This song is a personal favorite of mine, and one I’ve long considered recording for this Plague Songs series.
However, in an effort to keep the mood more upbeat, I have — up until now — chosen more uptempo selections. But, as coronavirus deaths in the U.S. surpass 350,000 (and 1.85 million worldwide), it’s time for this more reflective, meditative, even benedictive piece: Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.”
I love his oscillations between colloquial and lyrical language, the knowledge of our inevitable decline and fall coupled with a yearning — a prayer — for transcendence. The song is both sad and hopeful, complex and quite simple. (There are only two verses. The chorus and verses share the same chords in the same order.)
The chorus expresses a futile wish, but the deliberately plain diction — words like “stupid” and “alright” — conveys its sincerity. To say “Don’t let us get old. / Don’t let us get stupid, alright.” is to ask for the preservation of youth (impossible!) or at least not a slide into dementia (please?). Or perhaps, as the remainder of the chorus suggests, we might face our decline with bravery, kindness, and in company.
That last part of the second verse — the lyric I have chosen for the title of this blog post — is so moving, perhaps because it is so uncharacteristically hopeful for a Zevon lyric. “I’m lucky to be here with someone I like / who maketh my spirit to shine.” Love lights the spirit, even as darkness comes.
As you may know, Zevon may have already been sick when he recorded this, though he didn’t know it yet. He had a phobia of doctors, and avoided regular check-ups. As he told David Letterman in October 2002, “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn’t pay off.”
“Don’t Let Us Get Sick” appears on Zevon’s album Life’ll Kill Ya (2000). He would record two more, the titles of which both seem to allude to his impending demise: My Ride’s Here (2002) and The Wind (2003). The latter was released just two weeks before his death, at the age of 56, from pleural mesothelioma.
As may be obvious, I chose “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” because we are living in a vast landscape of suffering and death. Even if you’re not consciously thinking about it, mortality haunts every moment. Yet, for some of us, life goes on — with its joys, pains, absurdities, delights, fears, hopes.
I hope I survive long enough to gain access to the vaccine. I hope you do, too. On some level, I actually believe we will, despite the fact that my odds, as a U.S. resident, are not excellent. Even though the U.S. has only 4% of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for nearly a quarter of all infections in the world and a fifth of all deaths.
As in the song, I feel truly “lucky to be here” and I am hoping that I do not get sick, even though all I can truly do is reduce risk. I social-distance, wear a mask, wash my hands, and mostly confine myself to my home. But I do go outside, and not just to exercise. I do my best to minimize risk and am fortunate to hold a job that I can do from home, but (of course!) no one can avoid risk completely.
And no one yet knows which of us will make it through the pandemic. Will we survive? Will those we love survive? Who do we know among the dead… even if we not yet aware of their passing?
I also chose this song because I think we need to mourn. I don’t mean “wear black and look dour all the time.” I mean reckon, on some level, with the scale of loss we are facing daily. When today I mentioned to a friend that every day the U.S. loses more people to COVID-19 than were killed on Sept. 11 2001, she compared the scale of losses to those in a country at war. And she’s right.
But not everyone is taking this war seriously. You have people who think the coronavirus is a hoax, or is not that serious, or magically will not affect them. I think that mourning might help some — not all, but some — take this pandemic seriously. I think that truly allowing ourselves to feel some of the pain of these deaths — so many of them preventable deaths — might help us prevent more death at its current rate.
Finally, I chose this song because very early in the pandemic, just a week after I visited my mother at her long-term care facility (my last plane trip), I was talking to her via Skype. She suddenly fell out of her chair, onto the floor. And did not get up. I phoned and, when I reached the staff, they raced to her room, helped her up, brought her to another chair. I was then told that mom was a bit dehydrated because she’d had what (they thought might have been) a case of the flu the previous night. Later that same March day, her long-term care reported its first case of COVID-19. The infected person was not my mother. But that raised a question: Did she also have COVID-19? Indeed, would I see her again?
