One song you need to hear: Sean Michaels's playlist of the week
Godspeed You! Black Emperor's end-of-the-world blues sound right to post-election ears
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – The Dead Flag Blues (1997)
As I went to bed on Tuesday night, a thought was resting on my heart like a dark coin. It was this: that people are selfish, stupid and cruel. All through the evening's U.S. election coverage, we had laughed and told jokes. Nestled in a cozy Montreal living room, we ate little oranges and chocolate chip cookies. The doorbell rang; more people arrived. We expected a celebration.
But as the results came in, blood-red state after blood-red state, our jokes took on a different tenor. They became rickety, strained. Not everyone was laughing any more. Somebody would be distracted, their eyes on the screen. Or staring into space. Or speaking intently into a telephone, to a loved one in America.
The television anchors' exclamations became increasingly revolting to me. Each of us in the room kept realizing, and then saying out loud, another terrible thing about what was happening. Unlike so many of my friends – most of them women, minorities, LGBT people – I had not believed this was possible.
"People are better than that," I had said. But they are not. When the TV was off and the house was empty, I could still see that blood-red map. I could still feel that thought resting on my heart.
I woke up before 5 a.m. Our baby was crying. We tried to soothe him.
I remember calling to him, through the dark room: "It's okay." It felt a bit like a lie. A short while later, I got up and picked him up and we went into the kitchen.
It was barely light out. The plants were grey in their pots; the fruit was grey in its bowl. As I held my seven-month-old in my arms, I considered the emotion we call dread.
Then my son batted my nose. Then he began to kick. In the dim kitchen, wearing his polar fleece sleep-sack, the baby kicked at my ribs and grabbed my cheek. He arched his back, grasped at my shoulder, pinioned and reached toward the art on the walls, the grey plants, the dawn. I held him out before me, my hands under his arms. He danced in the air. He smiled. He made a sound that was a little like a bird and a little like the flick of a bow as it leaves a violin.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor's end-of-the-world blues was the only thing that sounded right to my ears. The entire composition of Dead Flag Blues seems to be drifting toward tragedy – the guitars, the drums, the strings.
"The sun has fallen down, and the billboards are all leering," intones a borrowed voice. "We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."
Yet, somehow, the song does not finish badly. It concludes in a major key, with a bow leaving a fiddle.
Dread is not an ending.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. e is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.