On Christmas Eve’s eve in the cozy little bistro formerly known as Java Jack’s and now Studio 2 on 46th & Bryant, 50 or so live music lovers were treated to Marcellus Hall’s breathtaking night-closing performance of “Life Is Still Sweet,” an impossibly uplifting anthem of faith and positivity written and recorded by Hall’s New York-based band White Hassle in 2000. I’ve loved the song since I first heard it, and even more so when I discovered that it directly influenced the writing of Modest Mouse’s classic paean to keeping our collective chin up during hard times, “Float On.”
“I was just trying to find a new way to say the grass is always greener,” Modest Mouse singer/songwriter Isaac Brock said in the band’s bio “Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read.” “There’s a song I heard a while back by this band called White Hassle whose main lyric is, ‘Life is still sweet,’ with all this kinda Bob Dylan-y rambling, but not so overtly. I remember listening to that song and thinking to myself, ‘God that’s so great. This is an unironically pleasant little bit of encouragement. Maybe I’d like to do that.’ When I heard ‘Life Is Still Sweet’ I was like, ‘Let’s [screw] this doom-and-gloom [crap]. It was a completely conscious thing. I was just kind of fed up with how bad [stuff] had been going, and how dark everything was, with bad news coming from everywhere. I got myself a tattoo on my wrist when I was drunk: LIFE IS STILL SWEET. It’s a damn good reminder.”
And how. As Hall sang and played guitar and harmonica last Friday night, I scanned the room and my heart, finding smiling faces and a new beat, respectively, on the last week of an all-time tumultuous year. At the moment 2016 is being remembered as the year that gave us the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and many others, the rise and election of Donald Trump and a new window into humanity’s dark side. My year reflected the tumult, and I often felt pummeled by the macro world, but it also brought hard-won growth, healing, wisdom, acceptance and a newfound albeit sometimes shaky dedication to keep on keeping on in the face of so much uncertainty.
In this space the day after Trump’s election I wrote about the “Thanks I needed that” list I’ve been keeping, of the irrefutable good things to keep in mind while bad news dominates, and “Life Is Still Sweet” is its theme song. In the same year that Trump took power, I and my family went through difficult, amazing and hard-loving times, and I learned more than ever about love, myself and the human condition. Everybody hung on, and in August a child was born unto us, one Roland Charles Walsh, to my beautiful nephew Matt and his beautiful bride Heather.
Roland was named for the peacekeeping and lovespreading gunslinger Roland Deschain of Gilead from Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series, and for my maternal grandfather Roland, of whom my mother wrote on her Facebook page on Dec. 18 of last year, “My father, Roland Hanna, was born on this day in 1890. For those of you who are his descendants [and who] did not know him, he was a kind and gentle man. RIP, Dad.”
“And today,” she updated it with last week, “I had the good fortune to hold his namesake. Life is good.”
And how. The truth is, as sinister forces took up residence in the White House and an unprecedented malaise gripped the world, every time Roland’s smiling little face came up on my screen my heart was filled with a great uncle’s hope and joy and my brain was reminded that life is indeed still sweet, that miracles happen every minute and that new life and new love is all around us if only we keep our minds and hearts open.
No mean feat, of course. The First Truth of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is “all life is suffering, pain and misery.” America in particular is learning as much at the moment, and will continue to in the coming weeks and years, which is where the “still” in “Life Is Still Sweet” comes in: No matter what happens, no matter how many evil forces abound, no matter how crappy your crappy day is going, there are innumerable good reasons to get up in the morning, count blessings and live a life of light, love and possibility.
To wit: Accompanying this column is a photo of little Roland flashing what looks to be the peace sign from the womb, and again more recently. It popped up on my phone not long after Marcellus Hall, Washburn High School class of 1982, sang his guts out into me and every lucky soul in that snowglobe-y room. On Christmas day I got to hold Roland again, and, much like the power of holding my own kids when they were his age, an unmistakable and almost metaphysical peace took hold.
Good medicine, to be sure. So for anyone with the Trumpism blues, even if you’re alone, even if you feel like all hope is lost and that humanity is on the ropes, do what I did: Play White Hassle’s “Life Is Still Sweet” 20 times in a row (youtube.com/watch?v=4gnlRJpFRzU) and stare at the prince of peace photo and let it be.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]