Songwriters who want their work to resonate with their audience often fall back on a universal theme: love.
To that I say: Big whoop. The true masters are the ones who manage to reach a mass audience with a song about death.
Is there any other topic that makes us cringe in conversation but gets our toes to tappin’ and our radios to blastin' if it’s a got a good beat?
With that in mind, bow your heads, close your eyes and consider 10 of the most memorable songs that are about someone dying or, even better, include the singer singing as he dies.
10) Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks, 1974. An awful song in general but appropriate for this list because a) The singer is dying and b) Hearing it always makes me want to die. “Goodbye Michelle it’s hard to die, when all the birds are singing in the sky.” I ... see ... a light ... .
9) Run Joey Run, David Geddes, 1975: The only song I ever heard in which a character apparently bleeds out in the final verse: “Suddenly, a shot rang out, and I saw Julie falling. I ran to her, I held her close, when I looked down, my hands were red, and here’s the last words Julie said ... Daddy please don't, it wasn't his fault, he means so much to me Daddy please don't, we're gonna get married ... aaahhh, ahhhh.” Augghhh!!!!!
8) Tell Laura I Love Her, Ray Peterson, 1960. A cautionary tale about how you shouldn’t try to win money for an engagement ring by entering a stock car race because you’ll die in a twisted wreck and then you’re no good to anybody. “In the chapel Laura prayed, for her Tommy who passed away. It was just for Laura he lived and died, alone in the chapel she can hear him cry.”
7) Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles, 1966: The heroine in this Lennon- McCartney classic – Did they write one that isn’t? - lives a solitary existence, until she receives her final reward. “Eleanor Rigby, died in the church and was buried along with her name, nobody came.” Rarely played at weddings.
6) Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, 1974: Paper Lace of "The Night Chicago Died" fame released it first, but Bo had the bigger hit in the U.S. It's pretty peppy for a song about dying in a war and ignoring your future wife about protecting yourself. “I heard his fiancee got a letter that told how Billy died that day. The letter said that he was a hero, she should be proud he died that way. I heard she threw that letter away.” But can you blame her?
5) Alone Again, Naturally, Gilbert O’Sullivan, 1972: Even for people who like songs about one’s ultimate demise, this one is a little deathy. The song starts as the singer is about to commit suicide having been left at the altar, then he says his father died, which broke his mother's heart, right before SHE died. Luckily the song ends before we hear what happened to his pets. (It can’t be good.) “And when she passed away, I cried and cried all day. Alone again, naturally.” Kleenex recommended.
4) Leader of the Pack, The Shangri-Las, 1964: Girl meets boy, boy likes girl, girl’s parents don’t like boy, parents tell girl to ditch the boy, girl obeys, boy doesn’t take the news well, boy drives away at a reckless speed, girl’s backup singers tell him to watch where he’s going, boy ignores their good advice, boy meets up with Tommy from “Tell Laura I Love Her” to commiserate about shoddy safety features in early-1960s-era automobiles. “The leader of the pack - now he's gone.”
3) Honey, Bobby Goldsboro, 1964: Another song with a car wreck. At first, it sounds like it wasn’t a big deal and that Honey was going to be more worried about telling her husband/boyfriend. But then she dies anyway. I always figured it was either internal injuries or a pre-existing condition. “One day while I was not at home, while she was there and all alone, the angels came.” This also explains why angels do so poorly in the field of door-to-door sales.
2) Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot, 1976: An amazing song from an amazing songwriter about an actual shipwreck from the previous year. Lightfoot changed or embellished many of the details of the incident, but no matter: He considers it his finest work. “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early.” Also, possibly the only song to use the words "Gitche Gumee." At least the only one to get serious AM Radio air play.
1) El Paso, Marty Robbins, 1959: There really is no contest. This song has it all. The singer kills a guy at the start for trying to put the moves on a girl he likes, steals a horse and rides away, misses the girl so much he rides back to see her only to be gunned down by a posse - probably for stealing the horse - and then breathes his last as the song comes to an end. It even has a play-by-play of his death, including one of the best lyrics ever written: “I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle, I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.” But that finish, where he reunites with the source of his love: “Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for, one little kiss and Felina, good-bye.” It’s deadly, but in a good way.
--- Bruce Andriatch