Tag Archives: music

J and K in the '80s

Give It Away

When my father-in-law died a couple years ago, I saw my wife struggle with every new holiday. Every special event brought with it a memory shared with her dad. Living with grief may become more manageable as time passes, but it also seems most intense on the one day dedicated to celebrating a life. When there are no longer candles to add to the cake, a birthday can become the lightning rod for accumulated sorrow.

For most of his life, my birthday greetings to Jeff Poehlmann were belated. My memory is reliable, but for whatever reason my brain locked in February 26th as Jeff’s big day. Or the 22nd. Or the 12th. Apparently, every day in February had the potential to be his birthday, and I usually got it wrong. Even back in the years where he hosted a party as a clear indicator, I figured his parents had just arranged it on a different day out of some convenience. It really wasn’t until Facebook offered regular reminders that it finally sunk in:

Today, in fact, is Jeff’s birthday.

Since attending a memorial gathering of friends from his hometown in early December, I have looked for things to distract me from the biggest feelings. At first, it wasn’t possible. I listened to the music he left behind on repeat for days. The necessities of the holiday season, however, coupled with a complicated move across town gave me reasons not to think too much about my grief. It flared up from time to time, but there was always something in front of me that needed attention, allowing me to procrastinate a little longer with the hope it would evaporate as I multitasked.

Today, however, is the day dedicated to celebrating Jeff’s life. Facebook shows me his picture, as if he were still here, and I can no longer set aside my grief and my guilt.

All you have is just a kind word

Last night, I ate dinner at a Buddhist monastery here in Indiana. After food had been served and veggies eaten, a celebration of the Lunar New Year began. Before the visiting Mongolians sang and danced, some locals with guitars made use of the microphones.

One of those songs was credited to Johnny Cash, one of Jeff’s favorite performers. Unearthed from the 5th track of his 55th album, it begins:

Well, I woke up this morning I had something on my face.
It was still there when I brushed my teeth, still there when I shaved.
I showed it to my neighbor, and he broke into a grin.

I gave it away. I gave it away.

Already braced for Facebook’s inevitable reminder, when I heard those words—first written by Tom T. Hall about the time I met Jeff in the 1970’s—my grief re-entered the room.

Much of my online time this weekend was spent digging for past birthday greetings on Facebook and email to remind myself how J and I recognized each other’s special day. The messages were mostly brief and filled with well-wishing of health and happiness. Occasionally, we would express a deeper gratitude for keeping each other in our lives, but they were mostly limited to a sentence or two meant to say simply, “I remember you.”

Jeff also made a point of replying to those messages. He would reflect the well-wishing back to me and turn his day into a shared one that became special for me, too. Looking through emails and Facebook threads, I notice how often this happened elsewhere, on the other special days of the year. Jeff’s way of being in the world was to fill it with kindness.

Smiles don’t cost money. Give it away, give it away.
Maybe all you have is just a kind word you can say.

Give it away, give it away.

The most Jeff song ever.

Love Someone Sometime

Over the years, I watched apprehensively as others around me coped with the death of close family. Though the parade of years has taken grandparents, uncles and a few friends from me, the people I have known the longest in my life—my parents and sister—are still alive, as are the other people who have shared my home. As I suffer my grief over losing a friend, I can only imagine how exponentially more intense it is for Jeff’s family.

Today, as I celebrate his birth, I am compelled to confront his death. It isn’t easy for me.

The thing that helps me the most in such struggles is to reflect on who this man was and list the traits that defined him, both flaws and strengths. I close my eyes and imagine these traits as tangible gifts, ones that can be lifted from his body to take home and use. From my friend now, I take the biggest gift—Love. To love more is the way I choose to honor and remember Jeff.

Although it helps me to think of it that way, Jeff’s love is not really something I took. He gave me this gift a long time ago. He gave it to everyone he met, and to those he never knew. In his best Johnny Cash, he gave it away.

Love someone sometime. Give it away, give it away.

Especially today.

Screenshot of the Spotify playlist

Wish You Were Here

Last weekend, I went back to the town Jeff and I shared as kids.

