On Bob Seger, Night Moves, And Soundtracking Grief
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON JANUARY 11, 2022
Somehow you know when it's the last time you're going to see someone, even if you don't admit it to yourself. Life doesn't have a soundtrack, but it's hard not to feel the slow stirring of strings in the distance in those instances.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, you're either the luckiest person alive or the densest. Either way, you're more fortunate than most. The universe is giving you a blessing. Cherish it while you can.
I have a distinct memory of sitting next to my grandma roughly six months to the day she died. We were in her living room in the hours after we laid my grandfather, her husband, in the ground. I was holding her hand while surrounded by family when she turned to me and said, "this is probably the last time we'll be together. "The chatter in the room continued, but the noise inside me fell silent. I told her she was wrong. She wasn't.
My best friend from college, Justin, learned he was born with an incredibly rare blood disorder about a year after graduation. He was already living on his own hours away from everyone we knew, but almost immediately, his life became a series of hospital visits that crisscrossed the Midwest in desperate search of answers that remain out of reach to this day.
Ten weeks before he died, I drove from Boston to Cleveland to spend a long weekend at Justin's side. He'd been at this hospital off and on for over a year at this point, and he knew every single person working in his wing. He was receiving dialysis daily, among many other things. He slept a lot, and he could barely walk. When he did speak, it was often about video games or whatever he'd been binging on Netflix in between naps from the tests and various procedures he was constantly undergoing. They let me sleep by his side one night on a cot that they originally placed in the room so that his mother could stay with him. I can still remember the beeps of the various machines keeping him alive and the quiet sounds of nurses carefully helping him in the middle of the night. Sometimes those sounds are clearer than his face in my mind. That's how memories work, I guess.
Visiting Justin was never easy. It wasn't just a matter of logistics; he never wanted his friends to see him in that state. He would rather play video games with you online or chat over the phone because it gave him a greater sense of control and autonomy. We were practically inseparable before his sickness grew worse, but once he began living in hospitals, he only wanted to see me on his terms. He would visit whenever he could or ask me to stop by whenever he lived at home with his mom between extended stints in a hospital.
Sitting in the room with him on that trip, knowing what I knew about the finality of everything, made the entire experience and more difficult than I imagined. It wasn't just seeing my favorite person in their worst state but seeing that person in that state for what I knew—on one level or another—was the last time I would ever see them.
Before my visit, I asked Justin if anything from the outside world he missed. Doctors were pretty strict about outside foods, but they made exceptions for special visitors and occasions. I promised to purchase any food he wanted, but I knew there had to be something else. Food was not this man's only vice. He loved to live life as big and loud as his body would allow. After working a night shift, I once saw him chug a pint of bottom-shelf whiskey at 7 AM. His reasoning? "I never told you I wanted to live forever. That sounds boring as shit."
He sent me the following message two days before my trip:
"I want to get high. I talk to my doctors, and while they cannot encourage me to smoke, they say it won't kill me any faster than the other shit. They can't know about it, but they won't tell anyone either."
I immediately shared this text with all of our friends. "I'll send you money for that right now," replied one. "You have to make it happen," replied another.
To keep from incriminating myself, I will go so far as to say that Justin was able to fulfill his wish. A friendly nurse working the graveyard shift was kind enough to help Justin, myself, and our close friend Jacob gain access to the rooftop of the Cleveland Clinic hospital long after such spaces were closed to the public. We sat at the edge overlooking the downtown Cleveland area, including the baseball stadium where the Indians were finishing a late-season game. Justin didn't care much about the view or the game. The only observation he made was that there seemed to be several dozen blocks of low-income housing with little to no streetlights that served as a weird dark gap between the roof where we sat and the bustling downtown area. Aside from that, I think he was just happy to be outside.
A short while later, I produced his request. As Justin reveled in holding a pipe he hadn't seen or used in months, he used his fingers to break down what likely amounted to less than a gram of marijuana. You could see the sense of normalcy wash over his face as he laughed about the stickiness of the bud and poked fun at Jacob, who was generally sober, about how that night would be their last chance to smoke together. It was gallows humor as only someone standing on the platform could deliver, and we laughed because showing any other emotion would have ruined the moment.
Justin took the first hit and coughed. He turned pink and chugged a small cup of water before taking a second, followed almost immediately by a third.
"That's about all I got in me," he said, sitting back in his seat. "That's the feeling I've been chasing for I don't even remember how long."
Jacob and I could see the relief wash over his body. In a moment, he was more relaxed and at peace than he'd been in months. The Justin we'd grown up with and remembered from times before every he inhabited came equipped with machines that incessantly bleep and bloop at all hours of the day was back. For a brief moment, life almost felt normal again.
"I want to listen to some Seger. Give me "Night Moves."
