Part of what makes life interesting, and sometimes infuriating and terrifying too, is that we know that someday it’s going to end. This much we can all agree on. Wars are fought over the details of what happens after we die, but ultimately we will face the reality of our own end sooner or later, no matter what we believe it means, or what we think might or might not come after. This of course can be quite a weighty, even morbid, thought. Yet for many, the fact that this story will end someday is part of what adds to its meaning; that our life is not defined by the fact that we’re going to die, but rather is made more valuable in that each moment is precious in its evanescence. Is this too heavy for a simple top ten list? Yes? Fair enough.
How about this. There have been many songs and songwriters over the years which have written about death from various perspectives. Since there’s really no way to nail down the nature of death and what it means in any definitive way, that makes it a pretty fertile area for songwriters to bring forth their bounty of songs about it. Kinda weird that I made a metaphor there about growth and creativity to describe the matter of death? Maybe so. But, many would argue that death is as much a part of the growing process as any other stage. And for songs to be made out of our musings about death perhaps can lend some perspective, if not comfort, to the thoughts about the inevitable.
So, here are 10 songs about the Great Void, the Gateway to the Afterlife, The Big Sleep, The Dirt Nap, served up for your Gothic curiosity, your existential angst, your hopefulness that the shadow death is no reason to stop living. And hopefully out of all this, you’ll discover some cool music too.
See That My Grave is Kept Clean – Blind Lemon Jefferson
There is a balance kept in the early blues tradition, with the carnal world of booze, sex, and riches (or lack thereof) on one end of the scale, and matters of the eternal soul on the other. In Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1928 recording of ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’, we get a portrait of a dying man making a request to his loved ones to celebrate his life by being reverent in his death. There is a certain sense of hopelessness here, that the toling bells are those of doom and sadness, and that the hope of redemption, once scoffed at, is now a treasure which is out of reach.
The song is written in a certain tradition which is linked to the gospel churches, the warning to the living to abide by higher powers before it’s too late to rely on their mercies; ” Well, my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold/Now I believe what the bible told”.
On her 2004 album Have a Little Faith, Mavis Staples recorded a stripped-down version of this song; see the above clip to view a live performance. And where the song itself could be looked upon as being somewhat manipulative, I personally look on it as a reminder to celebrate the little moments in life, the little details, to a greater degree than we’re often allowed in a busy life. Because in the end, it won’t be one’s appointment book which defines what one’s life has meant.
Mystery Train – Elvis Presley
This song is one of a few which defines Elvis Presley’s early career at Sun Records in Memphis. It’s actually a cover version of a song by Junior Parker co-written with Sun producer/owner Sam Phillips and released in 1953. When Elvis recorded the tune in 1956, it was done in the typical slap-back echo production style of rockabilly, which adds to its mysterious atmosphere. This is largely down to Scotty Moore‘s insistent guitar riff, which is as rhythmic as any train moving down the track.
The extra element of the song is the implication that the long, black train which takes the narrator’s loved one is on a one way journey into the unknown, never to return. As such, this is a song of mourning, and a common metaphor for death; a train bound for the Great Mystery.
The song has become a rock n’ roll and pop music standard, covered by such diverse acts as Ricky Nelson, The Band, The Neville Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, and The Soft Boys. It seems that the image of a fearsome, unstoppable train as an image for death resonates across all kinds of genres, eras, and cultures. Yet in Elvis’ version, the train takes loved ones away, but it also delivers them, making it a mixed blessing of sorts that even when loved ones depart, that there going on their own journey elsewhere.
Teen Angel – Mark Dinning
At the end of the 1950s and early 60s, there was an odd sub-genre of pop song called the death ballad, or teen death song which usually centered around a tragic accident which separates teen lovers. This could have its roots in the country and western murder ballad, which was also a popular and grisly sub-genre which had been popular in the 20s and 30s. There are a number of songs which can be counted among this sub-genre – ‘Tell Laura I Love Her”, “Dead Man’s Curve”,”Leader of the Pack”, and many others.
Possibly the most maudlin, the most contrived, and manipulative of these is Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” which is the king of them all, released in 1960. It’s got everything; tragedy, emotive delivery, and (perhaps most importantly) silly choices that the characters in the song make which cause their undoing.