Woodstock is quiet and comfortable, with a picturesque central square ringed by historic buildings. On every block, a house holds some faint memory that at once fills me with glee and melancholy. My hometown invites me to return, but it never seems to allow me to go back.

The occasion of this trip was to celebrate Jeff’s life. Our friends gathered across generations for hugs, laughs and tears. For my part, I had many things I intended to say but struggled to find those words when I finally stepped to the microphone. Later, when the crew moved north to a karaoke bar, I nearly drowned in a flood of memories while crossing the Square. Instead, I walked alone on rainy streets for hours until it became tomorrow.

To prepare for this night, Jeff made a playlist. In the din of conversation, however, his music became background noise whose message was overlooked. I wanted to listen to the playlist on the long ride back to Indiana, but I couldn’t find it on Spotify. When Jeff’s brother sent me the link that night, I couldn’t stop listening.

Music is a conversation

I don’t know if the order was important, but the first song in Jeff’s Funeral Mix is the Pink Floyd classic, “Wish You Were Here.” That recording begins with someone tuning channels on an old radio, the sound initially only flowing into my right ear. Once the familiar riff begins, the song switches to stereo and doesn’t let go. It was as if Jeff was teasing me, making me think my headphones are broken only to let me off the hook before the joke went too far.

From the start, I could hear Jeff speaking through every song.

Back in August, just two months before he died, Jeff wrote about the importance of curating playlists. For the times when his family, friends, and support group were not available, music was his companion:

Half the therapy is in constructing the lists themselves, some of which I have not even had time to really listen to. But I know the tunes and I know why they are included in each list, and just knowing that, having that familiarity, sometimes feels enough.

I had this in my mind as I listened to the music Jeff had assembled. The selections are eclectic, mixing rock with country, rap, jazz and novelty songs. Jeff chose every one of them for reasons that are not always obvious, reasons that I may never understand. Together, the songs become a long conversation, like the kind that unfold on distant car rides or during midnight phone calls.

Even without the luxury of a fresh take on his world, Jeff left us a full half-day of thoughts and feelings packed into his playlist. In one click, I can shuffle his songs into a new order and let him talk to me about something new.

Sometimes, Jeff tells me it is time for him to go. Later, he comforts me. There are Monty Python skits and children’s lullabies for humor and whimsy. He speaks directly to his family in both overt and subtle ways. Sometimes, he shares what he is feeling about leaving us, or about playing with the bad cards he was dealt. For songs with no clear message, I am left to speculate what Jeff might have told me about his music if I had listened sooner.

We have time for love

Not being a Spotify guy, I have recreated the playlist in Apple Music for my own convenience. Not everything translated across platforms, though, so a handful of songs are missing or differ from the exact version Jeff chose. I also added two songs of special importance to me, when I think of my friend.

The first is Louis Armstrong’s contribution to the James Bond canon, “We Have All the Time in the World.” It harkens back to one of our first projects, a short film at a camp at Indiana State University in 1985. This song was the joke, moving slowly and sweetly as young Jeff frantically scrambled on screen to avoid being late for class. As with most of my projects, I didn’t quite finish, but the memory of our collaboration endures.

The second is a song from a musical I have never seen. I heard it by chance on the drive south out of Woodstock, on one of my wife’s playlists that we chose when I couldn’t find Jeff on Spotify. Ben Platt’s “For Forever” is sung by a lonely kid who imagines a close friendship with a classmate he didn’t really know. I cried as I listened, both for the strong bond the lyrics describe and for the underlying guilt echoing in the context of the plot, making me question the many times I should have been a better friend.

With my two additions, I listen to Jeff’s playlist over and over because I need our conversations to continue, even if they are imagined. I need Jeff to tell me that it was time for him to go, but it will be OK. I want him to share his pain and then crack a joke or find a way to laugh at his circumstance in the next song. I want him to express love for his family and for me, and I want him to do so for forever.

213 songs can be rearranged in many ways. With this gift, Jeff has invited me to an infinite number of conversations with him, each consuming up to a half day. That’s more than enough love to last a lifetime.