Do you want to hear a Ghostory?
A duo known as School of Seven Bells conjure up a fable in 2012 about a haunted young woman named Lafaye. The tale invokes the spirits of Ian Curtis and Trish Keenan and makes the land of the living seem a paltry place. Ghostory becomes the crowning glory of the musical couple and kicks off a summer of otherworldly proliferation. The inspiration keeps coming from the ether.
Only a year later, the band’s Benjamin Curtis would succumb to lymphoma. The final outpouring of their songs, the self-titled SVIIB, would be released almost half a decade after his passing.
“This record is for you,” surviving member Alejandra Deheza proclaims in a website message to fans. But in speaking with her and other bearers of the legacies of fallen artists, perhaps the “you” is reflective. In this strange, short time in which David Bowie, Scott Weiland, Glenn Frey and more have left our mortal plane, the global music community is relearning how to mourn.
“Unresolved grief is about undelivered communications of an emotional nature,” Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute wrote in 2003. “When death ends the physical aspect of a relationship, there are inevitably unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations about the future.”
For some, releasing posthumous albums is catharsis, the final acceptance that a loved one is gone. In Deheza’s case, SVIIB saw her moving from her New York sanctuary to Los Angeles, recognizing she “really, really needed a change of scenery. And I needed to listen to the music in a different context. Because I just felt like listening to it in New York was almost impossible. There was (sic) way too many memories.”
School of Seven Bells was New York. Along with the now-departed Curtis, Deheza and her twin—former member Claudia, who left the project in 2010—penned shimmery, obsidian electro-pop not dissimilar in mood to that of former tour-mates Interpol. The songs off SVIIB, written and recorded before Curtis’ lymphoma diagnosis, continued in that vein. From the CHVRCHES-like gleam of “On My Heart” to the Depeche Mode-style apocalyptica of “Music Takes Me,” to the ephemeral “Confusion,” it was some of their heartiest work yet.
Unbeknownst to Curtis, the lyrics were about his relationship with Deheza: their meeting in 2004; their romance that spanned from their 2008 debut, Alpinisms, to the 2010 follow-up, Disconnect from Desire; and their platonic years that made for even more fertile songwriting.
Unbeknownst to Deheza, this aural adventure would be Curtis’ sendoff to heaven.
Yet there was little doubt in her mind that the album would eventually be completed and given to the universe.
The global music community is relearning how to mourn.
Deheza says that Curtis’ family and the professional School of Seven Bells team encouraged her to do whatever she felt comfortable when it came to the album. (Benjamin’s brother Brando, who played with him in the Secret Machines, and Claudia helped Deheza and producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen fine-tune the demos the duo recorded in the summer of 2012.)
“The songs, they’re his words,” Deheza says. “Of course they (Curtis’ kin) would want the work to have its moment. They’ve been so great. And honestly, my label; my manager, Ryan—who’s also a really good friend of mine—they were always so incredibly supportive and always like, ‘Whenever you’re ready’ and just constantly checking, having my back. Always. I feel really lucky.”
Luck and emotional support may not be at the heart of some posthumous releases. The lure of cashing in on the loss of an icon is sometimes too great to ignore. The parade of albums released by a post-expiration Michael Jackson and his subsequent “appearance” at the Billboard Music Awards as a hologram angered his longtime producer, Quincy Jones.
“They’re trying to make money. And I understand it. Everybody’s after money, the estate, the lawyers. It’s about money,” Jones lamented to CBC Radio One’s q program in 2014.
And the money comes in droves. According to Forbes, since his 2009 death, Jackson has banked more than $100 million per year. Elvis Presley follows with $55 million earned in 2015—bankrolled by admissions to his Graceland home, his commemorative stamp and its corresponding compilation record, Elvis Presley Forever. EPF is just one of dozens of posthumous albums released in the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll’s memory.
One could argue that love is the most valuable currency in keeping these artists’ music alive. Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Elvis and ex-wife of Jackson, has given tentative permission to use her father’s image as a hologram.
“It would have to be very, very tasteful,” she told Rolling Stone in 2012. (Elvis’ “duet” with Celine Dion on a 2007 episode of American Idol notwithstanding.)
Posthumous permission is a gray area. Take, for example, Jim Marshall’s infamous photo of Johnny Cash flipping the bird. It’s everywhere. Yet, Bill Miller, Cash’s confidant for decades and curator of his Nashville museum, tells us that’s not a persona the Man in Black wanted to perpetuate.
“There was a time when the photographer of that image asked me to approach Cash about putting that on a T-shirt and Johnny said, you know, ‘I don’t ever want to go into a mall and see a kid walking around with that on on a shirt.’” (Though Amelia Davis, beneficiary of Marshall’s estate, told The Wall Street Journal in 2011: “Artists trusted Jim, they knew he’d never misuse the photographs. That’s how he got so close.” Marshall, prior to his death in 2010, referred to the still as “the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.” This licensing nightmare has ultimately led to retailers such as Sears selling the shirt.)
Cash fans can also “pose” with him at the museum, thanks to a little computer magic. Miller says he received the OK from Cash’s estate to set up the photo op. The museum also sells an assortment of merchandise including a dog leash brandished with the phrase “I walk the line.”
“I think everything that we have is acceptable and I think it’s done in good taste,” Miller says. “I knew him well enough and I worked with him on several commercial projects where he developed merchandise. I really know how he would feel about something. … Even when we were designing an exhibit here, I always ask myself, ‘How would John feel about this?’”
There are those among the living who are cosmically tuned to other realms of existence, Deheza included. When asked what Curtis would think of the completed SVIIB album, she answers mirthfully, “I feel like he would be psyched.”
She giggles, as though Curtis just whispered his approval into her ear. He’s out there, and his artistic partner swears she will intuitively find him again in another life.
“I know that we’ll recognize each other,” she says. “We did this time and it was, like, undeniable. And I feel like maybe we’ve had a few lives to build up to that. You know? So I think the next one is just going to be intense, just that spark again.”