What Powderfinger taught me about grieving and loss

Jamie Dunkin
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Some of Powderfinger’s best tracks felt like tangible hugs at a time when I needed them most, writes Jamie Dunkin.
Some of Powderfinger’s best tracks felt like tangible hugs at a time when I needed them most, writes Jamie Dunkin. Credit: Unknown/Supplied by Subject

When you grow up, your earliest exposure to music is whatever is on in the car and on the radio at home, at the behest of your parents.

You’re slowly exposed to different artists and types of music, and it tends to leave an impression on you.

During our annual family trip down to the Mornington Peninsula to see my grandparents, the long road trip down was given a backing track from the likes of The Killers, Bruce Springsteen, Meat Loaf, Hunters & Collectors, and of course, Powderfinger.

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Few left more of an impression on me than that of Powderfinger, which has remained a staple in my listening routine. The album Odyssey Number Five became ingrained into my memory, particularly when I think back to my late grandparents.

The same tracks I heard when travelling to visit my grandparents became the songs I used to grieve their passing.

Years later, it gained even more resonance to me when my surrogate uncle Graeme passed away in early 2020. He was a big music man, a former music roadie, and a big fan of football. He was an encyclopaedia of Australian music.

Powderfinger’s career-defining album Odyssey Number Five is a listening staple for Aussies everywhere. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

Powderfinger’s bittersweet and cathartic tracks These Days and Whatever Makes You Happy felt like a tangible hug at a time when I desperately needed them.

These Days, as far as I’m concerned, is their best song and one of the most powerful bits of Australian music ever produced.

There’s such a haunting quality to the lyrics, with a real sense of powerlessness perfectly embodied by Bernard Fanning’s voice. It became a grieving song for me, and one that still strikes just the right emotional chord.

I’ve always felt it from the perspective of someone who is watching a loved one slowly pass away to something completely out of their control. The “slowly creeping hand” is anything from cancer to dementia to simply bad luck.

Having watched loved ones slowly lose themselves to dementia and cancer, it was the most accurate description of the powerlessness I felt. Fanning’s own brother died from cancer, and I’ve always wondered if that was the background for ‘These Days’.

This life, well, it’s slipping right through my hands. These days turned out nothing like I had planned.

Then there’s Whatever Makes You Happy. Lesser known and less celebrated than most of their tracks, but deserve far more recognition.

The closing track of Odyssey Number Five will always invoke a certain emotion in me and clutches at the heartstrings. It takes me right back and plays a big role in my learning to cope with loss.

Powered by Fanning’s vocals and a simple acoustic guitar, this fairly short song remained on rotation for me at some of the toughest times in the grieving cycle.

During Graeme’s funeral, I quoted this song for my eulogy. I still choke up thinking about it.

We search around for solid ground that will help to carry us away If the memories I left throw the light that helps to guide you through We trickle down to our goodbyes but a part of me will stay with you What we’ve spoken over time, never broken or compromised

Something Powderfinger’s music did for me was make that confusion and the sensation of not knowing how to feel normalised. To this day just hearing the song, and those lines, fill me with warmth knowing the memories do indeed guide you through the pain of loss.

The message that the album leaves with me still is to make the most of the time you have with people, make time for people, and use that time to create memories that power you on in the years to come.

That’s what Powderfinger were so good at. While a lot of the recognition goes to their more rock tracks, their quieter works are some of their best additions to the Aussie music canon.

It’s only natural and right to see Powderfinger recognised at the King’s Honours.


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