Tiny Changes to Earth

By  |  January 9, 2019
“Scott Hutchison Tribute” (2018), by Michael Corr. Courtesy of the artist | @michaelcorrartist “Scott Hutchison Tribute” (2018), by Michael Corr. Courtesy of the artist | @michaelcorrartist

Getting Out of the Way



t is December 5th, and I am standing on the catwalk of Rough Trade in New York City, listening to three hundred people sing along with the house music as loud as they would with a band. They are singing Frightened Rabbit’s “Modern Leper,” and they are singing with deafening conviction. Tonight is a memorial for the band’s frontman, Scott Hutchison, who died by suicide earlier in 2018.

In May last year, I was visiting Memphis when I received a string of texts from friends telling me that Scott was missing and soliciting prayers for his safety and hoping for the best. A day after I’d heard about his disappearance, I woke up to a message that Scott had passed away.

I put my headphones on with Frightened Rabbit’s album Pedestrian Verse on infinite loop and sprinted through the dew-heavy air of my still-sleeping neighborhood until the sidewalk stopped. Five years ago, when it came out, this record had accompanied me on the nightly walks I took when anxiety and chronic insomnia made sleeping impossible. From two to three a.m. I would jitter through my cul-de-sac to where walkways disappeared into a gravel highway shoulder and meander for miles in an attempt to wear off a panic attack by attrition. Each song was a small relief that made me feel like I could breathe again. I replayed “Acts of Man” over and over, waiting for the soft comfort of the gentle, plodding piano to loosen the knot in my chest.

After learning the news, I jogged blankly along the same route—not crying like I thought I might—mechanically connecting feet with earth and letting a zoetrope of memories rattle across my brain. I thought of the first time I played with Frightened Rabbit years ago. I had dropped out of college to tour, and three years after hearing the band for the first time, I was offered to open a handful of dates for them, something that felt both massive and completely terrifying to a kid who had seldom played shows that didn’t take place in a basement, bar, or living room.

At the first show, all my gear broke onstage mid-song. Unable to fix it, I slunk offstage, wilted with humiliation. When Frightened Rabbit played, they began their set out of tune and in the wrong key and made it halfway through one song before Scott brought the band to a clamoring halt, exchanged a few words of comical banter with the audience, and started over, unfazed. Throughout their set, it seemed every mistake was an opportunity to laugh at oneself, a reminder not to take anything too seriously. Scott teased the audience members kindly, like he was standing around with them in someone’s kitchen at a party. I laughed until my sides hurt. I forgot about ruining my own set. In the following years we would intersect paths as we orbited each other on the road, the sort of brief but genuine encounters that I became accustomed to through touring.

The rest of the day in Memphis I occupied myself with menial tasks, cleaning out the forgotten sweaters, Rubbermaid bins, and photograph binders shoved into oblivion at the back of my closet shelves. My mother had just sold the house that we’d lived in throughout my childhood, and I was helping her pack everything into boxes, sort through almost two decades worth of accumulation, and decide what to keep and discard. An unspoken awareness of loss hovered like dust over stacks of cardboard and paper as I sifted through objects full of memories, determining which were essential and dispensable. I yanked down a shoebox of old letters, and a tiny folded sheet of paper floated out: a hand-drawn cartoon card that Scott had given me the year I played with Frightened Rabbit in Austin, Texas on my birthday. I kneeled down and doubled over, suddenly blinded with tears. This casual display of unprompted thoughtfulness for another human being had made the magnitude of loss apparent.

Even the most minute acts of acknowledgment communicate to another person that they are seen, that they matter; to care for another person is to affirm their worth. In our simplest gestures we find ways to pierce the superficial exterior of an often callous and isolated world, to exercise the compassion that draws us together.

Through every small kindness, we form attachments, construct a web of human connection, however tenuous. Thinking of this web, I wondered how many gestures like this a lifetime might contain, and that was both moving and devastating. I imagined the delicate thread spun from the spool of a person, weaving a tangled and imperceptible network through towns and continents, leaving little knots at every point of contact that tug us closer to each other, that makes us feel incrementally less alone.

I thought of the words to “Head Rolls Off,” a song that is ultimately a concession to the inevitability of death and an ode to its bizarrely unifying invariability. The lyrics describe death as “not morbid at all, just when nature’s had enough of you,” something that is predictable and unremarkable. Our time on Earth concludes as naturally and randomly as it begins, and yet the accidental nature of our life’s beginning and ending in this arbitrary universe does not diminish the importance of our actions within it; the song punctuates its dismal acceptance of death’s certainty with a noble resolution: While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth.

Months later as I stand in the wings of a Brooklyn venue watching people sing Frightened Rabbit’s songs to each other, I feel that something carries on, the resonating impact of a person. With no one left onstage, the crowd turns inward to face each other, singing so hard that the words to the chorus reach an atonal shout. The show has become an informal ceremony, part mourning and part celebration, completely sacred. Here, in this complicated intersection of devastation, gratitude, sadness, and joy, people who are otherwise strangers to each other are able to feel wholly understood. The music that was able to connect people to each other with its vulnerability and honesty has established connections that remain intact even when removed from the context of performance or production; it has created a net of interwoven lives that exhibit the lasting impression of the smallest kindness and confirms the urgency, value, and importance of each meager act of empathy, each tiny change we make to Earth.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, help is available. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime, day or night, at 800-273-8255.

Prints of Corr's "Scott Hutchison Tribute" are available for purchase at  the artist's website. The proceeds from each print will be donated to the Scottish Association for Mental Health. 

“Getting Out of the Way” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Julien Baker is a singer-songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee. Her first album, Sprained Ankle, was released in 2015 and made several best-of-the-year lists, including that of the A.V. Club and NPR. Her album Turn Out the Lights was released in 2017 by Matador.