[JPL] Notes to Soothe the Savage Cells

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Sun Jan 11 16:24:30 EST 2009


January 11, 2009

Notes to Soothe the Savage Cells

In this age of iPods, the digital download and the Web, we can¹t resist
playlists ‹ composing our own and eavesdropping on those whipped up by
others. They¹re like salty snacks for our ears. The art of the playlist,
though, can be more profound than just homing in on the 10 best songs to
kick-start a Saturday night blowout.

We create them for road trips out West (and back East), for romance and
abstinence, for funerals and baptisms. Sometimes, it seems, a life lived
without a soundtrack is no life at all. I¹m currently being treated for an
advanced case of prostate cancer, and while the hormone shots and the
radiation sessions are essential, they don¹t tell the whole treatment tale.

I¹m a music-obsessive, and I can¹t imagine having prostate cancer without
listening to just the right music to complement my moods: joy and sadness,
anger and gratitude, fear and doubt. (For the record, I also dose myself
with long hikes and vintage slapstick by the likes of the Three Stooges and
the Little Rascals.)

There¹s always a cornucopia of news articles about cancer ‹ treatment
breakthroughs, clinical studies, survival rates ‹ but there¹s much less on
how to live with cancer, whether you¹re the patient, a family member or a
friend. So, here¹s my playlist of music to have cancer by. The 10 recordings
shade toward blue, bluer and bluest, but I believe that each time I slide a
disc into the player (I¹m old-fashioned that way), I do so in optimism and

³Hallelujah² by Jeff Buckley

Buckley¹s supernal voice nails this secular hymn written by Leonard Cohen.
It all pivots, though, on the sigh that rushes from Buckley before he sings.
That deep sigh says this world is sometimes too much to bear. But, even so,
we are obligated to suck in our breath, even in pain, and then proclaim,

³Moanin¹ at Midnight² by Howlin¹ Wolf

Howlin¹ Wolf is my favorite singer. Period. When Sam Phillips, whose many
other discoveries included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis,
first heard Chester Arthur Burnett of West Point, Miss., he said: ³This is
for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.² On ³Moanin¹,² the Wolf¹s
primal howl is full of gravel and travail as snarling hell-hounds sniff out
his trail.

³School¹s Out² by Alice Cooper

³School¹s Out² is the essence of raucous teenage innocence and arrogance. In
this song ‹ ³We can¹t even think up a word that rhymes² ‹ Cooper perfected
his brand of grinning, pop-rock anarchy. I turned 15 in 1972, the year
³School¹s Out² crashed the airwaves, and its martial drumbeats and buzz-saw
guitar made me feel as if I¹d live forever. Still do.

³Hurt² by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was a genre of one. And in the late autumn of his life, he got
to sing his own elegy. ³Hurt,² written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails,
came out in 2002, the year before Mr. Cash died. His voice is a glorious
wreck here, all rasps and croaks ‹ ³Everyone I know goes away in the end.² I
can¹t help but be stung by the hard-earned wisdom of Mr. Cash, a singer,
whom, literally, I¹ve listened to since I was born.

³The Weight² by the Band and the Staple Singers

³The Weight² reminds us that we can¹t stand alone for long in this world,
that we¹re supported by community. When I listen to this version ‹ Mavis and
Pop Staples ferrying the song toward the sacred ‹ I¹m grateful that once I
learned I had cancer, family and friends looked me in the eye and said, ³Put
the load right on me.²

³Leviathan² by Mastodon

The best heavy metal ‹ Meshuggah, Metallica, Mastodon ‹ slashes through the
cancer-induced fog sometimes brought on by the mental weight of my diagnosis
and the fatigue caused by my treatment. Its fury snaps me back to life like
the electrodes clamped to the skull of Frankenstein¹s monster. Mastodon¹s
album ³Leviathan,² their head-banging take on ³Moby-Dick,² lets me imagine
Ahab as a crazed guitar-shredder lashed to that great white whale, even as I
am lashed to prostate cancer (though I don¹t plan on going down with the

³Kind of Blue² by Miles Davis

Well, that¹s what I am ‹ kind of blue. And what an album to have the blues
to: Bill Evans on piano, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, John Coltrane on
tenor, with Davis on trumpet. I can¹t sleep some nights, and this album¹s
muted and modal compositions are perfect for those pinot noir hours.

³Soul Man² by Sam and Dave

When cancer, that repo man of biology, raps at the door and threatens to
take back your body, some days all you want to do is rock and sway as Sam
and Dave preach ‹ and become a soul man.

³Sweet Old World² by Lucinda Williams

As Williams wags her tear-stained finger at a suicide ‹ ³See what you lost
when you left this world² ‹ the weary angel in her voice inoculates me
against the easy despair that cancer can cause. Her lyrics remind me that
I¹m not near ready to give up ³a sweet and tender kiss² or ³the sound of a
midnight train.² This tune is as bittersweet as the sugar-spiked polio
vaccines of childhood.

³I¹m So Lonesome I Could Cry² by Hank Williams

³Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly ....²

³Lonesome² is the best country song ever recorded. It lives at that
difficult and holy confluence of despair and solace, and ol¹ Hank sings the
hell out of it. I listen repeatedly to this song because I¹m still a country
boy (born and raised in New Hampshire), and Hank¹s fine rural Alabama pining
is an absolute balm for a hick kid trying to heal. I cherish the Psalms,
too, and ³I¹m So Lonesome I Could Cry² gets my vote for 151st Psalm.

Dana Jennings, a Times editor, is the author of ³Sing Me Back Home: Love,
Death and Country Music.² He also writes weekly posts about his cancer for
the Well blog, at nytimes.com/well.

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