There are a million songs you could choose to soundtrack the night we were about to experience. You could select one about friendship or hopefulness. Maybe you would pick something instrumental that lightly accompanies a quiet moment between close friends who are aware of—but still wish to avoid acknowledging—the end. Those tracks would work, but they would all be too on the nose for Justin. His mind didn't work that way. He was on top of the world, defying rules and laws, surrounded by close friends and rock 'n' roll with nobody to stop him. He may have been sick, but goddammit, he was free, and he needed something that matched the energy he was feeling at that moment.
I know he didn't overthink his decision, but I have thought about why "Night Moves" was the track he chose more times than I can count. I've also asked Jacob several times, and he has no better recollection. All I can tell you, dear reader, is that it became the only song that could define that moment.
Written in 1976, "Night Moves" is a semi-autobiographical song about a tryst between Seger and a young woman who later broke his heart. In the song's now iconic fourth verse, Seger reflects on his memories of their time together with a fondness despite everything that went wrong:
I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain't it funny how the night moves
When you just don't seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in
What does a song about two kids losing their virginity together in the backseat of a Chevrolet have in common with your best friend dying of a rare blood disorder while smoking weed on top of a hospital in the Midwest? On the surface, nothing. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that both stories are about accepting our lack of control and embracing what little joy life gives us.
"Night Moves," like many songs in Seger's great American songbook, captures an event that defines your entire life. His songs speak to the memories that live in our bones and feel real still, even years after they've occurred. There is a lot of hurt and pain along the way, both inflicted and received, but the carnage cannot erase the moments of impossible beauty that happened along the way.
I cannot tell you what we talked about that night or whether Jacob decided he too would smoke since it was literally his last chance to partake with Justin. Still, I know that every time I hear "Night Moves," a part of me has to actively fight against breaking down the way you might at a funeral home or gravesite. Calling it a funeral dirge is not far off considering how it makes me feel, even if it does make you tap your toes and sing along.
Once, while seeing Seger live for the first time after Justin's death, I began weeping as the chorus hit. My father, whom I'd taken to the show as a gift, was very confused.
Now is probably a good time to tell you that all of this happened before I understood that "Night Moves "is a song about teenagers having sex in the backseat of a car or an old man remembering moments long gone. Maybe we got drunk and kissed once in front of friends, but it certainly didn't happen in the backseat. It happened at his mom's house. I was crying over my friend, but everyone around me at the gig probably thought I was weeping over some long-lost love.
When the smoking and conversation left him hoarse, Justin asked Jacob and me to take him back downstairs. I can still remember pushing his wheelchair and how the wheels had a slight squeak every time you made a turn too quickly. Justin was giggling about getting away with something that virtually everyone working at that time was well aware we were doing, and for the first time that entire trip, he wasn't complaining about the pain. In less than 12 hours, he would be on another table having another round of dialysis performed, but right then, he was hanging out with two of his oldest friends doing something that made him feel like everyone else. I think that's all he ever really wanted.
We stayed until he was ready to fall asleep, and he slowly began to settle back into reality. I remember him looking me in the eyes and telling me that my relationship at the time, which was an engagement headed toward a short marriage, wasn't going to work out. He had no way of knowing the deception and trouble that lay ahead, but he confessed that something always felt off. I didn't think much of it at the time, attributing everything he said mostly to the drugs, but his voice was the first I heard the morning after my marriage ended.
As I made the drive from the hospital back to my hotel on the outskirts of the city, I remember listening to Bob Seger as the tall buildings gave way to suburban sprawl. I had the stereo up as loud as it would go, but even the best solo from the late great Alto Reed was not enough to drown out the sound of my best friend's laughter ringing in my ears. I had spent so much of that weekend not wanting to capture him in his current state for fear that that would be how I always remembered him. That night, however, I spent my commute trying to cement those precious moments into my memory with every bit of my mind.
Justin died less than three months after that visit. I tried to see him again, but it was hard to make it happen between his failing health and the increasing time he spent on various operations and tests. He didn't want me to see him like that, and I tried to abide by those wishes even though it killed me. The last time we texted, I remember telling him I was scared because of a situation at work that left me uncertain about my professional future. He replied, "for what it's worth, I'm scared too."
He didn't say much. I tried to press the topic, but he only wanted to talk about movies. We exchanged three or four texts before he told me the drugs made him too tired to continue. We didn't see one another again. The closest we came to another moment together was when I scattered his ashes in a lake in southern New Hampshire on a crisp morning several months after his passing. It was a quiet moment.
It may seem silly to admit, but seeing Bob Seger's farewell tour in 2019 felt sort of like losing Justin all over again. All that's left for me to enjoy now are the recordings of "Night Moves," which themselves are merely memories captured on tape. That's still enough to take me back to the rooftop, and as long as I can get there, I know Justin's never too far.
The First Playlist of 2022
I find it deeply amusing that the first playlist I make of the year 2022 is one deeply rooted in rock from the 1970s and 80s. The songs included in this collection have soundtracked my life and my parents and their siblings. Generations of my family have been raised on these songs, and we each made them our own through experiences. That's the beauty of music, I guess. You can play a song for 100 people and have 100 different reactions.