Warning – if you don’t want to cry today, turn away now.
Indulge me. Grief is the great equalizer; Everyone will experience it, and all of us will hate it. We are all born, and we all die. Years from now everyone who ever knew your name will be dust, forgotten and unspoken. Yet, if we all realized the absurdity of the needless causes of grief – murder, war, hatred, then grief itself would recoil and become less of a leather-winged, human-condition encompassing wound, and instead be a mere arbitrary necessity. When we hurt, others hurt. When we kill, we kill ourselves. If we can truly empathize, then we will learn to avoid all causes of grief. If we all knew sadness every day, then there would be no more pain; if we were all depressed, maybe then we’d all be happy.
Nothing makes me so overwhelmingly sad as hearing music which evokes memories both beautiful, happy, and tragic. As much as I love listening to songs, writing songs, it’s always instrumental music from TV and movies which destroy me the most. I have deeply rooted issues with the passing of time, with not doing the things I used to do, and most importantly not being with the people I used to be with, as I suspect many of you reading this do. Listening to any of the pieces below (and many more besides) is always a heartbreaking experience for me, but it’s also cathartic – sometimes we need to scream and hurt or curl up in a ball. So, just for a change from my usual silly posts and ‘comedy-based’ musings, here are some pieces of music which are extremely important in my life, and which also happen to be some of the most beautiful, touching pieces I have ever heard – I may do a second list some time because there are so many. One final note – there will be SPOILERS below so if you haven’t completed and of the films or shows listed below, you may want to skip those entries.
I got the list down to twelve, but I couldn’t get it any lower than eleven, so here we are. Departures won the Oscar for best Foreign Film at the 2009 Academy Awards, but didn’t pick up a nomination for Best Music. Composer/God Joe Hisaishi creates a stunning soundtrack based heavily around the cello (which is an important instrument within the story), with several recurring motifs that recall several fragile moments from the film – love, grief, aging, guilt, loss are all covered in the story, and while the music evokes similar feelings it veers towards a more hopeful tone.The twinkling pianos, the swell of strings, and the lonesome cello in tracks such as Goodbye Cello, Shine Of Snow 1 and 2, and in the best example Beautiful Dead 1 and 2 tend to make me feel warm inside, but when watched alongside the movie never fail to cause tears to well up. Like most, if not all of the pieces on this list, they work perfectly as wonderful standalone pieces, but are all the more powerful if you’ve seen the movie/show. Here’s a link to Beautiful Dead 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TCpeGf3U58&index=10&list=PL93A4C925ACB5984C
People forget what a poignant show (and movie) Airwolf was. Lumped in with other successful action shows of the 80s such as Knightrider, The A-Team, Streethawk, etc it by far had the most heart and depth of storytelling. It’s a show about a man who believes that everyone he ever gets close too emotionally will die, and the series seems to suggest it’s all true – his parents died when he was young, his first real girlfriend died in a car crash, and then he lost his brother in Vietnam (MIA). The movie shows Stringfellow as a tragic figure, capable only of distancing himself from people and sometimes serenading the local wildlife from his cabin in the middle of nowhere, but when he falls for Gabrielle we know it isn’t going to end well. Sylvester Levay wrote the kick-ass theme music we all know, but he also created Gabrielle’s Theme, a piece so sad that it doesn’t even need us to remember her final scenes and death. It’s a piece that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever lost someone they love – it’s incredibly simple, short, and while many will balk at the synth original, if you can find yourself an orchestral version you’ll spend the rest of the day looking for hugs. Here’s a decent version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lm1npa_2DhI
Jesus, just reading the comments on the YouTube videos for this post is hurting me. A few of you may be thinking ‘when was The Simpsons ever emotional, but any hardcore fans will know the piece of music I’m about to talk about – one so tender and simple and fitting to the episode it ends. I have a looping of this track on as I write, but I have to keep stopping to think, remember, or wipe away a tear. It’s the specially written end credits for the episode Mother Simpson where Homer finally gets his mother back, only to lose her again. The episode explains much of Homer’s childlike character, and that final shot of him sitting on his car watching the stars while this music plays is one of the all time great Simpsons moments – it’s all the more tragic now that the show has become so butchered over the last decade and more that moments like this are forgotten. If the show had ended here, it would have gone down in history as one of the finest Television endings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6su0Jgwhb4
