The night was clear, and the moon was yellow . . . and the leaves . . . came . . . tumbling . . . down
There has always been a time in popular music when Death was featured in popular songs of the day, spanning back to the folk music of the Old World.
Among these venerated chestnuts are classics such as “Barbara Allen” (its earliest known written reference was in 1666, when Samuel Pepys’ noted the already-popular song in a diary entry). It tells of a haughty woman whose failure to return the love of a suitor leads to his death from heartbreak (or illness, take your pick—details vary from version to version).
In more modern times folksy tunes featured death as part of their storytelling, too.
“The Ballad of Casey Jones” (written in the earliest years of the 20th Century) narrates the last ride of railroader, Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones. On a rainy night of April 29, 1900, the passenger train Jones was assigned was delayed in departing Memphis, Tennessee.
Jones was notorious for bringing his trains in on schedule, even if it meant reckless operation (he had been cited for safety violations previously, and had even been terminated once for cause). Trying to make up for lost time as his train left just after midnight on April 30, the engineer throttled the locomotive for all it was worth.
At just shortly before 4 AM, he rammed his passenger train into another whose last-most cars were stalled on the main line near a sidetrack. He died instantly; his passengers and his fireman (who, at Jones’ urging, had jumped from the speeding train before impact) all survived, though, sustaining only minor injuries (Jones rode the brake all the way to his doom).
While anyone can probably write a song about some beloved person’s death—and popular music is filled with such dreck—it is only in those tunes that carry an element of tragic death (or in the case of one song on this list, near death) that greatness can be found.
The gloppy shmalts of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” (written by Bobby Russell, hit #1 for five weeks in 1968) or—even worse—“The Last Game of the Season (Blind Man in the Bleachers)” as performed by David Geddes in 1975 (hit #2 on the Country charts): records like these cannot transcend their treacly drivel. [And even truly gifted songwriters can make such missteps. The late, great Buck Owens wrote and recorded “Dust on Mother’s Bible”—the title pretty much sums up the over-the-top saccharine-sweet sentimentality that can be heard on the track.]
What follows is a chronological listing of some truly durable performances of songs that feature tragic death themes. A barroom showdown, a near-suicide, a motorcycle wreck, a stabbing, visions of The Apocalypse, a school shooting, and a hate crime are here. In most cases, it’s the guy who dies. In others, it’s the girl who snuffs it. And in one special case it is most of the singer’s childhood friends who die tragically.
You’ll see . . . and hear!
8. "Stagger Lee", Lloyd Price, 1958
(traditional; arr.: Harold Logan and Lloyd Price)
Rock singers in the 1950s came from all walks of life. Some were mildly unsavory characters, such as Larry Williams, whose singles “Bony Moronie” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy” became classics. In addition to being a piano player for local R & B artists, he was also a small-time pimp and nickel-and-dime narcotics dealer.
Back in 1954 one of the people for whom Williams played piano (and was also a valet and chauffeur for) was singer Lloyd Price, whom Williams knew in New Orleans. Price was a gifted, gut-bucket singer, with his delivery sometimes tinged with a gospel-sounding “testifying” staccato and extended keening of syllables (“dooooon’t take my life”).
Sometimes, though, a song’s history is as fascinating as those involved with its recording.
In early 1958 Lloyd Price and arranger pal, Harold Logan, decided to work up a version of a public domain folk-blues tune known in the South as “Stack-o-lee”, a song about one man shooting another in a bar. Dependent upon who is asked, this song had antecedents going back at least 60 years to possibly almost a hundred years before then. Versions of it had been recorded in 1950 and multiple times in the 1920s through the 1940s.
It is based on a real crime.
Lee (“Stag Lee”) Shelton in 1895 was a black 30-year-old rinky-dink pimp, locally-known gambler, and casual carriage driver operating on the Mississippi River waterfront in St. Louis, Missouri.
On the night of December 27 he shot and killed a man in a barroom argument. His victim was 25-year-old William “Billy” Lyons, a river worker on the Mississippi.
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat (vol. 5, issue number 213) reported the incident in its December 28, 1895, morning edition:
“William Lyons, 25, a levee hand, was shot in the abdomen yesterday evening at 10 o’clock in the saloon of Bill Curtis, at Eleventh and Morgan Streets, by Lee Sheldon [sic], a carriage driver.
Lyons and Sheldon were friends and were talking together. Both parties, it seems, had been drinking and were feeling in exuberant spirits. The discussion drifted to politics, and an argument was started, the conclusion of which was that Lyons snatched Sheldon’s hat from his head. The latter indignantly demanded its return. Lyons refused, and Sheldon withdrew his revolver and shot Lyons in the abdomen. When his victim fell to the floor Sheldon took his hat from the hand of the wounded man and coolly walked away.
He was subsequently arrested and locked up at the Chestnut Street Station. Lyons was taken to the Dispensary, where his wounds were pronounced serious. Lee Sheldon is also known as ‘Stag’ Lee.”
Bill Curtis’ saloon was described as “the most extensive chance emporium [gambling establishment] in North St. Louis”.
Billy Lyons later died of his gut-shot; Shelton was tried and convicted in 1897. [His first trial, ending in July 1896, resulted in a hung jury. It was his second one that led to his conviction. During the trials the additional detail came out that first Shelton had pistol whipped Lyons, cracking him one on the head; Lyons lunged for the weapon at which point Shelton shot him.]