To manage my worry, I took out my guitar and played “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” — just the chords — over and over. I strummed aggressively, I finger-picked delicately, I kept changing the style. After ten minutes or so of playing, I calmed down.
I spoke with my mother the next day. She was doing better. She did not have COVID-19. She has since been tested for it about a half-dozen times, but — thanks in no small part to diligent management at her facility — she has managed to avoid the virus thus far.
So, I offer you this song in case its benedictive qualities may provide you some solace. And, as I say at the end of the video, I send you my wish that you too may have someone or something that maketh your spirit to shine.
Want to perform a song? Need ideas? The playlist below offers many places to start.
- Plague Songs
- Sing. Sing a Song. #PlagueSongs, no. 1 (17 Mar. 2020). Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
- Do Not Touch Your Face. #PlagueSongs, no. 2 (24 Mar. 2020). The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face.”
- The Bright Side. #PlagueSongs, no. 3 (31 Mar. 2020). Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Also the first post where I began my practice of using a lyric as the title.
- It’s later than you think. #PlagueSongs, no. 4 (7 Apr. 2020). Prince Buster’s “Enjoy Yourself.” (Also: the discovery that I cannot play ska.)
- There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. #PlagueSongs, no. 5 (14 Apr. 2020). Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
- Be an optimist instead. #PlagueSongs, no. 6 (21 Apr. 2020). The Kinks’ “Better Things.”
- Kick at the darkness. #PlagueSongs, no. 7 (28 Apr. 2020). Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
- So far away, but still so near. #PlagueSongs, no. 8 (5 May 2020). Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own.”
- If you just call me. #PlagueSongs, no. 9 (12 May 2020). Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”
- In the end, they’ll be the only ones there. #PlagueSongs, no. 10 (19 May 2020). Hanson’s “MMMBop,” and a few chords from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
- No matter how I struggle and strive. #PlagueSongs, no. 11 (25 May 2020). Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
- Love. #PlagueSongs, no. 12 (1 June 2020). Medley of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love, and Understanding” and the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” with brief snippets of the Staple Singers’ “This Train” and the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.”
- This is the time. #PlagueSongs, no. 13 (9 June 2020). Lou Reed’s “There Is No Time.”
- My neighbor and my friend. #PlagueSongs, no. 14 (16 June 2020). Fred Rogers’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
- If you’re lost, I’m right behind. #PlagueSongs, no. 15 (23 June 2020). Everything But the Girl’s “We Walk the Same Line.”
- Live to see another day. #PlagueSongs, no. 16 (30 June 2020). The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
- Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. #PlagueSongs, no. 17 (7 July 2020). R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).”
- Someday we’ll find it. #PlagueSongs, no. 18 (14 July 2020). Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”
- Can’t control my brain. #PlagueSongs, no. 19 (21 July 2020). Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
- 4’33” #PlagueSongs, no. 20. AND 43 notes on silence, time, and the corona era (28 July 2020). John Cage’s 4’33”, plus an essay inspired by the piece.
- Mann, wer hätte das gedacht, dass es einmal soweit kommt #PlagueSongs, no. 21 (4 Aug. 2020). Nena’s “99 Luftballons.”
- Banish sadness and strife. #PlagueSongs, no. 22 (11 Aug. 2020). “Look for the Silver Lining,” composed by Jerome Kern and Buddy DeSylva. My version is based on the Chet Baker recording.
- Don’t write yourself off yet. #PlagueSongs, no. 23 (27 Oct. 2020). Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle.”
- What’s that sound? #PlagueSongs, no. 24 (3 Nov. 2020). The Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”
- Go tell that long-tongued liar. #PlagueSongs, no. 25 (17 Nov. 2020). A song known variously as “Run on for a Long Time” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”
- I got the medicine. So, you should keep your eyes on the ball. #PlagueSongs, no. 26 (21 Dec. 2020). BTS’ “Dynamite.”
- What Is Your COVID-19 Routine?