John Bueno explores the darker side of pop music history.
“Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid.” – Langston Hughes
Heavy title, huh? Death. The “Big Sleep”. The Final Exit. What always amazes and confounds me about death is that it’s so different and personal to each one of us, both in how we perceive it and how we deal with its’ inevitability. Death is humanities one truly universal experience, albeit our final. As a species, we often try to cope with our creeping mortality, sometimes through vice or prayer (both noble in their own right). But through the tension release of art, music has given us a unique look into the minds of mankind and given endless well of analysis on a sometimes sordid but always fascinating topic.
Anyway, here’s a playlist for your next party, if you want your party to be a total bummer!
“(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult | Now sadly only known as “that song from when Christopher Walken needed more cowbell on SNL”, my own personal first brush with sonic death was hearing this song blasting out of my dads’ Buick Regal in the late 80’s. The penultimate ode to the afterlife, almost calm and gentle in its’ approach of human expiration, this classic rock staple floats along seemingly without a care, stopping only to deliver a bridge section that plays out incredibly, proto-heavy metal at its’ finest, sounding like the last aural moments of mortality shifting into a roller coaster ride straight to Damnation Station. Epic to say the least.
“A Distorted Reality Is Now Necessary to be Free” – Elliot Smith | It’s somewhat fitting that the last song on the posthumously released collection “New Moon” by Elliot Smith take a somber and macabre approach (never a problem for Mr. Smith), as the heralded singer-songwriter would die from a highly disputed and publicized suicide in October of 2003. On this track, intensely personal lyricism, replete with veiled allusions to drug dependence, suicide and depression lilt over a subdued and stripped down acoustic guitar, eventually giving way to full instrumentation that turn the indie song into an almost orchestral movement, a hallmark style frequently employed within his catalogue. Achingly mournful and beautifully brilliant, and unfortunately gone far too soon.
“There is A Light That Never Goes Out” – The Smiths | A song that’s equal parts bleak and haunting as it is and shimmering and luminous, I could probably write a graduate thesis on the beauty contained within its’ four minutes and four seconds. Musically, it melds the worlds of British pop and New Wave seamlessly, synthesized strings offering a despondent overture to the downcast youth of a Margaret Thatcher-bred 1980’s. But the melancholic and sardonic lyricism of Morrissey really sets it apart, the song itself about a romantic encounter so perfect and captivating, the Moz goes as far as to say he would not care if a “double decker bus” were to crash into them, as to die by their side would be “such a heavenly way to die.” Heavy handed and trite? Maybe. Endlessly enthralling? Absolutely.
“Ready to Die” Notorious B.I.G. | The murder of the Notorious B.I.G. sent shockwaves throughout hip hop fans the world over. The possible casualty of an all too often overtly violent street culture, the aggression and crime of a pre-gentrification 90’s New York City is on display heavily all over this track, with brutal yet still silky smooth lyrics taking on the persona of a stick up kid with a callous disregard for both his own life and the lives of others. For him, life is disposable, cold and ultimately fleeting. The song is an important look into a world rarely heard with such intensity other than by those living it.
“25 Minutes To Go” – Johnny Cash | Originally penned and recorded by children’s book author Shel Silverstein, the best version is handled by the Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash. Never afraid to tackle darker imagery throughout his career, this song is a doozy. Recorded inside Folsom Prison live for the inmates for his acclaimed “Live at Folsom Prison” album. A perfect example of “gallows humor”, the song centers on a criminal sentenced to hang for their crimes in prison, recounting their last 25 minutes on Earth. Full of trademark Johnny Cash grit and lyrical middle finger, sections of the song centering on the Warden and pardons whip the inmates into a frenzy, the song sped up as the song winds down by Cash’s backing band the Tennessee Three. By the time the clock is down to 5 minutes left, Cash’s voice is at a near holler, and the inmates are right there with him, some of them literally. Powerful stuff.
“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” – Death Cab for Cutie | The true beauty of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” off of Death Cab’s seminal “PLANS” album lies not within it’s quietly gorgeous acoustic guitar, nor its’ lo-fi sensibility. They merely add to it. It’s real beauty lies in its’ lyrics, (courtesy of DCFC frontman Benjamin Gibbard) penning a truly gorgeous, albeit plaintive ballad. The songs’ lyrics speak as an assurance, a promise that in both life and death, through the uncertainties or “dark” parts of life, that death is not to be feared, as the object of affection in the song would be “followed” their beloved “into the dark”. Recently, there has been an uptick of non-traditional couples using the song as a wedding march, as well they should. This tune was pretty much made for it.
“Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin | I know, I know. We’ve all heard the song, it’s pretty much everywhere. If you walked into a Guitar Center at this very moment, there’s a 75% chance someone is playing a half baked, mistake riddled rendition of it right now. With abstract lyricism largely defying any concrete analysis, multiple instrumental movements and kick ass guitar solos, it typifies the arena rock era from whence it came, easily earning the title of one of the greatest rock n’ roll songs of all time. Rumor has it, certain sections of the song contain hidden messages to Satan himself, an allegation made stronger by Zep guitarist Jimmy Page purchasing avowed Satanist Alesiter Crowleys’ Scottish estate. Has Nickelback ever done anything that cool? I doubt it.
“Tha Crossroads”- Bone Thugs -n- Harmony | With a laid back beat chill enough to make an old timers’ head nod uncontrollably, Grammy Award winning Cleveland, Ohio emcees Bone Thugs -N- Harmony (Layzie Bone, Krayzie Bone, Wish Bone, Flesh-N-Bone and Bizzy Bone respectively) lay down one of the most arrestingly moving hip hop songs of the 1990’s (or any decade for that matter). Straight off their multi-platinum “E. 1999 Eternal” album, this trip to Jam City offers up 4 of the 5 members replacing the harder style they had been previously known for with a softer lyrical approach, while still serving up rapid fire and complex rhymes, heartfelt vignettes of friends and family members lost, a dose of spirituality and faith in god permeating throughout the track. Simply beautiful.
“Gloomy Sunday” – Billie Holiday | Watch out, this song is a killer! Also known by the fun and fancy free title “Hungarian Suicide Song”, this cover by jazz legend Billie Holiday is kind of a bummer, but in the best way. Originally entitled “Vége a világnak (The world is ending)” the songs centers around a despondent victim of war, looking to “end it all” and reunite with their beloved in their afterlife. Urban legend has it that many people have committed suicide while listening to this song, prompting the BBC to ban the Lady Day version from being played on air in the 1940’s, a ban not lifted until 2002. Spooky.
“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam | The tale of this song is not for the faint of heart. This grunge-era classic is based on the true life events of Jeremy Delle, a Texas teen who shot himself in front of his English class. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder was inspired to write about the incident after reading a small article about it in a newspaper. Of the song, he has stated there was a “need to take that small article and make something of it—to give that action, to give it reaction, to give it more importance.” The creepy music video for “Jeremy”, while kept in heavy rotation upon its’ release on MTV in 1991, was not without controversy, with a push to ban it from MTV and prosecution team for a 1996 Moses Lake, Washington school shooting naming the video as a motivation.
Do you Spotify? Well here’s a playlist of the songs right here! Complete with the honorable mentions too.
Honorable Mentions ///
One Step Beyond – Prince Buster
Angel of Death – SLAYER
Leader of the Pack – The Shangri-Las
T.R.O.Y. – Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth
Marquee Moon – Television