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Grieving in Concert: On GWAR and Sufjan Stevens

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    Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, David Sackllah discusses the recent tours of Sufjan Stevens and GWAR, and how both use the live music experience as a way to deal with grief. 

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    This past fall, GWAR embarked on a tour six months after the death of their singer, Oderus Urungus. Night after night, the band members donned grotesque costumes, spewed fake entrails across the crowd, and acted out a story in which they searched the galaxy far and wide for their friend of 30 years, trying to grasp the reality that they could not see him again.

    Six months later, Sufjan Stevens embarked on a tour behind Carrie & Lowell, his intensely personal new album concerning the death of his estranged mother. For these shows, Stevens has played home videos of himself and his mother, sharing these deeply private memories with thousands of strangers as a way to say goodbye. While many artists deal with death and grief onstage, few do so in as profound a way.

    Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

    There is a long history of musicians playing tribute concerts and the like to say goodbye through music. Countless more bands kept playing together long after losing a member, whether it’s TV on the Radio continuing on after the loss of bassist Gerard Smith to lung cancer or Gregg Allman keeping the band alive decades after the death of his brother (and band co-founder), Duane. The way GWAR approached the obstacle was innovative in a way that kept with their spirit.

    Oderus, born David Brockie, passed away from an accidental heroin overdose on March 23rd, 2014. While he was given a Viking funeral at August’s annual GWAR B-Q, his death was the focal point of the following GWAR Eternal tour. GWAR shows typically have loosely outlined plots, and this one was especially tragic, as the members of the band traveled across the galaxy searching for Oderus. Through a series of messy events, both figuratively and literally, the characters came to the conclusion that Oderus was somewhere out there, but that they would have to carry on without him.

    From the moment the band took the stage, it was apparent that this show would take on a weight far beyond that of a typical concert. Each time a member of the band cried out for Oderus’ whereabouts, it led to the realization that this was much more than a character in a story, but a man simply crying out for his dead friend of over 30 years. Beyond that, they would have to go onstage multiple nights a week and confront the death of a close friend in a crowd of hundreds.

    For those fans, it was a cathartic experience. Before the show in Houston last October, one straggling fan stumbled around to every group in the crowd, interrupting their conversation to shout “Oderus lives.” The message was not one of denial, but that of a makeshift family coming together to mourn the loss of one of their own. For the band, the experience had to be warming, to see crowds of devoted fans getting the chance to come together to say goodbye to one they loved. While any band that continues on after a member dies pays tribute by playing the songs they were a part of, few do it quite how GWAR did. By actively focusing on Oderus’ death night after night, they had to confront this deep loss repeatedly, much like how Sufjan Stevens confronted the loss of his mother on his own tour.

    Stevens has always told intricate tales of loss and grief in his music. As far back as 2003’s Michigan, his career has been filled with death, at times viewed through a religious lens. Throughout these songs, Stevens was a storyteller, crafting characters and serving as a narrator, hinting at personal tragedy but always behind a layer of obfuscation. What makes Carrie & Lowell so striking is that it strips away those layers, containing intimate, personal stories about Stevens’ own life. As he said in an interview with Pitchfork, the album was written about his relationship with his mother, who abandoned him at the age of 1, had intermittent contact with him throughout his life, and died of stomach cancer in December 2012. The album was specifically influenced by the three summers he spent in Oregon with her and his stepfather, Lowell Brams, and it refers extensively to memories of that childhood, his relationship with his mother, and her death.

    Onstage in Chicago this past April, Stevens played Carrie & Lowell with his band, using simple yet grand arrangements to give life to these songs to an enraptured audience of thousands. Sharing personal details of lost loved ones onstage is something artists do all the time. Stevens amplified that by portraying old home videos of himself as a child with his family, as well as home movies of his mother’s life, from childhood into her adult years. Stevens eulogized his mother and his own childhood onstage, ensuring that the room was filled with the ghosts of his past. To cope with his loss, Stevens invited the audience into the grieving process alongside him, paying tribute to his mother’s life by sharing some of his only memories of her to a crowd of strangers.

    Therapists have long used music as a part of grief counseling. The Certification Board for Music Therapists was established in 1983 to promote accreditation of the practice. In Music Therapy Handbook, Barbara L. Wheeler discusses how music therapy was used to assist the staff at a cancer center in dealing with the losses of their patients. Wheeler states, “The mutual significance and effectiveness of joint interventions with team members may be enhanced partly due to the power of music to hold and connect everyone present in the shared time and space.”

    Stevens’ and GWAR’s recent tours can be viewed in a similar light. By creating a communal experience for both the band members and audience alike, the artists formed a space to grieve and heal. Both artists went onstage each night throughout these tours, actively engaging with these tremendous personal losses. Stevens shares a part of himself he had always kept private, while GWAR celebrated the legacy of a friend with a crowd of devoted fans that cared about him almost as much as the band did. Neither is a conventional way to grieve or put on a concert. One cannot definitely say that the psychological effects of these tours are healthy for the artists in the long term. Grief affects everyone differently, and for Stevens and GWAR, sharing their loved ones with thousands of fans was the way they chose to say goodbye.

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