March Sadness

I was watching The Walking Dead this evening, and at the end of a particularly heart wrenching scene there was this sad, haunting song. I looked it up and it’s Nicole Dollanganger’s “Chapel.”

I’ve never heard of this person or this song, but as I started tearing up, I began to think more extensively about music and sadness.

I met a writer once when I was 18. We’ve remained vaguely in contact, over the last ten-ish years, but one thing I remember knowing about him first was this deep well of sadness he seemed capable of tapping into. My favorite book of his, Other Electricities, is all loss and barren landscape, the depths of winter when the only thing moving is ghosts across frozen lakes, ghosts through the skeletons of frozen trees. I sent him a mix tape once {or a mix CD rather} in exchange for an unpublished version of an essay he’d read at my university the month before. I don’t remember what I put on that mix, probably a lot of embarrassing stuff because I was 18, but I remember some exchanges about music. How he told me about Low, the band, which is what he listened to a lot while writing Other Electricities. I listened to it and found that the song “California” was particularly sad. I played it later for my boyfriend and it became for us this song we could only listen to when we weren’t already so low that Low would bring us somewhere too dark to crawl out of.

This writer has been running a March Sadness competition this month wherein he’s provided the internet with a selection of sad songs chosen by “the committee,” which I think is him and his wife Megan. We’re down to the final four right now, but my best friend from high school and I have been engaging in a lively debate with each new round. Most people I became close to back when I was young, I became close to through a deep shared sadness. Not always sadness about the same things, but a same feeling that connected us. An ocean, much like the one Melissa Broder talks about in her new book, So Sad Today:


It’s been this way for me always. As long as I can remember. I have so much joy now it seems to seep from my body and into the air. A cloud of gratitude and bliss that colors everything I’ve been through in the last five years, for the most part. Or maybe what I mean is that I’ve become, in the last five years, so much more capable of accessing the happy. But if the human body is about 65% water, then my water is the Pacific ocean. The saddest ocean. It’s cold. It sleeps when I sleep. It is sometimes calm, sometimes tumultuous. It is a fact of me, even when it is sometimes a very distant fact.

I remember when I was 20, I met a boy who seemed as sad as me. I fell for him quickly. He was going to make me a mix. He told me it was going to be filled with sad songs because that’s who he was and what he liked. I told him I was relieved to hear it. We drifted apart before I got to hear whatever songs he strung together for me on a burned CD I would no doubt have listened to on loop for a year.

My high school best friend and I have been debating the relative sadnesses of Ander’s March Sadness bracket choices, of peoples’ votes, but also we’ve just been remembering all our sad songs and we’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a song sad. Is it just the tone? The lyrics? The biography of the musician(s)? The feeling the listener has when she thinks about the songs? Nostalgia?

My saddest songs have always been quiet. Slow. Usually there’s a lyric or two that stays with me and haunts me in moments of dispair. This song I heard tonight struck me just because of its tone juxtaposed with this sad scene in one of my favorite TV shows.

Maybe I’m only writing all this because I’m bored. Or because I’m on xanax. Or because I’m sad lately, not in a way that I can’t come back from. Not even in a way that lasts an entire day. Just in a way that, when I feel it, plummets me somewhere dark for a little while. I’m becoming more and more comfortable here in my sad. It is the me I know best. I’m still learning about the happy me. But the sad me is the truest me there is, even as it’s the me that’s becoming less and less common. I always tell my friends that if I ever again find a person I can love, they will have a sad heart, like mine, but they will be more often and outwardly capable of maintaining something else, a happiness, or at least an enthusiasm, hope, excitement, passion. Because I will need someone to pull me from these depths when the time comes, not someone who will sink me deeper because their sad, too, can be all consuming.

Here are a list of my sad songs. When I have a particular reason to find them sad, I will explain that reason. I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for me. For a record. For my friends who also care to think and talk about sadness and music and how we build memory inside songs, build identities out of them, share them with each other, share ourselves with each other. Instead of running from that sad ocean. Just being in it. All at once. These are in no particular order:

William Fitzsimmons “I Don’t Feel It Anymore:” I heard this song for the first time when I was visiting my boyfriend in LA once. One of the many trips I took out here to make our long distance non-relationship work. It was my last day in town. I wanted him to ask me to stay. I wanted him to want me and not just need me. This song came on somehow. Maybe someone sent it to me. An old friend. I listened to it in my boyfriend’s apartment. He was somewhere, but it was just me listening. I was alone. That was the point. That was the point for our whole five years. I was alone.

Bon Iver, “Blood Bank:” This EP came out moments before a suicide in my life. My first. This song, for me, was about family. Sickness. I was living at my boyfriend’s parents’ house at the time. Everyone was hurting. We didn’t know how much more loss lie ahead. I sat in that basement every day, listened to this song. You said ain’t this just like the present/to be showing up like this, is the only thing I posted online in the face of the loss. I wasn’t able to listen to this song for years. That secret we know/that we don’t know how to tell. One of the hardest, most haunting periods of my life, the lives of the people I love. This was the song I was listening to when I found out. It never will be anything but that song. That loss. Despite its beauty.

Jimmy Eat World, “Hear You Me:” This was my first sad song. I was sad well before this but I listened to punk music because more than sad, I was angsty. Then, when I was 14, these kids I went to school with, one of whom was one of the only people I would have called a friend in middle school, died in a car accident a couple miles from my house. That was 13 years and one month ago. Kids my age. They died. In the snow. In a mangled car. I listened to only this album for months. I listened to only this song, really. Again and again. For years when I’d hear it afterward (it’s in that awful movie The Butterfly Effect), I’d have a full blown panic attack, almost before I even realized what song it was. May angels lead you in/hear you me my friend/on sleepless roads the sleepless go/may angels lead you in.

