Photo: Nicole Mago
How Singer/Songwriter Brian Mackey Eulogized His Son With "Saturday Night Sleeping": "I Wasn't Making Excuses Anymore With The Song"
During the worst week of Brian Mackey's life, a wren flew into his house and refused to leave. Instead, the little bird clung to the ceiling fan. He accepted the offer of an extended broom, but even still, he wouldn't let go. He wouldn't fly away. "I pulled the broom back in and he let me touch him," Mackey says. "I said, 'Dude, this has to be my son.'"
"They say in Irish folklore that spirits come back as a wren," he explains. "I definitely think there are spirit forces in the world. I think they stay around. Good or bad, man—they just stay around. I know that the spirit of him lives inside me, anyway."
Mackey doesn't subscribe to a rigid dogma about matters of the incorporeal; really, it's something of a coping mechanism. Because three years ago, his brilliant son—also named Brian—died of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl at only 28.
Despite being a recovering alcoholic and drug addict himself, Mackey has managed to stay on the wagon and soothe himself with healthy habits—as well as his ability to express himself through song.
The gobsmacking loss led to his song "Saturday Night Sleeping," a "cautionary tale of what can happen if you f*** around with heroin or fentanyl" released last May in conjunction with MusiCares. (100 percent of the proceeds go to the foundation; you can purchase or stream the song here.)
Whether the winged visitor was a coincidence or a sign, the communion he felt in that moment illustrates his lessons about grief: It was destabilizing, but also added fathoms of empathy, wisdom and perception to his lived experience. Thankfully—despite other blows, like losing his brother to COVID last year—Mackey has remained happy, healthy and creative.
Below, the singer/songwriter opens up to MusiCares about the cataclysmic moment his son left the planet, his approach to writing about grief and his tips for fellow recovering addicts to "shut off the motor" in constructive ways.
He has a new, 13-song album, Good Morning Ireland, on the way; watch his online presence for news on that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When people talk about grief, they tend to focus on the catatonia in the moment, but I'm more interested in the long tail of it over the span of years. Where are you at with it?
It's funny you ask that, because yesterday, I gave myself a good cry. I hadn't cried in a long time. I was listening to a song that I worked on—not this latest release—but I started crying because I had flashbacks in my mind. With the pandemic quiet-time down, it really made it super-difficult because I didn't have other things to occupy my thoughts with—touring or studio stuff.
Long-term, it's been like a smouldering campfire. Sometimes, you don't see the flames, but you smell the smoke. I smell the smoke of grief. I still do. I feel it sometimes, and other times, I put it out of my mind and can handle it. Then, there'll be something that sets me off, like yesterday. I just had a flood of memories of Brian as a child doing certain things and the dreams he had.
All that stuff is totally gone. You want that person to talk to you and they can't.
Yeah. I suddenly lost my dad a few years ago and it was like "Ooookay, that door is closed now."
It's so final, right, bro? Sorry to hear that. That's a tough thing. It's the finale, I guess. Not being able to talk to them or find out if they're doing OK, wherever they are.
Sometimes my brain processes dead loved ones as simply being away somewhere.
That's where I put myself for a while. He's just away, you know? I think we do that to ourselves as a protective coping thing that we do subconsciously. It seems like a good fit, though, doesn't it? He's away. It's just easier to say that. Trick yourself!
You know, I go to therapy. I have a pretty cool therapist, and I actually said something similar to what you just told me. She said that it's totally healthy to do that. Don't live in denial forever, but if you need to do it for a little while—as long as you realize you're doing it. If you didn't, that would be a problem.
That's where I'm at with it. It's just been a process. It's something that's been hard, and at the same time, there's been times I don't think about it at all. But then there's times where it really hits me, you know? Every day, I think about something, but I try not to dwell.
Brian Mackey. Photo: Nicole Mago
Do you ever feel like you had to build or grow things in the crater left by your son? In a sense, my entire journalism career is a grief-processing experience. The event made me do this.
I started on a creative snap as far as writing. Directly after it happened, I did some shows with Howie Day in Colorado. After that, I went out to Europe for 17 cities. I was really distracted, so I didn't really have time to think. I was grooving; I was still doing shows. Then the pandemic stuff hit.
It's been a process, but I feel like it sparked something in me also: To be more expedient on stuff. To not let the grass grow underneath me so much. To get to things right away and not procrastinate. Because, dude, I can be a total procrastinator. ADD, extreme. "I got an electronic drum set! I'll set that up!" I'll play that for a couple of hours and then, boom, play the guitar. Or just watch stupid TV and not do anything.
