A Mountain of Grief: Notes on Goats @ Town Ballroom

How music heals & connects us to those we’ve lost 

Music has healing powers.

There is scientific evidence and about a billion songs that have saved someone’s life in one capacity or another. That may sound dramatic but it is accurate in my life and the sudden grief I felt over the summer when my ex-boyfriend passed away. I know music is healing because I only started feeling better recently, about six months after his passing. I benchmark ‘feeling better’ in a million tiny ways: I started showering regularly again; I began running and going to Pilates studio without crying during the hour-long session; I stopped denying myself food; I accepted visits with friends and I actually conversed instead of just sitting there with them; I picked up the phone when my brother or parents called instead of letting it go to voicemail;I had a big belly laugh. Most importantly, I put a record on. 

My friend Nick once told me that the one thing that I am pretentious about is music and it is still the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me. I am pretentious about a lot of things, to be fair. I make no apologies for liking literature, talking politics, wanting to look and smell nice, travelling to new places as much as I can, and constantly wanting to learn about things I do not know. I often joke that I wish I could just get doctorate after doctorate – but I have enough student loans to pay off. I am as vain as my pure white cat named Hemingway. What else would I name him? I studied English at the University at Buffalo and graduated with honors. See? I am very humble. Humble brag, maybe. I make no apologies for working hard for everything in my life, including managing my mental illness. 

Music transcends everything else because a song, album, or band becomes a singular experience for every listener. For me, it is Bob Dylan’s lyrics on ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ – especially the lines ‘Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast/Oh, but what a shame if all we’ve shared can’t last/I can change, I swear…” Runners up are Eddie Vedder singing a solo acoustic number with a ukulele at one of the eight Pearl Jam gigs I’ve seen all over the USA and Canada with my equally music crazed older brother Geoff, or Mick Jagger’s longing tone on ‘She’s a Rainbow’ especially when he croons ‘She comes in colors everywhere/She combs her hair/She’s like a rainbow!’ 

For my ex-boyfriend, it was a band called The Mountain Goats. I still cherish the Christmas vinyl he got me – We Shall Be Healed – ironic right? I don’t think so. I take everything as a sign from him since he’s been gone. It is the only way I know how to cope with my insurmountable grief. He was my biggest cheerleader in so many ways, especially my writing. He told me in a gentle and valid way that I use too many parentheticals. He told me I needed to own my writing and parenthesis made me seem uncertain of my opinions. 

Just for him, this article contains zero. I own every word. Each one is for him and the beautiful memories I will always cherish. 

My house was quiet from June until last September when I walked out to my living room from my home office and decided to turn on We Shall Be Healed. I had been listening to his playlists on repeat on Spotify for a few weeks before that, but I wasn’t connecting to anything I was listening to – just playing them to feel close to him. I also incessantly played his text tone, a special one called ‘ding’ which used to make my heart race with excitement for the year and a half we dated. I listened to videos on my iPhone so I could hear his distinctive and soothing voice.

Since I am pretentious about music I belonged to BMG music club in high school and own about 700 compact discs that I wish would magically metamorphosize into vinyl. I refuse to get rid of them until that happens. There is nothing quite like analog sound. Any music collector will tell you this to make them feel better about their addiction. It is true though. The only thing that is taxiing about my vinyl addiction is getting up to flip the record, and making sure to brush off dust and cat hair before the needle hits and plays. 

My vinyl collection is a mere couple hundred, but is ever-growing. My brother and sister-in-law exclusively purchase vinyl for birthday and holidays. I don’t give them any other ideas. I write a short list so that I am ‘surprised,’ but Geoff will often grab me an LP from a gig in NYC or Hoboken (where they live) without asking me, because our taste is similar. My biggest concern when I left Batavia to study English and Spanish at UB at age seventeen was if all my CDs would fit in my tiny college dorm room. Maybe that is why I dropped out so much – my priorities were not where they should have been for such an expensive endeavor. 

I played violin from kindergarten until I graduated high school. My brother played cello. I still think we should have gone the Arcade Fire route instead of the corporate America one, but I digress. My mom played piano and there is still one I sit down at in my hometown to play ‘chopsticks’ or ‘twinkle twinkle little star.’ You’d never know I took piano lessons in high school, guitar too. 

