Let’s bring everybody down a bit with love songs about death (though the final song should resurrect some mirth). To me the song of death will always be Julie Covington’s Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, the last record my mother and father listened to together before his sudden death in 1977. My mother would play the record at high volume for months after. This selection is about the kind of loss my mother felt. Some can, or even do, apply to the loss of somebody other than a lover. And, no, the notorious Honey does not feature.
Missy Higgins – The Sound Of White.mp3
This entirely gorgeous song is not about the death of a love interest, but about that of Melissa’s sister in a car crash. The sisterly love must have been profound — as deep as that of romantic lovers (which is why this song works for them too). “My silence solidifies, until that hollow void erases you so I can’t feel at all. But if I never feel again, at least that nothingness will end the painful dream, of you and me…”
Although not religious, Missy goes to a church, presumably Catholic, to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary. “I knelt before some strangers face, I’d never have the courage or belief to trust this place. But I dropped my head, ’cause it felt like lead, and I’m sure I felt your fingers through my hair.” That physical contact is, of course, just an illusion. All that’s left are the memories: “And if I listen to the sound of white [presumably meaning a state of blankness or meditation] sometimes I hear your smile and breathe your light.”
Death Cab For Cutie – I’ll Follow You Into The Dark.mp3
Ben Fold in his song The Luckiest – possibly the greatest love song ever written – tells the story about his neighbour, an “old man who lived to his 90s” and one day dies in his sleep. His wife lives on for a couple of days and then follows him. The notion of not being able to live without a loved one is the point of this song, performed by a singer much younger than 90. He sets out his stall early: “Love of mine, some day you will die. But I’ll be close behind, I’ll follow you into the dark.” There are hints of suicide should the tragic moment come, and that point may be imminent, suggesting the presence of a terminal illness. “You and me have seen everything to see from Bangkok to Calgary, and the soles of your shoes are all worn down. The time for sleep is now. It’s nothing to cry about, ’cause we’ll hold each other soon – the blackest of rooms.”
Iron & Wine – Naked As We Came.mp3
Musically and lyrically a companion piece to I’ll Follow You Into The Dark, Sam Beam is pondering the death of a lover: “One of us will die inside these arms. Eyes wide open, naked as we came, one will spread our ashes ’round the yard.” The instructions have been given: cremation, no burial, just scatter the ashes. “She says, ‘If I leave before you, darling, don’t you waste me in the ground.”
That notion corresponds with my postmortal plan: bury my ashes into a hole in the garden, and plant a fruit tree over me. The idea comes from a German poem by Theodor Fontane, apparently based on a true story, I learnt as a child, about a Herr von Ribbeck in the Havelland (near Berlin), who’d give passing schoolchildren a pear from his tree. As his death approaches, in 1759, he gives instruction that a pear tree be planted over his grave, because his miserly son would not continue the distribution of fruit. His final wish is honoured, and generations of passing children will now help themselves to a pear (at least until the tree’s destruction in 1911), thanks to Herr von Ribbeck. (English translation of the poem)
Anna Ternheim – Lovers Dream.mp3
Swedish songbird Ternheim rounds off the trilogy of not wanting to live when the other has died. The twist here seems to be that she wants to be in death with someone whom she could not be with in life. “Maybe I could be yours, maybe you could be mine. God, I waited so long, maybe my time has come to walk by your side. Please put me at ease, now my soul is ready for peace.” Which is a twist on the saying, “See you in the next life.”
Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Billie Joe.mp3
This song can be interpreted in several ways. We know that Billy Joe MacAllister committed suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge on Choctaw Ridge. For Bobbie’s family it seems to be the stuff of casual dinner conversation: “Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense. Pass the biscuits, please”. And so the conversation goes, except Bobbie seems to have lost her appetite entirely when mother mentions something uncanny: “”That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today. Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday. Oh, by the way, he said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge, and she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Shortly we leave the dining table and fast forward a year as Bobbie updates us. “A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe. And brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo. There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last spring, and now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything. And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge – and drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” We can only guess what Billie Joe was to Bobbie, and why Billie Joe committed suicide. A popular theory has it that what the preacher saw them throwing off the bridge was their baby (though how blind must the parents have been to fail noticing their daughter’s pregnancy?) or a premature, self-administered abortion. Whatever it is, Bobbie’s grief – for Billie Joe or her putative child – runs deep.
Ari Hest – Didn’t Want To Say Goodbye.mp3
Apparently written about a 9/11 victim, singer-songwriter Ari Hest does what most grieving people do when confronted with a sudden, unnatural death – asking why. And for those with religious faith, it can be shaken by such an event, as seems to be the case here. “I can ask all I please, I can beg down on my knees, for a reason, for a sign. But these answers I won’t find.” So instead, “I’ll go on without you, and what’s left for me to do but to stay where I am in my world of pretend.”
Loudon Wainwright III – Sometimes I Forget.mp3
The song starts off unpromisingly as Loudon sets the scene: “Sometimes I forget that you’ve gone. You’ve gone, and you’re not coming back.” But we quickly learn that he has not been dumped as he surveys the scene: “And your bookcase still holds all your books; it’s as if all you’ve done is go out of town…” The addressee could be returning any minute now, but the person — my guess it’s his father, so let’s identify him as such —never went on a journey. “But your suitcase is empty, it’s right here in the hall. That’s not even the strangest thing. Why would you leave your wallet behind. Your glasses, your wristwatch and ring.” He has unresolved issues with his father, having failed to say what needed to be said. Death creates a distance, but Loudon feels his father’s proximity. “You’re not far away, you’re near. Sometimes I forget that you’ve gone. Sometimes it feels like you’re right here. Right now it feels like you’re right here.” Wainwright does not specify the nature of his relationship to the deceased, so it can be applied, at least in spirit, to a separation by death of any loved one.
Richard Thompson – Vincent Black Lightning 1952.mp3
Turning the teen death genre (which we’ll turn to in the next item) on its head a little, Thompson tells the story of an outlaw in love. James Adie, a criminal, and Red Molly fell in love over the eponymous motorbike. Then the day comes that James robs a bank and is shot by the police. Red Molly is called to his deathbed. James declares his love for Molly and the bike, then “he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys, saying: ‘I’ve got no further use for these. I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome swooping down from heaven to carry me home’. And he gave her one last kiss and died, and he gave her his Vincent to ride.”
Jimmy Cross – I Want My Baby Back.mp3
I promised that we’d end off with a much-needed laugh. The early ’60s were a fertile period for teen death songs such as The Leader Of The Pack, Tell Laura I Love Her, Teen Angel, Dead Man’s Curve, Run Joey Run, and Ebony Eyes. Jimmy Cross’ 1964 song is a parody that moves swiftly from the ridiculous to the bizarre.
Jimmy fills us in on that fateful night, putting on his best Ferlin Husky accent: “I don’t hardly know where to begin. I remember, we were cruisin’ home from the Beatles concert. I’d had such a wonderful evenin’ sittin’ there watchin’ my baby screamin’ and tearin’ her hair out and carryin’ on. She was sooo full of life. Then…” disaster strikes. “I see this stalled car right smack in front of me! Well, I wa’nt about to slam on the brakes ’cause I didn’t have none to start to with. So I swerved to the left, and what do I see? Some mush-head, on a motorsickle, headin’ right at us! And I knew at last, me and my baby were about to meet the leader of the…” CRASH! “Well, when I come to I looked around, and there was the leader, and there was the pack, and over there was my baby.” Time flies, and he still misses his baby. So, punning unsubtly, he takes a spade and digs up her grave and, lo, he has his baby back. Oh blessed joy – a happy, necrophiliac ending!