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Thursday, November 9, 2017

RETRO! Five Bands Vol. 4 - Death Songs

Back in the early 2000's, I wrote for a website called  Primarily they were a movie site but after some cajoling, they agreed to allow me a regular column called Five Bands.  The post below was originally posted on that site.  I've made a few modifications for clarity but that's it.  

Five Bands:  My Five Favorite Death Songs - Cary Christopher

Death. That's... pretty final... 

In fact, it's a subject many people don't want to talk about, read about or experience at all in any way, shape or form. I've always been fascinated by it though. Not in a "Cary wants to die" way. Trust me, I'm extremely happy being alive. My fascination has always been with how death is perceived in history, culture and art. That fascination began as a teen when I delved into the world of rock and roll. 

Whether it's famous rock and roll deaths like Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass or the famous high school rock and roll myths ("When the police arrived at the scene, the car stereo was playing 'Runnin' With The Devil' man!") death and rock music seem to flirt with one another constantly.

As subject matter goes though, death has spawned some truly great songs. While not as proliferous as the "Love Song", the "Death Song" category seems to have more winners than losers and while there are some famous classic hits like Bloodstone's "D.O.A." and Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve", many of my favorite death songs never made it to radio. In my opinion though, they stand head and shoulders above their more popular brethren. 

Here are my favorite five:

1. Deep Red Bells - Neko Case: Lyrically, Case tells the story of a young girl abducted and killed on the highway. Her body lies in the grassy field near an overpass and for me, the song brings to mind the highways I used to travel in the Smoky Mountains.  There's a mist that clings to the earth in the early mornings there and I can easily imagine a body lying forgotten amongst the beauty of the forest. 

Case pulls off this imagery perfectly with lines like "speckled fawns graze round your bones" and describes the bloody handprint on the car as looking "a lot like engine oil".  Top that off with Neko Case having possibly the most amazing voice in rock music and this is a hell of a great song. In fact, this is probably my favorite "death song" ever; although number two on this list could take it over on the right day. 

2. Not Even Stevie Nicks - Calexico: This song cuts right to the chase. The opening lines are:

With a head like a vulture
and a heart full of hornets
he drives off the cliff
into the blue

Seriously, how great is that opening verse? Blend those fantastic lyrics with Calexico's penchant for combining elements of traditional rock and southwestern influences and you've got a winner. It's not my favorite Calexico song (that would be very hard for me to define) but it's a truly great death song.

3. A Good Idea - Sugar: This song is a personal favorite because the first few times I heard it I didn't pay attention to the lyrics at all. I just liked the music. I got to see Sugar when they were playing warm up gigs in clubs prior to this album being released. I was walking away from those shows singing "That's a good idea, she said, she said" for days.  They were the only lyrics I knew and I figured it was a love song.  

Imagine my surprise when I finally got my hands on the album and found out this rollicking song is about a murder! It's a sometimes-confusing story of a drowning. Confusing because half the lyrics seem to be sung by the murderer and the other half seem to be sung by a witness who watched from his boat on the ocean. The two perspectives paint a very interesting picture, with the victim seeming to be a willing participant. Ultimately, the witness says he expects to see her ghost when he's on the water, which instantly reminds me of the movie Creepshow

4. Tomorrow Wendy - Concrete Blonde: "Hey hey, Goodbye. Tomorrow Wendy's going to die." This one is a given. Of course, it's also every 90's Goth teen's favorite song, but there's a reason for that. Tomorrow Wendy lets you wander through the mind of a woman who is on the verge of death. What she's dying from isn't important (AIDS, cancer, etc. have been batted around). What does matter is that Wendy's recollections are painted through what seems to be a haze of painkillers that make her veer from nostalgic bliss to anger at God himself. In doing so, she takes the listener on a ride through a range of emotions that I've never heard explored as well in any other song. It's truly powerful and made even more so by Johnette Napolitano's awesome voice. 

5. No One Lives Forever - Oingo Boingo: This is the song I want played at my wake!  If there's any death song that will instantly get a party going, this would be the one. Danny Elfman and company wave their asses in the face of the Reaper himself and dance merrily away while reminding you that there's a price to pay. The imagery in the lyrics goes perfectly with the band's Dia De Los Muertos image.

Let's have a party
There's a full moon in the sky
It's the hour of the wolf
And I don't want to die. 

Not exactly the chess-playing knight from a Bergman film is it? But if you're going to go out, you might as well go out dancing.

So there you go. If I were to make you my ultimate death mix, those five would be on there for sure. Others I'd include would be The Replacements The Ledge, The Decemberists Leslie Anne Levine, The Cramps TV Set and The Birthday Massacre's Lover's End. There are a million more out there though.

If you're feeling creepy now and want to continue reading about deadly things, why not check out my book The Wash available on Amazon.

Until next time, adios!


Lisanne Harrington said...

I'm not into music much, and never thought about Death Songs, but your descriptions of them are pretty cool. Will listen carefully and let you know what I think.

Is that website, DVDinmypants, still around?

Cary said...

No they closed up shop about eight years ago or more. I really owe them though for kickstarting me into writing fiction again. I'd been writing music reviews for a few years when a friend told me they were looking for DVD reviewers. I figured I'd write one or two and instead wrote regularly for them until they folded. The cool thing was, they would let you do whatever you wanted as long as you met certain criteria in each review. So I tried to get really creative when I could. I did a review that was structured as a three act play. I did a haiku review. I reviewed all the Rankin Bass Christmas specials with my four year old daughter and documented her reactions. I mean they really let you get creative and the content from all the reviewers was fantastic.

The guy behind it was Tim Granda. He's an artist and animator who's currently heading up a full length movie that's going to be kind of like Heavy Metal. You can see his Facebook stuff at The Planet of Doom. I also still have a solid group of friends who I met online through that site and I get together with most of them once a year. I really miss that place sometimes.