High school Lauren was highly insecure and awkward. I suppose she still is. I had braces from eighth grade until college, a true brace face. I have the prom photos to prove my trauma. The things that I felt in control of were working hard enough to be on honor roll and attend AP classes, and my connection to music and how it made me feel. It got me the attention of a couple boys from band when I wore a Weezer shirt with a studded belt from Hot Topic paired with corduroys from Pac Sun that cost me a week’s worth of pay from my job at my hometown candy store called Oliver’s. It didn’t, however, get me a HS boyfriend. 

We have all experienced grief and breakups. Neither one is any fun, even if the breakup is amicable. In this case it was. We left with love and respect for one another. I cared for him as a human person and told him that often. He always told me how amazing and remarkable I was. He also told me I was going to be fine despite our breakup and listed the reasons, all positive and complimentary. We were always there to lean on each other, which is why it was so hard for us to know that breaking up was the best decision for us.

I have never once experienced this very specific and complicated grief. It will always remain the most jarring and visceral reaction I have ever experienced… and I have gone through some shit. Never in my wildest dreams did I think at 37 years old I’d receive word of an ex’s passing. I can’t explain how I felt, because for awhile I felt nothing.

Prior to his passing, I was depressed. I should have mentioned that I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression since childhood. Even with medicine, a good therapist, daily exercise, hobbies, and a huge safety net of friends and family, I still feel it sometimes. Most of the time it is compounded because I feel so blessed in my life. 

The world is not a cold dead place, but the news cycle in Buffalo and beyond is daunting at best lately. The City of Buffalo where I live, specifically my gentrified neighborhood of the West Side is plagued with homelessness, drug use, rats, and renters because most of my friends – including myself – can’t afford a downpayment in this neighborhood with skyrocketing interest rates. Yes, we are priced out of neighborhoods that still deal with violence and poverty. No, it isn’t the avocado toast and lattes holding us back. This country would like us to believe it is, though.

I indulge in a lot of things: I am lucky to be able to provide for myself and do a lot of fun things around town, plus travel. I do not take any of this for granted. Even with all of these luxuries and happiness, depression clouds me. It came out of nowhere right before he died, which tracks with when it happened and the change of seasons (spring had just arrived). Then it just plummeted to a feeling of wanting to completely give up. 

People get uncomfortable sometimes when we are honest about how bad mental health can deteriorate quality of life. I wish more people would just fess up. It is the bravest thing that one can do, to face those demons and say you’d like to experience a happier existence and get help. It is so commonplace–I’ve attended Mental Health Advocates of WNY fundraisers (when my aunt was on the board) where people share their singular experiences as a way to connect and inspire. Thurman Thomas spoke once. Yes, even wealthy former Buffalo Bills players go through some rough times. 

There are podcasts, lights that you can purchase off Amazon to give you that hit of Vitamin D in the winter months, and a million self-help books on the topic. I still feel like people are taken aback when I am so open about it. Why not be? If I can help one person by sharing my story, then my job is done. I suffered in silence until I confided in my parents. Then it took nearly a decade to figure out a routine that worked for me. Just like a diabetic that is constantly battling insulin levels, I too am constantly battling my illness. I take it as seriously as a diabetic because it is life or death. To be a bit less dramatic it is as important as any other physical ailment. Take your mental health seriously and do not feel bad about setting boundaries, saying no, or crying out for help. Those that truly understand you will have no qualms with mental health days or canceled plans. 

Along with depression, anxiety comes out of nowhere. It used to manifest in the form of panic attacks. I dropped out of college twice because of them. I had a bumbling existence of drinking too much, smoking a pack a day sometimes, and not dealing with it for most of my twenties. My parents are ‘Saints of Batavia’ for driving me home from bars, staying up with me when I drank too much, and letting me come back home with my tail between my legs when I had made a stupid life decision. 

I am Type A to the core. I hated that I could not get a handle on my mental illness. The thing is, it takes awhile to find a medicine that works with your body, and dosage is important. Talk therapy can feel like one more thing to do in my very busy life. Keeping an exercise routine is difficult when depressed, even though I know the second that I lace up my shoes and start moving I will feel better. I sometimes resent those that don’t need these crutches, which isn’t fair. As my mom says, ‘Everybody’s got something.’ Suicide rates are at an all time shocking high in America, especially since a global pandemic isolated an already segregated and divisive country. I have never seen so much hate and strife, yet it is still very much taboo for a lot of people to express that they are struggling when a hellish landscape surrounds them. There is a lot of humanity doing good in this world too, but as everyone with depression knows it is hard to see that sometimes. The news cycle doesn’t cover those good things as much as they should.

