We all think about it. We all wonder what happens before, during and after. Death brings many questions.
The history of rock and roll is peppered with songs about people dying, told from the perspective of someone who has already died, or most sadly, sung by an artist who has unexpectedly died or knows death is coming soon.
In honor of Halloween 2017, here is a short list.
Vigilante Love Song, New Order
War is hell, and as told in stories, diaries and journals throughout history, young men can’t wait to come home from war to see their wives and children. In this pleasantly surprising song from post punk, electronica band New Order, a young man serving his country in the “land of the sun” was excited to finally get his papers to go home. He flies through the sky, opens the door at home only to find his wife reading a telegram that her husband had died in the war.
“I want to see, my family
My wife and child waiting for me
I’ve got to go home, I’ve been so alone you see.”
Long Black Veil, The Band
A classic murder, love ballad that begins “Ten years ago on a cold dark night, someone was killed by the town hall light.” We never find out who was killed, only that the man who ran from the scene looked a lot like the narrator. But, the narrator feels he cannot defend himself as he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife at the time.
The narrator never comes forward with his alibi, because he does not want to hurt his friend, so is hung. By the neck. And he died. And he tells the story.
Seems to me, his best friends wife could have easily come up with some excuse so her lover did not have to be executed, but the song may not have been quite as good. My favorite version is by The Band.
Powderfinger, Neil Young
“Lookout Mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river.”
Legend has it that Neil Young had this opening lyric for years, and experimented with a number of ways that a story could unfold from those first suggestive words.
What he finally created was an opus about a 22 year old left to defend his families home in the deep woods as the authorities approach. What to do? His father is gone, his brother is hunting, and “Big John’s been drinking since the river took Emmy Lou.”
Though his daddy’s rifle “felt reassuring”, he raises it to his eye and then sees only black as the the men in the white boat fire back. He pleads,
“Think of me as the one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young, with so much left undone
Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her.”
Though usually performed with his band Crazy Horse, I love this animated interpretation of an acoustic version from 1976 that Neil Young finally released in 2017.
(Just Like) Starting Over, John Lennon
This was John Lennon’s return. After being at home for five years to help raise his son Sean, John was finally returning to the public eye in 1980 with this jaunty, almost 50’s style love song to his family and home, and it leaves only feeling sadness and tragedy.
Lennon was senselessly murdered only a month after the song’s release, and rather than celebrating the love and celebration of the song, we are left to only imagine the life that was taken away, and the beautiful songs we will never hear.
(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding
Guitarist and song co-writer Steve Cropper has told of working on this song with Otis Redding. How Otis hoped this would bring his song writing to a new place. Inspired by the personal approach of folk and rock artists of the day, Otis wanted his music to be more reflective of his life, and the world around him.
Cropper tells of recording different parts of the song, and Otis had to leave to complete some more tour dates. His plane went down in Madison, WI, and Otis never heard the completed track, and did not live to see it become a number 1 smash hit. What might Otis have recorded next? Where might his career have gone? He was 26 years old.
Keep Me in Your Heart, Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon knew he was dying from cancer, and he wanted to record “The Wind,” his very last album. The songs were at once darkly humorous and sadly tragic. Guest like Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam and others came in to play and sing on tracks. When Zevon had the energy, they would record. When he needed to rest, he went home. They got through all the songs, but there was one more.
Recorded at home only days before his death, Zevon recorded “Keep Me in Your Heart,” is a beautiful, heartfelt plea to family, friends and fans. Remember me. Please, remember.
A Change is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke
Bob Dylan has been inspiring all kinds of artists for decades. Soon after the release of “Blowin’ in The Wind” in 1963, soul and gospel artist Sam Cooke realized his music could be more, it could say more, it could do more. Though Cooke had already earned a well deserved reputation as an excellent singer and songwriter of love songs, teen ballads and American standards, he was ready to go to the next level.
The civil rights movement was just beginning, and Cooke was being turned away from hotels and restaurants, and he wrote a song to speak to his struggles. The song begins with lush strings and full orchestration, and Cooke begins telling his story:
“I was born by the river, in a little tent
and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come.”
He sings of being turned away at the movies. He sings of being turned down for help. He sings of being afraid to die. This is a career defining song and statement, and sadly Cooke would die less than a year later, gunned down in the middle of the night by a hotel manager.