I learned there's time for that, but there's also time to finish those half-a-dozen songs I have scribbled on little pieces of paper and on my phone, where I left messages to myself.
One underdiscussed part of grief, to me, is the silver lining. Even when you lose somebody precious to you, there can be really positive transformations and weird benefits where you become wiser and deeper.
There actually were. My mom is a creative person, but she also has traits like narcissism. She can be narcissistic. That can be toxic, right? So, after the passing, I felt like I had this super-vision: Everything's in focus now, and I can see people's intentions and motivations from 50 yards.
You can say I was being cynical, but I was being more enlightened about people's motivations. By me feeling so super-fragile, it kind of heightened a sense in me where I saw where people are fragile. They do things not necessarily to hurt other people but because they're insecure themselves and they're fragile. So, they may want more from you or make life difficult for other people in their life.
I also looked at things with more gratitude. Different relationships that were more pure and honest—I actually cultivated them more and felt more akin to people that maybe didn't have a lot of money or couldn't do anything for me. But they were there for me, as far as being there with advice or to offer some kind of guidance where I never looked at it.
Sometimes, we get caught in this thing where we're always looking to get something from somebody. I kind of fell into that for a while. I was always like, "Well, how can this person help me?" I felt like I had some spiritual growth from it and valued people's lives more, and their time.
It was a big kick in the balls, bro. It was full-on, someone with steel-toed boots just railed me as hard as they could. It shook me and made me value and honor people more.
It actually prompted me to repair some relationships with other family members. I realized death is real and we have to hold each other close and tell each other how we feel.
Dude, that's awesome. Isn't that a good feeling? If you don't have your dad in your life, at least you have part of your past and your childhood where you can write over some of the bad stuff and make new memories. That is gold, if that wakes up a part of you where you can start anew with somebody.
I like that "Saturday Night Sleeping" doesn't fall into the traps that grief or recovery songs sometimes do. It's not hectoring or self-serious or self-pitying. It has a weight to it, like a giant rickety galleon of a song. Is there beauty and majesty in dying? Or does it just suck—is it something to spit at?
There is a certain amount of beauty in the release of somebody who is suffering. It's a tragedy in having to deal with the feelings of lost life and the opportunities that are never going to come for that person, you know what I mean? You want people to do better than you.
I wasn't making excuses anymore with the song. I sat in rehab with him. I helped him detox. I had problems with drugs myself, you know? But I helped him as much as I could. Of course, there's still a lot of blame. But when I wrote the song, it was kind of me saying to him "I understand."
Heroin, dude, is a strong enticer. It's very seducing. Once it's in your veins, it almost is like getting bit by a vampire. You're infected. That's why a lot of people succumb to it. He died on a Saturday night. He was Saturday-night sleeping, then I got the call on Sunday from a detective.
I just thought he didn't pay some kind of court fine or something. I thought it was something stupid. When I heard quiet on the other end of the phone, I said "He's dead, right?" He said "Yes. I'm sorry."
With the song, I was letting people know that there was more to the story other than "He died." He got poisoned. He poisoned himself. He ended up dead. To me, it makes it a lot easier to say "He poisoned himself" because, basically, that's what he did.
Do you deal with any post-traumatic stress from The Call? I'll never forget where I was or what I was doing when I got mine.
Yeah, man. That's a great question, because there's a certain part of my house where I remember receiving the phone call. Still, when I walk past that, I feel sad. I feel better when I'm away sometimes. Like, when I'm out of the house, because that's where I got the news.
And this is funny: I thought I was having a heart attack, so I went down to the emergency room. I laugh at it now. So, what I did was I parked out front, swung my door open—you're supposed to park in the parking garage or something—I pulled out front and left my door open.
I don't even think I had shoes on. I was wearing boxer shorts. I just walked in there and stood in line and was like, "I'm having a heart attack." They were looking at me like, "Well, you've got to get in line." So, you know what I did? Suddenly, I felt better because I was like "I'm not waiting in a f***ing line! F*** this!"
I felt like I couldn't breathe, dude. I hung up on the detective and didn't want to hear any other word he had to say. Just done. That was that, and then my brother died last year of COVID. The death thing has been hard, man. You can relate with your dad and stuff. It's a bitter thing to put in your mouth because there's a taste that lingers forever.