I’ll cheat a little here and include a few entries from a few films. I’ve always maintained (I may be the only one) that 007 is a tragic figure, not the misogynist killer, womanizing sociopath many think he is. There are a few moments throughout the Bond canon which highlight the fact that he wants to quit, to put it all away and think about himself and the person he loves, but the nature of his work and life will never allow him any stability or lasting relationship. My favourite Bond films feature these moments – For Your Eyes Only, Goldeneye, You Only Live Twice, Casino Royale to name a few. In Goldeneye we see this revelation quite clearly, with Eric Serra’s aptly named That’s What Keeps You Alone – named after Natalya’s response to James’s stoic ‘That’s what keeps me alive’. For a film that has a lot of metallic and industrial sounds in its soundtrack, this piece is a standout, shocking in its richness. Haunting in its honesty rather than any sentimental soaring of strings, it’s a brilliant, thought-provoking piece never far from my mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ebtj1hjFoYI&list=PLBYN0G9h_13HeGW1sFbrc2mvDMzdyZjQF&index=12 (nerd bonus – I always used to listen to this in tandem with the Resident Evil 2 game end credits theme as they felt very similar to me)
Perhaps even more obvious from a tragic standpoint is Casino Royale, which sees Bond lose someone he cares deeply about, like he did previously in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. David Arnold gives us old school Bond tones with a harder 21st Century edge, offsetting the melodic mystery of tracks like Solange with the painful piano and string hooks of Vesper and of course Death Of Vesper. This one doesn’t give me as many real life feels as others in this post, but it brings me back immediately to Vesper’s sacrifice and Bond yet again covering up his pain. When contrasted with the gorgeous City Of Lovers, those softer moments are brutal – such potential, hope, and love, crushed in a few inevitable moments. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upamEEDq2XM&list=PLIVs6sKfvkuQP6znMZFux3OF2g2gtRuix&index=14
My final Bond track is from Tomorrow Never Dies – not a film which is remembered for being all that sad, but Teri Hatcher’s character is another who pays the ultimate price for getting too close to the man we’re all supposed to want to be. The Last Goodbye, but particularly the swell in Paris And Bond (by David Arnold again) are both effectively tearjerking pieces which remind us of our own painful memories. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_s4S6ynvcg&index=5&list=PL3CD06F1ABB7B659C
King’s opus is probably my favourite book and adaptation, packed with characters you will fall in love with and whose deaths will leave a hole which will never be filled. WG Snuffy Walden’s guitar-laden, folksy, all American soundtrack is superb from start to finish, with perfect journey music – many of the tracks instantly fill my head if I am heading out for a walk when there is no-one else around, when the streets are empty. There’s that sense of swinging a bag over your shoulder and lighting out, of not looking back, but never forgetting. Moreover, we know the road ahead will be nigh-on impossible, that we, all of us as individuals, as a species, are ill-equipped to deal with what we are dealt, that there will be unforgivable, unimaginable anguish, grief upon grief, and joy so unspeakable that words become absurd – there will be a future we don’t want, we know that, but when it comes we do not give up, we do not break, we overcome, and we stand. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCYb3lX9g4g&list=PLAsfPvIbzO_sKDnDkI13NG9Zxg7dG-COD&index=12
Twin Peaks to me has always been a show based on horror, featuring some of the most frightening and upsetting scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Much of the show is rooted in comedy and in ironically twisting the over the top sentimentality of the TV soaps of the time, but in the real moments of sadness there is frustration, sadness, anger, fear, and perhaps most of all, confusion and detachment – two feelings that most people who have not been near death for a while, or ever, overlook. When someone dies, or even when someone leaves, our actions and the actions of those around us seem bizarre and alien, ghostly and purposeless. In these moments it is utterly impossible for the person suffering, or those on the sidelines to understand the loss, because none of us truly understand mortality. Badalamenti’s jazzy score is dreamlike, airy, slow, and soft and while it pulls at the heartstrings as well as any weepie, it is the understanding of the confusion – the understanding that we cannot grasp what has happened, that makes it stand out. There is a void, a literal, sickening void, and we can do nothing about it aside from skirt the rim and vaguely feel aware that the abyss beyond is somewhere we should not be. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQg5WUhMP90&list=PL413F2BBFBCDD6C43&index=2
