“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” – Mark Twain
I’ve been away too long, gang, and I’m sorry for the absence.
Death is a strange beast and we all have our own manner of mourning. For me, it’s by making lists and listening to music.
There is a thesis out there that music was created to tie us all together. Songs bind us and help define our emotions – they work to express the things we can’t and allow us to share the things we feel. You can only tell so many people that things suck before folks get tired of hearing it – music doesn’t care. In fact, it welcomes you to song, moan, holler, scream, and express yourself.
10. Deuteronomy 2:10 – The Mountain Goats
It’s a hard thing to realize that you are the last of your kind. We all die and time erases us from its collective memory. In this track The Mountain Goats build a beautiful dirge from the point of view of various extinct species.
9. Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
Not even the overused joke of more cowbell can wear down this amazing track.
8. See That My Grave is Kept Clean – Blind Lemon Jefferson
Originally recorded in 1927, this plea for remembrance has been covered by dozens of blues artists and pop musicians. My favorite is the scratched and mutilated vocals of Lou Reed with its heavy fuzz guitar lurking in the background like the grim specter of Death itself.
7. There is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths
Morrissey manages to up the ante for depressed void-staring youth in one of the most specific death wishes ever: Fighting off the melancholy of a terrible home-life, the protagonist suggests that being crushed by a 10 ton double-decker bus isn’t such a terrible thing. Yeah, death is a common theme in The Smith’s music, but this track treats it with the fancy and foppishness of pure teen angst.
6. Rockin’ Bones – The Cramps
Ronnie Dawson’s original track gets a full Return of the Living Dead treatment in this scorcher. The heavy bass riff and zombie moan of the background singers gives this cover a supernatural feel that echoes the chain wielding ghosts of Rock’n’Roll’s grislier past.
5. In My Time of Dying – Blind Willie Johnson
Forget Led Zeppelin and listen to Blind Willie growl through this track as his guitar fights to keep up with his primeval growls and wailing. Johnson captures the true sounds of a man struggling with his mortality.
4. Dirt in the Ground – Tome Waits
“’Cause hell is boiling over
And heaven is full
We’re chained to the world
And we all gotta pull
And we’re all gonna be
Just dirt in the ground”
We all end up as worm food or fertilizer, but Waits makes it seem like it’s better than the alternative.
3. Death Don’t Have No Mercy – Rev. Gary Davis
Death is speedy and efficient. Escape is impossible and Davis delivers a morose and sorrowful, yet catchy, tune about our inability to remain free from Death’s rapacious grasp.
2. Death’s Got a Warrant – Georgina B. Pettibone
If you are lucky enough to own a copy of How We Got Over: Songs of Gee’s Bend – a collection of songs recorded by Richard Sonkin in 1941 from kitchens, yards, and quilting circles – then you will hear one of the most impressive songs about Death ever recorded. In it, Death is warrant officer and no matter where you hide, he will find you and bring you in. To hear it sung with the Southern- drawl infused harmony of Georgina B Pettiway and friends makes it sound as though its age old advice coming from your grandmother. Track it down.
1. Vertebrae – Christine Fellows
“Sunday traffic clears a path
We float inches above the road
Close our eyes and drive so slow
Like we never need to get home.”
Brace yourself before listening to this song. Fellows not only writes one of the most perfect songs ever, but flawlessly captures the post-funeral haze of returning home after that final good-bye in the moments before mourning begins. Death comes to us all, yet the hard part rests on the survivors.