Jealous Guys and Grief
“There is no way around grief and loss. You can dodge all you want, but sooner or later you just have to go into it, through it, and, hopefully, come out the other side” (Johnny Cash, 1998).
The process of releasing strong emotions through a particular activity or experience, such as writing music, can be a way to help you understand those emotions. It is in art and writing that people sometimes search for solace from the suffering afflicting them. One such emotion is grief.
Grief is often associated with loss or lost love, leading to sadness and ultimately disconnection (Hedtke & Winslade, 2016). Grief is like an unwelcome stranger who invites himself into your life, sets his own pace and cannot be hurried along. You must suffer his poor company until acceptance arrives to replace him.
While recently experimenting with my creative practice as a songwriter, I found myself writing poetry and descriptive prose to express my emotions, which were largely associated with grief as well. Sewell (2017) says, “it is the suffering and longing of unrequited love that drives boys and men to write poetry for perhaps the only period of their lives”.
Examples of grief are common in modern day pop songwriting. Everybody Hurts (1992) by R.E.M. emphasises that tragedy is a common part of the human experience, and you are not alone in your suffering. Hurt (2006) by Christina Aguilera seeks reconciliation with her late father and a regret she wasn’t forgiving of his mistakes. Fire and Rain (1970) by James Taylor was famously written after the death of a childhood friend and also describes his personal struggles through that time. My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion expresses both sadness and resilience in the face of loss. She pledges to honour the memory of both her lover and their relationship by carrying on with her life.
Tears in Heaven (1991) by Eric Clapton was written about the death of his four year old son. This much documented and tragic event threw Clapton into a musical hiatus until he co-wrote the song with American songwriter Will Jennings. In an interview with Daphne Barak, Clapton said, “I almost subconsciously used music for myself as a healing agent, and lo and behold, it worked…I have got a great deal of happiness and a great deal of healing from music (ABC News, 2006). This could well be described as a cathartic experience for Clapton and also his audience, who are forever bound to his personal experiences through this deeply sad and moving song.
The Oxford dictionary defines catharsis as the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions (Oxford, n.d.). By using this cathartic approach to explore grief in my own descriptive prose, I ended up with a piece of writing that very much aligned with John Lennon’s theme in his song Jealous Guy (1971). I have admired this song my whole life and only one week into my recent divorce, I came to the idea that Jealous Guy serves as a confessional, in which Lennon addresses the feelings of inadequacy that resulted in his failings as a lover and husband.
Encouraged by Yoko Ono to “think about something more sensitive”, John penned a new set of lyrics that seemed to address his changing attitude towards women. Talking to U.S. journalist David Sheff in 1980, he revealed, “The lyrics explain themselves clearly: I was a very jealous, possessive guy. Toward everything. A very insecure male” (McGuinness, 2020). While there is no one cause for insecurity, it can stem from a traumatic event or crisis such as a divorce or broken relationship (Prigerson, et al., 1997).
To further reflect on this song, it wasn’t until Roxy Music released a cover version of Jealous Guy in response to Lennons death in 1980, that the song became a global hit. This represented an opportunity for John Lennon fans to further mourn his death and share in his unique experiences once again. Since then, over 100 recorded versions of the song have been released by artists including Donny Hathaway, Lou Reed, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Belinda Carlisle, Deftones, The Black Crowes and Youssou N’dour.
While it is commonly regarded as the last song John Lennon ever played in public (McGuinness, 2020), I believe popular culture’s 50 year affiliation with this song is more to do with Lennons purging of emotions. We feel connected to him and can empathise, even if perhaps he wasn’t the best or strongest of men after all. As the audience, we feel empathy and pity and can relate.
In The Crafting of Grief (2016), Hedtke and Winslade demonstrate that reinvigorating hope is also an important technique when trying to connect the broader public with themes of grief. That would certainly also be the case with Clapton’s Tears in Heaven and countless other hits, where there is an epiphany that everything is going to work out and things will eventually get better. Diana Adjadj (2019) adds that emotions such as anger, denial, shock, fear and guilt are a signs that the character is moving through and beyond grief. If done well, the audience will involuntarily heal together with the character and in some instances, with the artists themselves.
ABC News. (2006). Exclusive: Mother of ‘Tears in Heaven’ Inspiration Shares Story [video file].Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/2020/Entertainment/story?id=2404474&page=1-
Adjadj, D. (2019). How to Write About Grief in a Story or Novel. Retrieved from https://thegrieftoolbox.com/article/2019-12-09-how-write-about-grief-story-or-novel
Aguilera, C., Perry, L. & Ronson, M. (2006). Hurt [song]. Back to Basics. RCA
Cash, J., Carr, P., & Carr, P. (1997). Cash: The Autobiography. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Clapton, E., Jennings, W. (1992). Tears in Heaven [song]. Rush: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack. Warner Bros.
Lennon, J. (1971) Jealous Guy [song]. Imagine. Apple Records
Hedtke, L., & Winslade, J. (2016). The crafting of grief: Constructing aesthetic responses to loss. Routledge.
McGuinness, P. (2020). ’Jealous Guy’: Behind John Lennon’s Unflinchingly Honest Love Song. Retrieved from: https://www.udiscovermusic.com/stories/jealous-guy-john-lennon-song
Prigerson, H. G., Wolfson, L., Shear, M. K., Hall, M., Bierhals, A. J., Zonarich, D. L., et al. (1997). Case histories of traumatic grief. Omega-Journal of Death and Dying, 35(1), 9–24.
R.E.M. (1993). Everybody Hurts [song]. Automatic for the People. Warner Bros.
Sewell, S. (2017). Volume 1: A Dissertation, The Creative Leap: The Science and Philosophy of Creativity. The University of Sydney.
Taylor, J. (1970). Fire and Rain [song]. Sweet Baby James. Warner Bros.