By The Landlord
“To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn’t even know how to be dead.” ― Milan Kundera, Immortality
“I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” – Woody Allen
“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word – life – it means forever and that's a mighty long time.” – Prince
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” – Bruce Lee
“We all shine on … like the moon and the stars and the sun ...” ― John Lennon
Hear this. A recent study found that regular attendance of live music events (once a fortnight) can prolong your life by as much as nine years. Who needs an excuse? And if that’s really the case, I’m going live until I’m 200. Goldsmith’s University behavioural scientist Patrick Fagan reported, from psychometric and heart-rate tests on the participants, an apparent 21% increase in well-being, feelings of self-worth up 25%, a rise in closeness to others (25%) and above all a rise in mental stimulation of 75% each time a gig was attended.
The study was also sponsored by O2, but still, while we can also wonder with other, similar headline-grabbing reports why, for example a regular glass of wine, or coffee, or tea, or even a regular beer can help prolong life, or prevent cancer and other disease, and the motivation for conducting the survey, it’s clear that music certainly stimulates the mind and body. Possibly drinking five pints, having a smoke, late nights or really loud volume on the ears aren’t ideal, but what really is happening is that friendly company is good for you, and we are very much designed to enjoy a unified event in the company of likeminded people. So, welcome back to the Song Bar, everyone.
So this week we’re not only looking the topic of long life (not UHT) , but also that eternal obsession with immortality – seeking it, or the paradox of achieving it. So that doesn’t just cover songs about gods, vampires, Dorian Gray or cryogenics, or many mythical stories on the subject, but what drives us to want it. If the meaning of life is death, why do we want to avoid it? As well as passing on our genes to children, songwriting itself is an attempt to achieve immortality. But in a nutshell, the secret to immortality is probably just being yourself as much as you possibly can, and making your mark, because there’s only one of you. And the secret to longevity is to fill your life with as many different experiences as possible, so life at least appears to be longer.
In the UK and in many other countries, centenarians are the fastest growing age demographic. In the UK alone there are almost 15,000, doubling in number since 2002. It’s both a wonderful and frightening thought. But how many are living active, fulfilling lives? As the baby-boomer generation, and then their children reach old age, we’re heading for an increasing care crisis. It reminds me of that scary vision in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels where we meet the struldbrugs, a form of humans in the nation of Luggnagg who, apart from a red dot above their left eyebrow, appear normal, but are in fact immortal. They don’t die, but they continue to age, wrinkle, and go blind. When they get to eighty “they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge”.
That’s one good reason, perhaps why the author Edgar A. Shoaff mischievously said: “Immortality is a fate worse than death.” Is that true, or was Edgar just showing off?
Yet is extreme longevity or even immortality, entirely unnatural? “Trees are as close to immortality as the rest of us ever come,” says the author Karen Joy Fowler. And in the natural world, there are some extraordinary examples. In North America, a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) has been measured by ring count to be 5,067 years old. An Asian Cypress of Abarkuh is estimated to be between 4,000 to 5,000 years old. And equally ancient, in Wales, the Llangernyw Yew (Taxus baccata) may be the oldest tree in Europe.
But there are also group colonies, of fungi or trees, that are counted as one organism and together reach far greater age spans. Pando, known as he Quivering Giant is a Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen) tree clonal colony that has been estimated at 80,000 years old, with trunks connected to each other by a single massive subterranean root system.
In the animal kingdom, giant tortoises are kings of longevity, with one in a Kolkata zoo in India thought to have reached the age of 225. But perhaps one creature that has genuinely stretched beyond longevity into immortality is a jellyfish. Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the immortal jellyfish, living off the coasts of Japan, can, if it survives predators and disease, revert, after sexual maturity, revert to polyps form and continue its life cycle all over again.
But what of humans? Since the dawn of time we’ve been obsessed with seeking immortality, or living as long as we can, despite the obvious evidence of a short and brutal life, all around us. Perhaps the key is in the cosmos, as explained by the great Carl Sagan: “The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
Immortality is something that runs throughout myth and religion, from Christianity’s rebirth to Hinduism’s reincarnation, and yet is its often paradoxical, as shown by that international symbol of the eternal gold braid, or the self-consuming snake:
The holy grail of immortality is of course, The Holy Grail. And that’s a tricky thing to find, especially if you haven’t prepped up on your general knowledge when you approach the Bridge of Death:
So of course lots of Bar visitors, living and departed, have escaped their inevitably fate to become forever enshrined on our records. We’ve already heard from him, but here’s Prince again, who says: “The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.” Good advice.
Marilyn Manson, looking a bit like death, to be fair, has his say: “For me, the key to longevity - and immortality, in a sense - has to do with transformation.” I guess that was the David Bowie method too, and it has certainly worked.
Salman Rushdie, ironically, in his book The Satanic Verses, describes a form of dangerous immortality in writing a book. ““A book is a product of a pact with the Devil that inverts the Faustian contract, he'd told Allie. Dr Faustus sacrificed eternity in return for two dozen years of power; the writer agrees to the ruination of his life, and gains (but only if he's lucky) maybe not eternity, but posterity, at least. Either way (this was Jumpy's point) it's the Devil who wins.”
The most revered, and perhaps written-about writer of the 20th century James Joyce mischievously describes a secret to his longevity by his method: “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.”
But on a more mundane level immortality all comes down the W-word. Here’s ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus, who tells us: “Look at The Beatles: how they struggled, how they worked in order to become such a good little band. And that's why they had such longevity and are still admired today.” And the director Mel Brooks is also here, to agree: “Immortality is a by-product of good work.”
Laura Marling clearly has the same goal: “I don't need to sell tons of records, but I want longevity. I want to make music for the rest of my life.”
Johannes Brahms clearly has achieve immortality with his compositions, but in his Life and Letters, he wrote: ““The only true immortality lies in one's children.” But are his works, in a sense, also his offspring?
You are what you make, I suppose, so perhaps the most sapient advice comes with a visit from the Dalai Lama, who smiles at us and has a cup of tea: “Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” That’s pretty fine advice for a music-sharing place like ours.
And so then, as a starter song, in another wonderful and frightening way here’s one by a departed artist, often difficult, but brilliant, who wrote a song about immortality, that, paradoxically of course helps maintain his immortality, but denies its existence: "“You try to change it. You try and arrange it. You try and shape it. But it’s immortality.. You cannot change it.” Farewell Mark. We'll remember you.
And so then, it’s time to hand the eternal golden braid over to you. Overseeing time, space and all musical knowledge, I’m delighted to announce that this week’s omniscient, timeless guru is a Song Bar regular of true loyalty and longevity - treefrogdemon. Put your songs in the comments below for deadline at 11pm on Monday (UK time), for playlists published on Wednesday.
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