The second in the Death Waits duo, Death Waits II: The Writers features songs inspired by the lives and works of Emily Dickinson, Haruki Murakami, Isaac Babel, Samuel Beckett, Sylvia Plath, James Joyce, Dante, Paul Bowles, Seamus Heaney, and Albert Camus.
“Because I could not stop for Death —
“He kindly stopped for me — ”
The words send a shiver down one’s spine. Emily Dickinson wrote without an audience (for the most part), without — much — encouragement, without limit, and without censor. Most of what she wrote languished unseen until after her death. She captured the mundane and soaring impressions of a quiet life in Amherst, Massachusetts, with an eye and voice that let them sparkle darkly.
Death Waits II draws from her life and her poems “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “A Route of Evanescence.”
Runner, swimmer, music lover, cafe proprietor, and inhabitor of imaginary worlds that crowd out reality, Haruki Murakami’s prose seems straightforward enough at first. But as with spaghetti we quickly find that it eludes our attempts to tame it with the fork of our intellect. Murakami is not a product of the modern age, the modern age is a product of Murakami. We read him to find out who we are, or, at least, who we might be.
“I didn’t even have / A poor aunt of my own.
Huh, like lines from a song.”
— from “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story” by Haruki Murakami
Isaac Babel wrote of death, despair and brutality with a tender and lurid vigor that leaves us spellbound and repelled by the acts of man. A gentle, bespectacled intellectual, he followed the advice of his mentor, Gorky, and went out to learn to write by experiencing life. Babel joined the notorious cossack army during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920.
My First Goose is a story from the resulting Red Cavalry collection. Surviving the war and an order of execution (reward for his unvarnished reporting), Babel continued to live in the thick of life’s discomforts. Despite the constant threat of arrest he kept the company of the police — how else to understand them? he asked. Babel’s luck eventually ran out and, by consensus at least, it is agreed that he died in 1940 in a Soviet prison.
Pined for by Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce—his employer—Samuel Beckett was perhaps an odd target of romantic fascination. But perhaps not. In the words of Harold Pinter: “He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy — he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not — he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely.”
Otto Emil Plath, German born professor of biology, entomologist, and author of ‘Bumblebees and Their Ways’ died from advanced diabetes having mistakenly diagnosed himself with lung cancer and refused to seek treatment. (His friend had died of lung cancer, therefore, he reasoned, that’s what he must have). He was 55. His daughter, Sylvia, who would grow up to be a poet, was 8.
The song incorporates two lines from “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath — ‘I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead’ and ‘(I think I made you up inside my head.)’
Afraid for his daughter’s welfare (read, sanity), James Joyce brought Lucia to see the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung, who concluded that Lucia was falling into madness whereas her father was diving in.
To read James Joyce at length (I have inferred) is to witness the whirl of an intellect spinning out beyond another’s comprehension. Lucia, lovelorn perhaps after her rebuttal by Samuel Beckett, kept on falling. Beckett, despite, some say, using Lucia as unflattering fodder for his fiction, was one of the few to visit her after she was committed to a mental institution. She would remain in institutions until her death at 75 in Northampton, England.
Condemned to perpetual exile from Florence, his home, during a (lengthy) period of political upheaval, Dante Alighieri found solace, one might suspect, in the composition of his Divine Comedy, a literary masterpiece which helped unify into a coherent written language the many dialects that peppered the parts of the world we now know as Italy.
Dante, the outcast, tours the circles of Hell in his Commedia, spiralling in on a reunion with his beloved Beatrice, who spurns him on the page as she had in life. Having succumbed at an early age to an unrequited love for Beatrice, Dante found he couldn’t have her, even in his own book. Beatrice Portinari, the presumed object of Dante’s undying admiration, was the daughter of a banker, and, eventually, the wife of a banker.
When Bowles was an infant, he remembers, his father seized on the opportunity of a frigid New York winter storm (or two?) to set his son’s crib on the window ledge in the hopes of inducing a case of hypothermia and premature demise. No such luck for Bowles senior. His son went on to write searing prose, and, in his turn, to wreak his own milder tortures on his wife, Jane Bowles nee Auer, whose writing career faltered after being eclipsed by that of her husband. While less well known than other of his work, Bowles’s vivid, hypnotic Points in Time cannot be recommended too highly.
In an effort to explain his poetry as an escape from a terrible fear of silence that had always haunted him, Seamus Heaney looked to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.” While Heaney was still a young man, away at college, a car hit his four-year old brother and killed him. Heaney addresses his sadness and sense of loss in the poems “Mid-Term Break” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore.” He believed that poetry should and can be transformative, that each writing can bring into existence a new state of man.
Albert Camus believed that life had no intrinsic meaning. And yet he rejected existentialism (causing a split with his friend and fellow thinker Satre.) “Without law there is no freedom,” Camus wrote. He rebelled against nihilism, playing a leading role in the French Resistance against the Nazi’s during World War II.
The three verses (and bridge) of Existentialist Nostalgia refer to themes and feelings from three of Camus’ books — The Fall, The Plague, and The Stranger. The chorus refers to the fanciful idea that perhaps a part of him hankered for simpler times, smoking Gauloises with Satre at Les Deux Magots and regretting nothing.
Several years ago some of these songs existed in a rudimentary state. Bringing them to fruition seemed to require just a bit of expert arrangement and production for which I turned to Jimi Zhivago. If we’d known then that we would be spending hundreds of hours recording, rerecording, and for my part writing and rewriting the music that you hear today, working through bitter winters and sweltering summers in my basement(s) and various recording studios around New York, perhaps we would have thought twice about it. But we didn’t. Thank you, Jimi, for your fellow naivety, your boundless creativity, and your endless encouragement.
Production: Jimi Zhivago
Arrangements: Zhivago / Walker
All songs: Walker
Guitars, bass: Zhivago
Keyboards, piano: Zhivago, Walker
Hammond B3: Zhivago
Drums/percussion: Chris Heinz
Illustrations: Eric Collins