Conan The Barbarian
If you know me via this blog, or if you know me in reality (whatever that is) then you must be aware of my love for both Arnie, and for Conan, more specifically the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack which is so obviously the greatest movie soundtrack ever made that any argument otherwise is akin to arguing with a bullet. While Poledouris fills every scene with bombastic, thunderous epicness, he creates a number of more emotional tracks, from Funeral Pyre to The Leaving to Orphans Of Doom. I think the most impactful for me, from a darker place, is Wifeing – even though it’s the love theme of the movie, it is rent with doom and blackened with inevitability. When we all finally give ourselves up to the dust, and when Crom decides he is finished with us, it would be the utmost reward to have a piece such as this played to our memory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMxamoHkAbY&list=PL6559658E698E288D&index=15
Inevitable, eh? Brad Fiedel’s score for both T1 and T2 are distinct from other movies of their period, and from each other, though both stem from an industrial, darkly technological place. While we all know and love the main themes, which deserve to top any movie music list. Instead, I’m going to pick two other pieces, a piano track from The Terminator which is arguably the track which set me out on this path at an early age, and the intro from T2, the true intro. Yes yes yes, the piano track is basically the main theme readjusted for piano, and yes yes yes it’s a sex scene, but it’s essentially the reason for the story existing – a love story and a story of survival, survival of a couple who barely know each other but are already deeply in love, and the survival of our species. The way the track, and the scene start out, with Reese admitting his feelings (a struggle for a man who only knows pain and death), the realisation that he travelled through time to be with Sarah, and the soft, single piano notes slowing morphing, liquid metal like into melodies, until Sarah joins Reese by the window as the familiar theme comes into view and they tumble into pain. Sometimes I think I’ve never heard a more perfect piece of music, especially when played to that scene. It hurts every single time I hear it, and my love of it only grows. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaUomynGeao&list=PL5C555376D7A573AD&index=13
My pick from T2 is difficult to describe and difficult to find as it doesn’t appear on the movie soundtrack. In the link below it starts at around 23 seconds. When I say it’s the intro scene, people will likely think of Sarah’s monologue over the future war scene, before the glorious, fire-scorched title sequence begins (God, even typing that makes me want to scream ‘T2 is the best film ever’ and watch it again). That’s not what I’m talking about – before that, the very first scene, of traffic heading in and out of LA, and kids playing on swings – it’s roughly 30 seconds long, and the music takes up slightly less than that. The music is basically six notes, and can barely be called music, but it is awesome – I must have listened to it hundreds of times, and watched those 30 seconds over and over, to the point that I often see those cars when I close my eyes. It seems like a throwaway scene, but to me it conveys a billion feelings – one of which is the loss of civilization and humanity. There’s something more otherworldly about those cars than there is in the juxtaposed image of a skeleton sitting in a nuked shell of a car which comes moments later. The message is obvious, showing the before and after effects of war, but it may be the most poignant example of this ever filmed, and those dreadful, plodding six notes, are so dark and bleak that Fiedel and Cameron seem to be saying that there’s no hope for us. Obviously the rest of the film is one big hope-fest, but that opening minute or so it absolutely crushing to me. When that scene eventually merges with the title sequence, I get shivers every time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4hY9BdG6SA
The Incredible Hulk
No list such as this would be complete without The Lonely Man by Joe Harnell, possibly the SADDEST piece of music ever written. Now, I’ve loved this theme my whole life, long before Family Guy ripped the arse out of it. The original Hulk series and the accompanying movies with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were a massive part of my childhood, and I already have my girls watching them (they may call it ‘Greenboy’ instead of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ but they get it). Hulk will always be David Banner to me, and Banner will always be Bixby. This piece is so haunting and soul-rending that only a crab would fail to tear-up while listening to it. It’s all the more effective now, knowing about Bixby’s life and feeding your own experiences into the notes; it isn’t just about a man who can never possibly fit in, and will never be able to love or escape his demon, but it’s about all of us, the roads we travel, and the people we must leave behind whether we choose to or not.
