Know By Livin’

I can’t remember the first time I heard Blood Sweat and Tears’ “And When I Die.” It must have been sometime in the early 1970s, when BS&T was still frequently on the radio.

I’m not scared of dyin’ and I don’t really care
If it’s peace you find in dyin’, well then, let the time be near

That seemed pretty odd to me. How could someone be unafraid of dying—and even go as far as to wish the time was near? I tried not to think about what it implied.

Eventually, BS&T ‘s music got too old for Top 40 and A/C and they were relegated to oldies stations, and apart from “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel,”  their songs were rarely anthologized. I’ll bet I went a decade or more without hearing “And When I Die.” But then came the day I heard it again.

If it’s peace you find in dyin’ and if dyin’ time is near
Just bundle up my coffin ’cause it’s cold way down there
I hear it is cold way down there, yeah
Crazy cold way down there

I was past 40 years old now, much different from the person who’d first heard the song, and I couldn’t believe how different it sounded to me.

And when I die, and when I’m gone
There’ll be one child born in this world to carry on, to carry on

It was like learning that a knick-knack that had sat on a shelf for years was actually a valuable relic. It took on a significance I never knew it possessed.

Now troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell
Swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell
But I’ll never know by livin’, only my dyin’ will tell, yes only my dyin’ will tell, yeah
Only my dyin’ will tell

When I was first hearing the song, I still believed in Heaven, Hell, God, all of it. By the time I reached my 40s, I believed in none of it—but I also believed, as I do today, that we’ll never know by dying. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said something like, “Where we are, death is not; where death is, we are not.” I don’t believe we’re going to perceive what’s happened to us, or even that something has happened to us. We’ll just go and be troubled no more, and that sounds like peace to me.

Freed from the need to live in preparation for where we think we’re going after life is over, why wouldn’t we want to get the most out of the only world we know?

Give me my freedom for as long as I be
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
All I ask of livin’ is to have no chains on me
And all I ask of dyin’ is to go naturally

The phrase “no chains on me” is a phrase of the time in which Laura Nyro wrote “And When I Die,” although the sentiment is timeless.  And the wish to go naturally is something that’s existed in all of us since each of us figured out that there are nastier ways to go.

But the most profound wisdom in “And When I Die” is this:

And when I die, and when I’m dead, dead and gone
There’ll be one child born in our world to carry on, to carry on

So there I am, a man in his 40s, hearing a familiar song transformed, and being transformed by it. Why yes—if it’s peace you find in dying, well then, yes, let the time be near. All I ask of dying is to go naturally. And when I’m gone—when each of us is dead, dead and gone—there’ll be one child born in the world to carry on. The children that follow us might tread more lightly than we, they might be wiser than we, and they might acquire the vision and the wisdom to solve the problems our generation lacks the will to face.

Far from being odd—or scary, or delusional, or demented—“And When I Die” is actually a damned optimistic song.

6 responses

  1. All we have is time…and each other…and this big ol’ world. Why not make the most of the time we have and take care of each other and this wonderful planet earth?

  2. Great insight into a song I first heard about the same time as you. I never thought of it quite the way you described. The words are pretty clear. Have you ever heard anything about what the writer was thinking at the time?

  3. “The children that follow us might tread more lightly than we, they might be wiser than we, and they might acquire the vision and the wisdom to solve the problems our generation lacks the will to face.” Nicely said, and a good thing to hope for. Another great post, my friend.

  4. I was listening to BS&T on my evening commute. First some of Child Is Father to the Man then a bit of No Sweat featuring Jerry Fisher on vocals and the woefully underrated, Rollercoaster that opens the album.

    I’m not a fan of the David Clayton-Thomas material. I prefer the debut album with Al Kooper and the 3 albums with Jerry Fisher (New Blood, No Sweat, and Mirror Image). I especially love More Than You’ll Ever Know

  5. […] a song most people have never heard of anyway called “Roxy Roller,” the BS&T song “And When I Die,” as well as “Just My Imagination,” Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta,” and a […]

  6. […] they were: “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel,” and “And When I Die” all went to #2 on the pop chart in 1969, and were big hits on the easy-listening chart, too. All […]

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