch of your pictures, letters, and a book you had given to me. I lit a candle and just talked. I felt you there with me. I wanted to let you know that I was going to be OK. I wanted you to let go of any guilt or shame that might be weighing you down. I wanted anything that was still bounding you to this earth to set you free. It was a chilly night, and towards the end of the hour, I started to shiver. Then the candle went out. I took it as a sign that you had heard me. It was your way of telling me to get out of the cold and go to bed. Somehow this song reminds me of that; the distance between us breached for small moments as I continue to live and love beyond the soul you left behind.
One of the things I struggle with to this day is immediately imagining the worst-case scenario. The trigger can be something as minor as an unreturned phone call, and suddenly my imagination will shift into overdrive. I think it’s driven by the realization that the worst-case scenario has happened, and there really isn’t anything that can stop it from happening again. This informed anxiety takes over until it can be convinced that it’s most wild ideas can be disproven. “A Slow Deep Panic” by AFI sets that onset of dread to a catchy melody.
Slowly it’s consuming me
Deliberate and deep
I can’t take this deeper panic
Teach me, teach me not to dream
There are plenty of darker songs on this year’s mix. I have the Evanescence song about never being able to go back to who you were after a traumatic event changes you. I have the Moses Sumny song about how lonely this world can feel. I have the Baroness song about recovery after trauma. Overall though, I think the tone is lighter and more hopeful than any of the previous ones.
I remember my friend Carmen doing a tarot card reading for me in the first few months after you died. One of the things she said that will always stick with me because it was true, was “You’re afraid that you will never be happy again.” It took me a long time and some false starts, but I proved that fear wrong. I was able to find love and let myself be vulnerable again. I am in a better place than I have been in years. I am writing up the last bits of this post from a hotel room in Nairobi, Kenya. I’m picking up a small part of your mantle and taking every opportunity I can to travel and see the world. Seven years later I am still finding inspiration and wisdom in your music. Losing you was devastating, but loving you is something I’ll always have.
On an ordinary day
the extraordinary way
you turn to me and say:
I believe in this.
And that makes me lucky
So much luckier than I ever thought I’d be.