death, laughter and sufjan stevens


Are you familiar with the music of Sufjan Stevens? No? Well, let me tell you something: It is beautiful and strange, deeply spiritual and just as deeply morbid. And I love it. But then, I love ALL that fun stuff. Beauty! Strangeness! Spirituality! Morbidity! Aren’t those the four classical elements? Forget fire-water-air-earth, which always struck me as insufficient, anyway. There was never any mention of chocolate.

But back to Sufjan. My kind of boy. He played the Palace on Wednesday night, cranking through the entirety of his latest album — “Carrie & Lowell,” a tribute to his late mother — plus a sampling of older music. Lots of grief and death. Lots of weird, airy poetry. All of it was beautiful, strange, spiritual and morbid, performed with a mesmerizing light show against a backdrop of projections on tall, pointed screens resembling the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.

It felt like church, only more so. People actually talk in church. For the first 45 minutes of Stevens’ performance, no one said a word. Including Stevens.

Finally, he spoke: “Thank you.” And then, for the next 10 minutes, he unleashed an exquisitely calm Soliloquy of Death itemizing his every childhood memory of a deceased person, animal or plant since age 7. He began with his 97-year-old great-grandmother — dolled up in her coffin like a “homecoming queen” with an odd, matronly air about her — and went on to include a terminally ill cactus, a rat with tumors and an aunt who died of a broken heart. It was bizarre. It was brilliant. It went on forever. At some point during this deadpan (what else would it be) litany of the dead, I started laughing uncontrollably and just couldn’t stop. I wasn’t the only one, but I was probably the loudest.

I think I may have offended the people sitting in front of me. If so, I would like to issue an apology.  Also, an explanation: When it’s not reducing me to cataracts of saline, death cracks me the fart up. Laughing at death is my way of coping with its omnipotence, its omnipresence, its ruthless unpredictability; it’s like some viciously fickle feudal lord holding sway over the bumpkins. I hate that it strikes without warning or pity. I hate that it can’t be swayed. It’s tried hard and repeatedly to ruin my life, and it’s come close. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. I wouldn’t let it. That’s the only control I have over its power: to keep living, and laughing, in spite of it.

Losing someone you love is no funny business.  No ha-ha’s anywhere in the moment that doorbell rings. Yet the absurdity of everything that follows — from the dolled-up weirdness of the embalming to all those surreal exchanges with the funeral people, the money people, the government people, the lawyer people, the people people — puts a darkly comic spin on the aftermath. Sooner rather than later, you start laughing at it all because you have no choice. And then you just keep laughing. Because, really, what the hell! Death doesn’t go away, and neither does the comedy surrounding it. May as well laugh at the damn thing.

So, yeah, I guess I guffawed a little too loudly for the prayerful atmosphere of a Sufjan concert. But I suspect Stevens himself would understand, given his familiarity with the topic and his quiet insistence in talking about it. As he observes incontestably on one of his latest songs, “We’re all gonna die.” Sure are.

So maybe, on some level, he’s laughing, too. Beautifully. Strangely. Spiritually.

One thought on “death, laughter and sufjan stevens

  1. Pingback: Nippertown!

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