Who knows why this type of song made such an impact. It could be that the tender psyche of early-60s youth was ripe for this kind of thing, fearing the loss of love more so than the loss of life in the years where mortality is something only the elderly are concerned with. This brings out the tendency to look upon death as slightly Romantic (note the big “R”), in that the rule of love is the prime focus here, that not even death can change the power of true love.
There must have been a sense of catharsis at the time which translated to money spent on hit singles by teenagers. Of course now, there are songs about death which teens gobble up with not a whiff of Romanticism in sight. If death is a constant, then everything else sure isn’t when it comes to how we think about it.
And When I Die – Laura Nyro
Laura Nyro was not appreciated by the 60s counterculture, mainly because she was looked upon as a traditionalist which was a capital offence to the turn on, tune-in, and drop out crowd – she was booed when she played the Monterey Pop Festival! Part of what made Nyro’s approach to songwriting world’s apart from that of her contemporaries was that she leaned on the traditions of the spirituals (among other influences, like tin pan alley and show tunes). These are songs written from the standpoint of straight-forward peoples who ponder the great questions of life and death using very conventional, yet very potent means; their imaginations and their faith.
Probably the most upfront of her songs along these lines is her song “And When I Die”, which was featured on 1967’s More Than A New Discovery. The sentiment toward death here is not romanticized, neither is it something to necessarily be dreaded. But rather, this is about seeing death as something unavoidable and being sustained by the idea that if something is natural, than it must ultimately be good too.
The fact that ‘the world will carry on’ after our deaths is a comforting thought here, that the experiences and memories of the human race as a whole adds up to something we can all claim as a legacy. As a footnote, Laura Nyro would pass at the early age of 50 from ovarian cancer in 1997. Even still, another thing which carries on are her songs, which is the little something extra artists of her stature get to leave behind. Her song would be a hit by Blood, Sweat & Tears, who recorded it in 1969 to make it a major radio staple for many years, up until today.
All Things Must Pass – George Harrison
Of all of the Beatles, George was the one who most found the riches and fame resulting from his job as guitarist in a pop group something of an absurdity. This is particularly true in light of his spiritual leanings toward Eastern Mysticism which looks upon all things on the material plane as being cumbersome to the spiritual journey, so long as we remain attached to them. As such, the thought behind the song was a central one to his worldview.
In this song, George acknowledges that everything changes, that we are creatures in time, moving forward through it toward an eventual end. Yet, like Laura Nyro’s song, this is not something to be dreaded; it is the natural state of things.
My favourite version of this song is the one to be found on The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 3, which George recorded solo on his birthday, February 25, 1969. Why it wasn’t included on the Let It Be is anyone’s guess. It’s just him and his guitar – a beautiful, poignant song which demonstrated the remarkable thoughtfulness of a man who had only just turned 25 years old. It would of course serve as the title track of his first post-Beatles solo album, and perhaps was also a means to speak to Beatles fans, who were mourning the loss of their four heroes playing together.
(Don’t Fear) the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
In many ways, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult from their 1976 Agents of Fortune album was a throwback to the teen death ballad as exemplified by Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel”. This has the whiff of Romanticism to it as well, going so far as to namecheck Romeo & Juliet as the poster children for eternal love as consummated in death – the ultimate teen death ballad couple.
The song is full of Gothic imagery of Death as a comforting figure who gives power to those who shuffle off this mortal coil. Some of the lines are cinematic, right out of the horror movies of the time – doors opening, candles blowing out, and fluttering curtains as Death appears.
Despite the relative pop nature of this song, with an infectious guitar riff which remains to be as memorable as any in rock history, the song has an unsettling quality to it. There is something dreadful in the idea of making death into something attractive, that ‘being able to fly’ in this song is preferable to living a life.
The instruction not to fear the reaper becomes blurred a bit here, as the song becomes more and more open to interpretation as it goes along. Is this a song about a comforting presence at the time of death, or is it one about the temptation of the despairing, an attempt by malevolent forces to lure the downhearted into the darkness by promises of release and relief? Whatever the interpretation here, this is a song about death which certainly has an impact. Maybe it’s all of the cowbell?
The Birds Will Still Be Singing – Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet
For some, the idea of an afterlife is very comforting; the chance to see their loved ones who have passed on, and to possibly discover what lies beyond our seemingly random existence on earth. Yet, for others, the hope of oblivion is just as comforting, to know that life is ultimately meaningful and valuable, because this is the only shot we have of defining that meaning for ourselves. It is this latter idea which collaborators Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet are exploring here in the final song of their 1993 album The Juliet Letters.