What happened to your brother?
What happened was he abused drugs and alcohol. He contracted pneumonia and he was in the hospital and his liver was shutting down because he had cirrhosis.
He drank like crazy, man. From morning to night. His body was compromised and then he must have picked up some strain of [COVID-19]. And then they wouldn't let me see him and all that stuff, so that was emotional. Thank god for the stimulus checks, because I ended up using that to bury him.
It was just weird, man. I became more spiritual, too, and I feel the spirit of certain things around me to help me through stuff. I know it sounds weird, and maybe some people believe in it and others don't. But I actually feel like there's some kind of spirit around me helping me prop up.
Dude, sometimes I don't know where it comes from—how I'm able to deal with this stuff. I faint at blood tests sometimes. I don't like that stuff. When it's somebody else, I do rise to the occasion.
But with the song, I'm not trying to feel bad about anything. I'm not trying to make anybody feel sorry for me. It's more of a cautionary tale of what can happen if you f*** around with heroin or fentanyl, because he had a mix of both.
I also don't want to define your son by his demise. What was he like in life? What was it like to hang out with him?
So, he was cool, but he had a bad temper. He was very cool—funny—but also, in the same sense, he had this way about him where if you pissed him off, he could get pretty bad about it.
He suffered, I think, from a lot of insecurity issues. His mom and I had him when we were 17, dude. We met in kindergarten. We'd been together a long time. And when we separated, he didn't handle any of that stuff well. She kind of poisoned the well and said "Your father doesn't love you" and all that s***.
It made him angry at me for a while and I was like, "Dude, just stop. I'm here for you. I love you. I'm going to go to these meetings with you. Was I a perfect father? No, not at all. But I love you and I really want you to love." At the end, we were starting to get really close. Then that s*** happened.
He was brilliant, though, as far as what he would say and his philosophies on things. I would look at him sometimes and go, "Yeah. Wow." It's interesting to hear something you didn't think of come out of someone you made. And you can agree with them: "I never thought of that."
I had a sign two days after he passed. A bird flew in our window—a wren. And he didn't want to leave. He jumped on the ceiling fan. I held out a broom; he jumped on the broom. I opened up the window, put the broom out the window and he didn't want to fly away. Then I turned the broom upside down, hoping he'd fall off and fly away. He didn't. So, I pulled the broom back in and he let me touch him.
I said, "Dude, this has to be my son." They say in Irish folklore that spirits come back as a wren. I definitely think there are spirit forces in the world. I think they stay around. Good or bad, man—they just stay around. I know that the spirit of him lives inside me, anyway.
I don't think that's supernatural or woo. I think it's a biological reality—he came from you.
Exactly. That's going to have to be. It's a heavy thing to think about, but I have a lot of new music I'm coming out with and I've been trying to focus on that and get stuff done. Trying to just pick up and not fall down and let this totally consume me.
Brian Mackey. Photo: Nicole Mago
I want to touch on the struggle with drugs and alcohol you mentioned. What would you tell someone who's looking to disappear in a chemical fog? In a pandemic year, it's hard to come up with a cogent argument against it sometimes.
You're right, dude. Because escapism is going to be part of people's staying sane. If we go full throttle, just like a motor, we're going to blow up. So there has to be downtime of escapism and shutting the motor off. Getting yourself drugged up or drinking or whatever does shut the motor off and slow the thought process down, and I get that.
But there are some practical things people can do if they're an addict. I had a bad drinking problem and was involved with drugs. Now, I meditate. I do yoga. I do certain things to try and slow my mind down. I say a prayer; I've never been a prayer before, but, hey. To each his own.
I think people can do things that cut the addiction want to a minimum. Because we're always going to have addictions—whether it's to Internet porn, alcohol, gaming, weed.
I think what we need to do, to narrow it down to a couple of words, is just have respect for your future. Because if you don't have respect for your future, you're not going to be in the present anyway. You're going to be zonked out. If you don't see yourself in the future, you're going to just do what you want.
But if you want to be in the future and look forward to things—you want to build and have aspirations—a lot of times, people don't have aspirations and they give up. That's when addiction really takes hold and says "Hey, you have me. You have me, always." I think people need to be more focused. They need to meditate. They need to have healthy habits.
If you're sneaking to do something, chances are it's not a healthy habit. Try to find something you don't have to sneak to do, and then, usually, you'll be on the path of getting well and staying sober.