Music and Truth
I’VE RECENTLY DISCOVERED A RELATIVELY NEW SINGER-SONGWRITER ON THE SCENE, a man named Mike Rosenberg, who is better known by his stage name, Passenger.
He’s explained that his nickname describes his approach to songwriting: He’s a passenger going through life, describing what he sees out his window. And what he sees is — or, more precisely, his powers of perception are — extraordinary. His breakout hit, “Let Her Go,” sold more than a million copies back in October, so it’s early in his career, but I think he is pointed toward greatness.
Rosenberg’s lyrics are both spare and exact, describing characters and situations with no wasted words. His voice suits his material well: it has a kind of rough-sawn sweetness that finds stark beauty and redemption in his often bleak subject matter.
Here is a snippet from his song “Riding to New York,” which he wrote after meeting a man in Minnesota who had been diagnosed with emphysema and was riding his Harley back to New York to essentially say goodbye to his family. This is the man describing his mission:
The doctors told me that my body won’t hold me,
My lungs are turning black.
Been a Lucky Strikes fool since I was at school and there ain’t no turning back.
They can’t tell me how long I’ve got,
Maybe months but maybe not,
So I’m taking this bike and riding to New York.
Cause I wanna see my granddaughter one last time,
Wanna hold her close and feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine.
Wanna see my son and the man he’s become,
Tell him I’m sorry for the things I’ve done,
And I’d do it if I had to walk.
Oh, I’m taking this bike and riding to New York
There is something about that line, “I’d do it if I had to walk,” that reminds me very much of my father’s last months.
He died of cancer almost 20 years ago, and his final months were filled with reconciliation and peace, before the haze of pain and morphine took its toll and his voice. The differences I had with him that had once seemed so important, the things that had kept us apart for years, seemed to dissolve like old varnish under steel wool, and we could talk with a stripped-down honesty that the awareness of death brings. We had some of the most clarifying talks of our entire relationship in those months, as I sat by his bed.
It takes a very knowing, even brave, observer to see the state of mind that one finds oneself in when one is dying. It’s not a fun thought for any of us, but Rosenberg looks and, out of compassion, writes a song for that dying man, and it is important that we see him and recognize our own fate in his story.
I think all of us, especially those of us with creative gifts, could stand to do that more – to see and honor what is best and true in our own stories and the stories of those we touch.