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The Execution of a Singer/Songwriter

            Though he had never considered himself the voice of dissent - or even a voice of dissent, really – Glen realized, upon being arrested and condemned to death by firing squad, that he was, in fact, the voice of dissent. In court, the judge, or whoever the man who had condemned him to death was, had specifically referenced Glen’s song Growing Down as the one that had sealed Glen’s fate.

            Glen had said, “Really? Growing Down? What’s detrimental to the state about Growing Down? It’s about, well, basically, if you really want to, you know, sum it up, it’s about- ” Then a guard had plunked him on the head with the butt of a handgun and told him keep silent. The judge had paused to make sure Glen was going to stay silent and then said, “Your execution will take place tomorrow at dawn.”

            Glen was tempted to complain, but he could tell the guard was really hoping he would say something, so he didn’t.

            Later, lying on the bunk in his cell, Glen thought through the lyrics to Growing Down again and again, trying to figure out which of the lines were the damning ones. It was a real puzzler, that was for sure. He wished that if he had to be executed for one of his songs, that it would be for a bolder, more subversive statement and not for a song about his diminishing interest in silly romance that his oppressive, overly-sensitive government had misinterpreted.

            So now the question became: how to approach the execution? More specifically, which of his songs should he be singing as the bullets riddled his body? As a well-known singer/songwriter, it stood to reason that Glen’s last moments should be spent singing an original song so when future generations spoke of his martyrdom for the sake of art,  when they got to the part where he was shot by the firing squad, they could say something like, “…and as he stood there with the blindfold covering his eyes, he surely felt the cruel, unfeeling gun barrels trained on his chest, surely he did, but you never would have known from the way he sang, his voice clear and strong, ringing out over the stones in the courtyard, his final few breaths on Earth used in service of the art that had brought him life, the art that had brought him to death. And do you know what he sang?”

            And then, of course, the future generations would answer their own question. They’d say the name of the song. And Glen had about fourteen hours to decide what that song was going to be. He needed to think! Maybe he could compose a new song between now and then? No. Well, maybe. No! What if he forgot the words at the moment of truth? It needed to be something he was very familiar with, something that he could sing with a great amount of confidence so future generations could make mention of the confidence of his final performance.

            Glen got off the bunk and went to the mirror over the sink. He looked at his reflection and said, “How about...Tired Bird?” He let that sink in. No. Too somber. He didn’t want to sound defeated or mournful. He wanted to sound triumphant. Or, if not triumphant, at least not defeated or mournful. He went back to the bunk and lay down on his side, facing the wall, which was not inspiring. Singing Growing Down would certainly be a statement, it would come across as defiant, which he liked, but it also seemed a little obvious. And besides, was Growing Down really the song he wanted to be remembered for? That was already probably going to be the case since it was the song he was being executed for, but he would basically be ensuring that no one would ever bother to delve deeper into his catalogue if, in addition to being condemned for it, he also sang it while being executed.

            Well, he could always sing Boo-Hoo. Such a light-hearted, irreverent song would certainly create a stir. Glen imagined the soldiers casting disturbed looks at each other, their fingers hesitating on the triggers of their rifles as he stood against the wall, the blindfold over his eyes, belting out the whimsical, up-and-down chorus of Boo-Hoo. The image made him laugh. And future generations would laugh too, but their laughs would be laughs of admiration. They would shake their heads and marvel at his gall, at how untouched he was by the horrible injustice, by the swiftly-approaching specter of Death. And perhaps, Glen thought, such a scene might cause one of the soldiers to think, to contemplate the absurdity of it all, to go home and really critically evaluate what it was all about, and maybe check out some of Glen’s music too, maybe eventually become Glen’s biggest fan of all time.

            But, when it came down to it, Glen knew he couldn’t sing Boo-Hoo. His vanity wouldn’t let him. If this was to be his final performance, then he owed it to himself and to the world to sing his very best song to the very best of his ability. And that song was obviously either Grand Old Column or Tea for Twenty. But which one? Grand Old Column was probably the best example of Glen’s extraordinary lyricism, but Tea for Twenty was the best melody he’d ever written, and he suspected that he probably wouldn’t have time to get to the real heart of Grand Old Column’s lyrics before he got shot. Besides, it’s not like Tea for Twenty’s lyrics were bad. On the contrary, they were good. Very good. Maybe even as good as Grand Old Column’s. Oh, who was he kidding? Grand Old Column was his best song. There was no way around it. It was the only choice. Future generations would speak in hushed, awed tones about the way Glen stood there in the courtyard, shoulders back, eyes blindfolded, singing Grand Old Column in a rich, sweet voice, as the soldiers raised their guns, tears brimming in their eyes, one of them whispering “God forgive us” right as the barrels flashed, the bang swallowing the last note Glen would ever sing this side of heaven. Yes, Grand Old Column was the one. That was the choice, the only choice. Grand Old Column.

            Glen spent the rest of the night doing vocal exercises and going over the lyrics again and again so there would be no mistakes. He even did several low-intensity rehearsals of Grand Old Column  in its entirety just in case, by some miracle, the song stayed the bullets.


            At dawn, two soldiers came for Glen. They tied his hands behind his back. They led him out to the courtyard and stood him against a tall, stone wall. A group of soldiers leaned on their rifles and talked about disreputable women. Glen cleared his throat as the blindfold went on, breathing deeply, searching for the right opening note in his mind and finding it, feeling it crouched on his tongue, ready to spring out into the chilly morning air.

            Then they gagged him.

            If they had been questioned later about Glen’s final moments, which they weren’t, none of the soldiers in the firing squad would have said they saw anything artful or memorable in the clumsy, shuffling dance he performed in the few seconds that it took their commanding officer to shout, “Ready! Aim! Fire!”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think Glen’s dance was actually really good and the soldiers saw nothing artful or memorable in it because they’re philistines? What makes you think that? Deeply-rooted preconceived notions about the ability of soldiers to perceive and appreciate artistic excellence? Get over it! The dance probably sucked!

  • What’s so bad about wanting to go out in style?

  • What’s so bad about caring how you’re remembered?

  • What’s so bad about being enthusiastic about your own work?

  • Would you buy one of Glen’s albums based only on what you’ve learned about his music from this story? What sold you/repelled you?

  • If you were Glen, which song would you have sung? Growing Down? Tired Bird? Boo Hoo? Grand Old Column? Tea for Twenty? A brand new one written in your cell the night before the execution?

  • If an oppressive government decided to execute you tomorrow for a song you wrote, how much satisfaction would you get tonight out of the thought of future generations revering your sacrifice?

  • If this story is about dying for the sake of art, could it be any less thought-provoking?