In this song, “eternity stinks”. Taking the time to notice the things in this life, to celebrate it in the present, not to build monuments to it after loved ones die is what is most important. The funereal accouterments spoken of in this song – the lillies, the ‘pretty words to say’, are mingled with the idea that even these are subject to the ravages of time, the ‘perfume of decay’.
The comfort here, the banishment of “all dismay/extinguish every sorrow” is that the world will continue as it has done, with all the beauty to be found in it. In this sense, the sentiment in this tune is the same as that in Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” although in this case, humanity is not a given. In this song, with sweetly arranged cello, violin, and viola shrouding Costello’s low voice that carries its hymn-like melody, it’s the singing of the birds which is the constant, not the birth of children. Maybe this singing is the music of an otherwise silent world which has seen humanity come and go – strengths, foibles, and all.
Death is Not The End – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Interpretation is everything, kids. And in this song, written by Bob Dylan and recorded for his 1988 Down in the Groove album is given a tweaking-by-delivery on this 1996 version by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, with guest vocalists Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey, and Shane MacGowan. The song was the closer for Cave’s Murder Ballads album, which was a series of covers of traditional songs within that tradition.
In many ways, this song which might have been looked upon as somewhat incongruous on an album with songs of such violence to them. But, because of the company this song keeps, it ceases to be about the abiding peace to be gained in the afterlife, which is what Dylan intended it to be. The escape from the sufferings in this life – cities on fire/with the burning flesh of men – with the hope of moving on to another plane is removed by implication. Instead, Cave’s take on the song promises that death is no escape at all, that the lack of an end also extends to the suffering which is described – that death will not be the end to that suffering. So, Cave turns the song on its head without changing a single line, just by putting it on an album which deals with death’s cruelty and menace rather than its role as a transition to a removed afterlife where suffering is ended.
P.S You Rock My World – Eels
1998’s Electro-Shock Blues by Eels is a chronicle of loss from songwriter E, otherwise known as Mark Everett, after the deaths of several of his friends and family members in a short span of time. In his loss, E turned to writing a concept album about death and mourning, and this song “P.S You Rock My World” was the album closer, and an effective conclusion of the process of getting over the loss of loved ones and moving on.
This song is about a change in perspective with regard to the details of one’s existence in the light of the finality of death, that when faced with the small moments, even the unpleasant or annoying ones, moments are a gift no matter what their nature happens to be.
The tune represents an acknowledgment of loss, yet also feels like light at the end of the tunnel. The deaths of those around one in this song is not a reason to fold, but proves to be a reason to enjoy life to its fullest, even to the point where a sense of thankfulness is felt even when short changed at the till of a convenience store, or while being honked at by an impatient old lady who wants you to fix her car. The musings here are about moving forward regardless, “taking a walk” instead of “dodging bullets”. It is one of the most insightful, and respectful songs about the subject ever written.
Keep Me In Your Heart – Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon knew he was dying. As a result, he was in the position that many are not in as a songwriter in these circumstances; he could say goodbye through song. On his final album The Wind released in 2003, Zevon does just that. This could easily have been a “My Way”, a song of regret, or possibly one of self-pity too.
But, this is not about the man himself. It’s about his living friends, family, and fans; it’s a song for those left behind, a message of love from a dying man to the people he loves and who love him. The understanding of immortality here is one which relies on such love, the memories and remembrence of the man as the best way to soothe them in times of grief.
This song is not only touching because it shows just how ready Zevon appeared to be by the end, but because we’re reminded how connected he was to those in his life, like all of us are to some degree. It reminds us that when someone dies, there is a hole in our lives which we have to look to, to face in order to make sure that the person who once filled that hole doesn’t become defined by it. That’s the whole point of mourning. And Warren Zevon had the chance to remind us of that in the face of his own death, making this more than just a song to those who knew him and loved him.
Death; the real final frontier. Or, maybe just a gateway to some other frontier. We really don’t know. But what can be determined fairly well is that having to face death is something everyone has to experience. A lot of the time, it makes no sense at all. Sometimes, one gains a new perspective on what each moment, each breath, is worth. Others make a fantasy out of the possibilities of life after death.
And once again, popular song has allowed the expression of all of these, adding dimension, meaning, and sometimes even comfort in times of loss. A good tune often gives substance to the old saying that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, even if a lot of the time, we’re fumbling around in the dark trying to find the matches.