My grief seemed to dissipate or rather evolve in the last month or so. I have felt every stage of it since my ex’s passing. But last Thursday, it finally felt like he was gone, as I headed to Town Ballroom downtown by myself to see his favorite band. The last time I was at TB was last year when I went to see another one of his favorite postrock bands – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – with tickets I won from my favorite local shop Revolver Records.

The owner Phil delivered vinyl orders to me during the pandemic with door to door service, a sign of a great local shop worth supporting. This time the ticket came by way of a friend of a friend who happened to not need it because he was traveling for another show. I took it as another sign from the universe – and from my ex – that this was all in the cards for me. I have no doubt Mike was behind all of this and looking out for me.

I stood in the same spot we did a year prior at the Godspeed! show. I felt him in Town Ballroom. I feel him all over Buffalo, especially in our West Side hood. I cried for most of the show, while texting friends and family videos of my favorite songs that I knew he would have been grinning and bopping to. Since I had the free ticket, I bought the entire merch table. I picked the album called Transcendental Youth (mostly for the cover art), a periwinkle t-shirt, and a patch that my friend is helping me iron onto my denim jacket, along with many other ‘pieces of flare.’ 

I drank too much beer (for me nowadays) – three PBRs in total over the course of the show. I stopped drinking entirely for a couple months after his passing because I didn’t need to be more depressed. I wasn’t eating most days. I went to Wendy’s like we did after Godspeed! and ordered the same greasy food. A ritual just for us, in honor of our love for the shared experience of live music. He always called me the dairy monster so I made sure I got extra cheese on my burger.

The whole show, I wish I could text my ex. Grief, am I right? I have texted him since he passed to tell him how much I am struggling without him here. When people we love pass, it is hard to figure out why we are still here to deal with pain of losing them. A selfish thing but I feel that way about him and everyone else I have loved and lost. 

He always knew what to say whether it was an inappropriate joke, a dad joke, or just honest support. He would drop everything and drive over if I asked him to. We often fell asleep listening to Sigur Rós or Interpol or Radiohead or Elliott Smith. Soothing tones to lull us to sleep if we weren’t singing along. He always had a story about the band, and a fun concert memory from many moons ago. He was a decade older than me but it was that music connection that never wavered for us. 

I had a Mountain Goats CD from BMG Music Club in HS which I just took out to listen to again. It is their most popular offering – Sunset Tree – so he would say. It doesn’t count as fandom, but one song in particular is my slogan for this season in my life. At a 12/7/23 show at the Town Ballroom, they played ‘This Year’ about three quarters through their setlist. I danced and belted out every lyric, whilst tears streamed down my face. ‘I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me!’ I screamed with John Darnielle, The Goats’ frontman and lyrical genius. My ex would be proud and probably also mortified that I just called them The Goats

What can I say? The show at Town Ballroom on a cold December night in Buffalo was my gospel. We were all in church, swaying to the ministry. I am a superfan now. It is all because of my ex, and the universe manifesting the free ticket to their show. 

How can you not believe in the healing power of music?

‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours!’-Stevie Wonder & Lauren Genesky

Vinyl I had on as I penned this article in case you need new music:

Kacey Musgraves-Golden Hour

Pulp-Different Class

The Strokes-The New Abnormal

The War on Drugs-I Don’t Live Here Anymore

The Mountain Goats-Transcendental Youth

Bikini Kill-The Singles

Bob Dylan-Blood on the Tracks

Big Thief-Masterpiece

The Silver Jews-American Water

The National-Trouble Will Find Me

Radiohead-The Bends & Pablo Honey

Sleater-Kinney-The Woods

Neil Young-After the Gold Rush

Wolf Parade-Apologies to the Queen Mary

Taylor Swift-Midnights & Evermore

Jason Isbell-Southeastern

The Shins-Oh, Inverted World

Margaret Glaspy-Emotions & Math

Mental Health Resources

Mental Health Advocates of WNY

Crisis Prevention NYS

988: Suicide Hotline

Music to my ears…

Revolver Records: Ask for owner Phil & tell him I sent you so maybe I get a % off next time. 

Town Ballroom for your next unforgettable gig

The post A Mountain of Grief: Notes on Goats @ Town Ballroom appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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