Death Songs 

Contemplating mortality in music.

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While the original intent behind Memorial Day was to remember fallen heroes, it has become a day to remember all of our dead. So we make pilgrimages to flower shops and cemeteries, or visit other significant places—and, if we're being honest, contemplate our own mortality. Here's a playlist to accompany your thoughts this weekend.


Ernest Tubb, "Soldier's Last Letter" (single, Decca, 1944)
The idea of anyone's child going to war, and putting their life on the line for their country, is terrifying. The prospect of hearing that dreaded, portentous knock on your door is even more so. Getting an unsigned letter, written from a trench—well, it straddles the line between horrifying and heartening. As a parent, you're enduring the manifestation of your worst fear. But isn't it also a gift, to hold these heartfelt last words in your hand?


Todd Snider, "Alright Guy" (Songs for the Daily Planet, MCA/Margaritaville, 1994)
A couple of years ago, my best friend passed away. About a year into our friendship, I gave him this album by stoner-gypsy folk troubadour Todd Snider—mainly because of this song. I thought it described him perfectly and, when he heard it, he thought so, too. J. could be dirty, yeah, and maybe he smoked a little dope. But he was one of the kindest, funniest and most generous and hardworking people I've ever known. I miss you, buddy.


Bob Moss, "Killer's Lament" (Tragic Tales from the West, Woods Cross/Peculiar, 1994)
It's hard to imagine our local treasure Bob Moss—who's resting in peace, himself—writing a murder ballad, but he did. And this one's (appropriately, for the style) downright sinister: "That day we both went for a country walk/ I knew no one would know ..." But knowing Bob wouldn't have hurt a fly makes this one kind of adorable, too.


Unruly Child, "To Be Your Everything" (Unruly Child, Interscope, 1992)
In the early '90s, the hair-metal power-ballad cash-in got desperate as grunge squashed the genre under its muddy army boots. There were some great ones, though, even among the increasingly contrived, cloying, manipulative dreck that clamored to be the hot new prom/wedding song. This one follows a man keeping vigil at his lover's bed, begging for a shred of hope that she'll come out of her coma. It could be one of the more egregiously manipulative power-ballads, but vocalist Marcie Free brings real sincerity to the tune.


Iron Maiden, "Die With Your Boots On" (Piece of Mind, Capitol, 1983):
Whether a soldier goes to war for reasons dubious or noble, it's still badass to lay your life on the line—and, if it looks like you're not gonna make it, go down fighting. "'Cause if you're gonna die/ Die with your boots on!"


J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers, "Last Kiss" (single, Josie Records, 1964)
When I was 10, my mom started to allow me to stay up late on New Year's Eve and play penny poker with her and her friends. They listened to oldies, which I hated until finally, as a kid eyeing his future, I related to the tales of teen love and rebellion. I grew tired awaiting midnight, and started daydreaming about earth angels and hot cars. Then I heard this song, where a guy takes out his best girl, only to have the night interrupted by the sound of "screamin' tires," "bustin' glass" and a "painful scream." The part where the guy holds his girl, kissing her one last time before she fades, meant the night was over for me.


The Smiths, "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" (The Queen Is Dead, Sire, 1986)
"And if a double-decker bus/ crashes into us/ to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die." Morrissey and Marr really nail it here. Isn't that what everyone's after? That double-decker-bus happiness, where you've reached such a level of contentedness that you'd meet death with a smile?


Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain" (Maggot Brain, Westbound, 1971)
Two stories circulate about the origin of this 10-minutes-and-change guitar solo by Eddie Hazel. One has Funkadelic frontdude George Clinton tripping balls and, prior to pressing record, telling Hazel to imagine being told his mother had just died, then learning she's alive. Another yarn involves Clinton discovering his brother's long-dead body in a Chicago apartment. Since the song arcs from grief and gloom to joy and relief, let's go with the acid story.


Kiss, "Detroit Rock City" (Destroyer, Casablanca/Mercury, 1976)
The first song on Kiss's classic album was a longtime show opener for its bombastic energy and lyrics about getting pumped for the show. "First I drink/ then I smoke," it goes. Then the protagonist gets behind the wheel and, soon enough, finds him staring death directly in its bright, white headlight gaze. "I gotta laugh/ 'cause I know I'm gonna die—why?!" Whoever thought Kiss would make an anti-drunk driving PSA?


Warren Zevon, "Keep Me in Your Heart" (The Wind, 2003, Artemis)
Written when Zevon knew the end was near, this is a powerful and singular goodbye. "Shadows are fallin' and I'm runnin' out of breath/ keep me in your heart for a while/ if I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less/ keep me in your heart for a while."


Blue Öyster Cult, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (Agents of Fortune, Columbia, 1976)
Originally thought to be another Satan-worshipping band offering another rock 'n' roll song championing suicide, its actual meaning is much more positive. "All our times have come"—we're all gonna die. There's no sense in living in fear of the end. If you value your life, live it.

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More by Randy Harward

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