Shannon. Boone. Ana Lucia. Charlie. Locke. Rousseau. Alex. Michael. Daniel. Juliet. Sayid. Sun. Jin. Jack. Repeat those names while listening to Life And Death by Michael Giacchino. Remember what they did, the good and the bad. Remember the smiles they gave each other and the ones you unashamedly gave in response. Replace those names with the friends and family you lost. Never forget. This track, and its variations are all extremely evocative for those who watched the show from start to finish, but as a standalone piece of music it blends all of the feelings and responses we endure from the point of life slipping away, through all of the memories and the shock, and finally into the acceptance and acquiescence where the pain is never dulled but where we may learn to smile on occasion rather than hollow ourselves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twHXrNtG-7c
Throughout his run on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Christophe Beck wove some spectacular music to chart the battlefield of adolescence and the tribulations of adulthood. Each episode is packed with music, incidental and otherwise, and while most of the music showcases and enhances the comedic and action scenes, it is his reflective and emotional creations which do the most damage. In Season 2, the Buffy and Angel love theme would pop up infrequently during a particularly romantic moment, always sounding haunting and in hindsight so gut-churning that it’s a wonder none of us knew at that point that so much would end in heartache. Once it gets the full rendition as Close Your Eyes in the Season Finale, anyone who isn’t a quivering mess on the floor must have fallen asleep during I, Robot…You, Jane and never emerged again. But before we get there, lets recall some of the other tracks which I listen to at least once a week as a punishment and cleansing. Waking Willow (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rhg8WOy3Cs) also appears in the Season 2 Finale (possibly the greatest two-parter in TV history) and is strong enough on its own to be the main tearjerker theme for any series with its lilting piano seguing into string middle. Move immediately from that to Remembering Jenny (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NjXEDyzFsk) and I lose all power to type until the track has ended. It’s such a simple piece, made all the better (worse?) by the fact that Anthony Head provides the male vocals. It’s the sound of a funeral, the funeral of a life stolen, with all the bitterness and hopelessness one would assume to find. I’ve always said that, had Buffy ended at The Gift then it would have been a perfect, apt place to finish. Then again I’ve said the same about Graduation Day. Sacrifice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMktTe3VlE0), which sees the return of Christophe Beck, closes the final episode of Season 5 (again I’ve listened to it twice already while trying to type this) is a flawless piece of music and another flawless example of how music can mirror and enhance what is happening on-screen as Buffy gives a final speech, hugs her sister goodbye, and leaps to her death to save the world.
But back to Season 2’s Close Your Eyes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5C92qy7mX8). My words to describe my feelings for this are futile. Is it the best piece of instrumental music I’ve ever heard? Probably. Does it reduce me to tears at the slightest provocation? Yes. It will always kill me and I’ll always come back for more. All of the many dark moments in this silly thing we call entertainment I recall with this track in my mind, and many of dark moments I’ve experienced in reality are sombered (unborn words are the best), purified, increased, and beaten back by it. It’s a piece that deserves to be heard by millions more than those who know it, but it is of course best experienced by watching Buffy to get the full impact.
Let us know in the comments below which pieces of instrumental music break your heart, and which tracks have brought you through tough times. Remember folks, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me.