Another evening, another argument, another excuse to leave. My mother, once again fed up with my stepfather over one of his many oversteps and slights, turned to me and asked if I maybe wanted to go for a drive, and I was out the door before she could finish the thought. They would fight, they would take turns telling each other all their respective grievances, point out each other’s faults, and when it got like this, I’d take it as my cue to leave. I was old enough to drive myself, and so I’d spend countless hours in the car, snaking through suburbia, creeping through the downtown sprawl, ascending the mountain roads towards the arboreal horizon. And while I may have developed my love of music much earlier in life, it was during these drives that I truly taught myself the majesty of Death Cab for Cutie.
Truth be told, I don’t think of myself as a particularly good music-writer. I find myself lost when trying to describe tempos, rhythms, particular notes and transitions. I often feel envious of those who can, because music has meant so much to me that I feel inadequate when pressed to expound upon my love. I can only FEEL the music. I can only tell you what the shifts, the peaks and valleys, the multitude of tones, impress upon me as I absorb them.
To that point: There is an existential quality that inhabits every facet of Death Cab’s music. Some dread that lies just beyond the margins of the lyric page, which seems to fit in between every note, and it is perhaps the quality that most ingratiated the band to me. When the apocalypse comes, and the skies turn blood-red and the air is sour with the sickness of decay, then I think Death Cab would be the music heard in the distance, Ben Gibbard’s soulful yet icy vocals piercing the atmosphere with mourning for our lost world.
I really do feel some sense of kinship with them. A band that formed in Bellingham, a city not 2 hours from my lifelong hometown. They grew up looking at the same sights, listening to the same sounds. Their music seems to inhabit the Pacific Northwest in a way that no other band has ever been able to capture. And I can’t tell you why, I can only tell you HOW. How their music seems to effortlessly flow into my memories of my home, of my family, all the lost and hidden crags and crannies of my rocky consciousness. They are the soundtrack to my life.
In the twilight of her life, my mother had regular trips to the hospital. After her job stressed out to the point of early retirement, her physical health started to deteriorate at an ever increasing rate. A woman who used to pride herself on being fit and proper now found herself dealing with diabetes and failing kidneys and regular hours of intense stomach cramps and migraines. It was alarming how quickly she seemed to break down. During one of my first trips to her dialysis center, where she would be expected to sit in a chair for 4 hours while her blood was essentially cleaned for her because her body was no longer capable of doing it, I idly switched on Death Cab for Cutie’s latest album. My mother and I never had overlapping tastes in any area, much less music, so it shocked me when she turned to me and asked who that “sensitive band” was. I told her, and she replied that I should just play them from now on. I needed no encouragement, and so we found ourselves turning to Death Cab whoever we faced another car ride. She needed to keep her mind off of the mind-numbing tedium of endless car rides, and I needed a distraction from my thoughts which co strangely turned towards the morbid inevitability of my mother’s likely-impending passing.
Death Cab has been there for me in a way that no other band or artist has ever been. I couldn’t really tell you what the first Death Cab song I ever heard was. I can’t describe the distinct, vivid memories I have associated with them, because it feels like they were always there, right in the background, just over the crest of the hill, around the corner, just out of sight but always right in my mind. No matter the situation, no matter the emotions involved, it feels like Death Cab always has a place, always fits right in. They’ve been the comforting shoulder to cry on, the voice of reason holding me back from doing something truly drastic. They’ve been my protectors and my friends. They’re everything to me.
I was driving to the hospital. Again. Straight from work, assured that absolutely nothing interesting or important was going to happen there. My mother had been there almost innumerable times, and at this point it was another routine check-up. I wondered what the fuss was all about when my stepfather called me and urged me to come down. When the nurse came into the waiting room with a gaunt expression, I stopped wondering. I drove a lot that night. I cruised through Mercer Island, lazily winding my way through the gorgeous houses and striking vistas, unable to see any of them through the tears clouding my eyes. But Death Cab was there, willing to play me some tunes, helping coax me away from the edge, assuring me that driving into the water was not going to solve anything.
My ex-girlfriend was on the phone, telling me that she was getting engaged to her boyfriend. She told me that even though we had gone through so much together, even though we had a child together, that she would much prefer it if we never spoke again. And even though I fully agreed with her, it was hard to hear. We spent days and nights in silly arguments, hurling insults and insinuating vile things about each other, not unlike my mother had done with my stepfather. And just like those many occasions, I hopped in the car, picked a direction to drive, and turned on Death Cab. They told me that my anger was misplaced. It wasn’t her fault. We had both punted on protection, and we had agreed that adoption was the right way to go, so why was I mad at her? Did I really think that I could take care of a child? I was barely able to tie my own shoelaces, much less watch over another life. They calmed me down. I turned around and apologized. We wept together, agreed to go our separate ways, and now I was here, yet again looking for Death Cab to keep me from saying something that I knew I’d regret. As always, they were there. I didn’t go to the wedding. I didn’t do something regrettable. I drove through the Olympic mountains, Death Cab playing the whole way.
I feel that I’ve failed. I struggled with what to write here, with how, exactly, to explain why Death Cab is the most important band in my life, and I find myself wanting for something that I can point to and say “this is why Death Cab for Cutie is my favorite band.” That thing doesn’t exist. The only way to convey how important they are is to regurgitate my life story, to spend countless words and hours relaying the entire course of my life, interspersed with Death Cab songs. Maybe I don’t want to reduce them to “moments.” I don’t want them to dominate any single instant, and I doubt they would either. They seem content to sit in the sidelines, observing my life as I march through it, providing backing music for my every moment of existence. They’ve been the score to this crazed, fascinating thing called life. I owe Death Cab more than any of its members could possibly understand.
It was my last concert. The final performance with my high school choir. I had known some of these people for 10 years, and we were uncertain about the future. And someone, a newcomer to the choir, had elected to do a solo performance of Grapevine Fires. A bold choice, one I wouldn’t have been brave enough to perform solo. He had a reedy, wispy voice that seemed so brittle that it might audibly snap at any moment. But he sat down, and when he played, I knew that no doubt had been warranted. His voice, wispy and weak as it was, filled the auditorium, reached to the rafters with its power. In that moment, I could hear the ennui, the lifetime of regret that comes along with that song. The longing, the existential pondering of our place in this universe, the nostalgia for the past and vague, cautious optimism for the uncertain future. That night, we prayed for rain on our lips. We knew it was only a matter of time.