Counting Crows, “Chelsea:” This song was never on any Counting Crows LP. It was on their Live Across a Wire album that came out between Recovering the Satellites and This Desert Life. I was in love with New York when I was a sad teenager. This was my dreaming of New York song. Romance and sadness. It’s good for everybody to hurt somebody once in awhile/the things I do to people I love shouldn’t be allowed. I wanted to live in New York away from people who were trying to get me to be happy. And let’s be honest, regardless of how you feel about the Counting Crows or Adam Duritz, he’s one of the saddest motherfuckers I’ve ever known. I used to read his blog posts when I was a kid. Like the early 2000s. They were about mental illness and heartbreak. Always.

Johnny Cash, “Hurt,” [NIN cover]: This song is just devastation. I focus on the pain/the only thing that’s real. And the fact that June died three months later, and Cash seven months, I mean fucking jesus christ. The NIN version of this was in Ander’s bracket. It didn’t make it till the end of the tournament though.

Phish, “Dirt;” My high school best friend put this on a mix for me the day I moved away from home to go to college in New York City. He gave it to me in the cemetery where he and our other friend worked. I got my heart broken for the first time a month later. I moved back home. I got a job in a restaurant. I fell in love with a 27 year old alcoholic. He used to play this song for me in the mornings when we’d both roll into work hung over at 5am to start the breakfast shift. “This is for you,” he’d say, and put it on. And if you ever think of me, kneel down and kiss the dirt. I still think of him every time I hear it, ten years later. And of my best friend. And who we used to be.

Slipknot, “Vermillion Pt. 2:” My very first boyfriend in high school who loved me more than I loved him tried to win me over by making me a really sad mix that was basically filled with songs that communicated to me how sad I made him. You’d think I’d have been super into this. You’d be right. We started dating soon after that. Eventually, he would be the first person to break my heart. This was the saddest song on the mix.

The Decemberists, “Leslie Anne Levine:” This is a song about a dead baby birthed in a ravine. My name is Leslie Anne/I’ve got no one left to mourn for me/My body lies inside its grave/In a ditch not far away.

Bon Iver, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” [Bonnie Raitt cover]: Maybe one of the saddest songs of all time about someone in love with someone not in love with them. The story of every romantic situation I’ve ever experienced, either as the sad lover or the detached one, depending. Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t/you can’t make your heart feel something it won’t. This song got me through the dissolution of my five year relationship. It would come on in yoga and I would just sob onto my mat, quietly, every time. The most recent time I listened to it was on the beach with my college best friend the day I decided to walk away from a friend who I loved too much to speak to anymore. She and I filmed ourselves listing to it and watching the sea. It’s one of the first times someone really just sat with me in my sadness, silent. It was everything.

Stars, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead:” One of the most recent people I loved, the man I sometimes love from my modern love essay, made me a mix to drive home to Colorado to a couple winters ago. He and I went through devastating breakups at the same time when we first met. I spent four hours listening to this perfectly constructed playlist he made for me the night before my departure, per my request. This song was maybe 10 or 20 songs in. It came on when I was driving I-15 North through Vegas past the Stratosphere. He and I had just read a book about a suicide off that building. I cried and cried as I drove past that beacon of capitalism and sadness in the dark. I texted him and said, “this song just made me cry,” and he said, “me too.” And because when someone meets me in my sadness, I read that only as love. Which is all the more painful sometimes, especially when I’m wrong. This song actually inspired the essay that eventually became my Modern Love essay. It’s nothing but time and a face that you lose/I chose to feel it and you couldn’t choose.

The Weakerthans, “Left & Leaving:” I used to walk around my high school as a sophomore listening to a mix I made for myself called Gray Day Mix. Self-explanatory. Except all my days were gray. This was one of the songs. In 2003/2004ish. This album came out in 2000, but because I heard it a couple years after 9/11, I always thought it was about my city, the city that had always been my escape plan, hurting with buildings gone missing like teeth. My city is still breathing but barely it’s true/through buildings gone missing like teeth/the sidewalks are watching me think about you/sparkled with broken glass.

There are some bands and musicians who are so sad I can’t choose one song. The National. Elliot Smith. Death Cab for Cutie. Bright Eyes. Port O’Brien. Smashing Pumpkins. Radiohead. Damien Jurado. Very early Nathaniel Rateliff, I’m talking circa 2006/2007, when he was just The Wheel. Modest Mouse’s lyrics can be so dark. I drink away the part of the day I cannot sleep away. Sparklehorse, aka Mark Linkous, who shot himself in the heart outside a friends’ home at age 47. We’ve talked about this stuff over on Ander’s March Sadness page. How the life and death of the artist in question affects our read of the songs as sad. Sparklehorse is an especially hard one for me, then. All the musicians who ended in suicide, really.

I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. So many of these songs obviously came from mixes people I love made for me. Music is my love language. Always has been. Always will be. Make me a mix and I will know immediately how I feel about you, and I will begin to imagine how you feel about me. For better or worse. These days I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music. Because I like to dance. And sing at the top of my lungs. Sad songs, the kind I like, rarely allow for that. But I come back to them always. Because they’re what made me. Connected me to love. Always did. Always will. Happy March Sadness, y’all. Go vote Jeff Buckley for me in Ander’s March Sadness tournament, even though his “Hallelujah” is most certainly not the saddest song of the original 64 in the tournament.

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