“Stag” Lee Shelton was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was paroled in 1909. He drew another sentence for robbery and assault in 1911, pistol-whipping a man to death while robbing the man’s house. Still in custody—and suffering from tuberculosis—Shelton died in 1912
Another source records that this incident involved a white Memphis waterfront gambler named James “Stacker” Lee killing the hapless Billy Lyons; it matters little, only that the event passed into the folk consciousness and—with a then-popular song, “Bully of the Town” (or later known as “The Bully Song”) as the basis for the core tune and with new words—“Stagger Lee” was born.
The song evolved into having literally hundreds of verses, most of which relate what happened after Stagger Lee was sentenced, right down to his later doing battle with Satan. The version recorded by Lloyd Price, though, focuses on the short preamble: the gambling and subsequent barroom showdown that led to Billy’s death.
Lloyd Price was able to cadge a “writing” credit (as an arranger) for this public domain song because he wrote the now-famous opening lines, “The night was clear, and the moon was yellow / And the leaves came tumbling down”. The song then bangs into swing mode and tells its tale of cold-blooded murder.
It was a hit, grabbing Billboard’s Number One spot and holding onto it for four weeks. Dick Clark, though, refused to book Price for an appearance on his hugely popular American Bandstand—he felt the kids who watched his show and danced on it in the studio shouldn’t be exposed to anything about gambling and murder that had no sense of remorse.
Because of that, and certainly wanting the national exposure a TV audience could bring, Price hightailed it back into the studio and hastily recorded a “clean” version of the tune.
This bowdlerized song had Stagger Lee and Billy arguing over a woman Billy “stole” from Stagger Lee. At the end of it, Billy repents and lets the girl go, and the two were bestest buds again. [Sheesh!]
It is the original, no-holds-barred version that stands out, though, as the true classic here, not the crummy, sycophantic one.
7. "Endless Sleep", Jody Reynolds, 1958
(written by: Jody Reynolds and Delores Nance)
Like Lloyd Price did with “Stagger Lee”, with its mood-setting opening lines, so too, did Jody Reynolds set a scene for what comes next:
“The night was black, rain fallin’ down
Looked for my baby, she’s nowhere around”
His baby’s gone—where did she go?
Well, we follow Jody as he traces her footsteps down to the shore where he finds they end in a surging ocean: his gal had tossed herself into the drink over a fight she had with her man!
While Jody’s narrator can’t see his beloved (after all, it was a dark and stormy night) he can hear her beckoning to him from the water: “Come join me, baby, in my endless sleep”.
This one’s only a near-death experience, though. Rather than throw himself in to die with her (and be united for all Eternity in a watery grave), Jody struggles out and saves her from drowning; the next voice he hears is the sea itself lamenting the fact that he had kept her away from an endless sleep in Davy Jones’ locker.
What makes this song so incredible is the murky guitar that opens and underpins the track. It is positively ominous and, along with Jody’s second-rate Elvis singing, the composition overall is disquieting and eerie.
It peaked at #5 on Billboard.
As a suicide-gone-wrong song, though, it’s Number One!
6. "Leader of the Pack", The Shangri-Las, 1964
(written by: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Shadow Morton)
George “Shadow” Morton (d: 2013) was an upstart when it came to producing records in the early 1960s. But he was a fast learner, taking his cues from studio master, Phil Spector, cadging the style of Spector’s huge mono “Wall of Sound” and applying it to acts he discovered or for whom he wrote songs.
Enter The Shangri-Las. This all-girl vocal group from Queens, New York, schlepped around as unknowns, performing where they could in the metro area. They hooked up with Shadow Morton and cut the terrific single, “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” in 1964 (it was a tune Morton had written). This track featured some special effects in the form of gulls crying and surf breaking; it reached #5 on the charts.
Their next track with Morton, though, was an aural over-the-top experience. “Leader of the Pack” tells the story, from a girl’s first-person perspective, of star-crossed love that ends in death. The “leader” of the song’s title is the typical j.d. of the day: riding his motorcycle, hanging out, etc..
But this girl’s parents are having none of it; though this street punk is apparently very tender and caring with the girl and doesn’t mistreat her, her dad tells her to dump this bad guy from the wrong side of town. When she breaks the news to him, he peels out in a huff on his bike, gets clobbered by a car, and is killed.
This rockin’ girl-group classic hit #1 for one week in 1964.
The watery, reverbed vocals, the drama build in the BIG music backing the singers, and—not least importantly—the special effects thrown in simulating the sound of twisting, grinding wreckage and breaking glass make this one of the campiest, but most enduring, songs of the teen-tragedy genre ever recorded.
5. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown", Jim Croce, 1972 (released 1973)
(written by: Jim Croce)
Jim Croce in the 1970s was at the forefront of the singer/songwriter movement. Guys and gals of that ilk (Carole King, Melissa Manchester, John Denver, James Taylor, et al) were writing mostly sensitive, introspective tunes about feelings and love and goosh like that.
While Croce also wrote gloopy love songs he also could rock a little when he felt like it.
As proof, he wrote a raucous song celebrating the overall “badness” of a guy named Jim in 1972’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”. This honkin’ song peaked at #8 in late 1972 and told of a fictional pool hustler, “Big Jim” Walker, who ends up getting stabbed about a hundred times and shot a coupla times for good measure. Yeah, he’s dead alright. But you don’t really care that much.
And you don’t really care that much about the anti-hero in Croce’s other great rockin’ song that features death as its denouement, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”. Recorded in 1972, the tale told therein is of “the baddest man in the whole damned town” of Chicago, Illinois.
Leroy is, perhaps, close to Stagger Lee as a character, but there are no redeeming qualities about him, none (not that Stagger Lee necessarily had any, either). Though not explicitly stated, it seems that Leroy may be one of the lowest life forms on the planet, a pimp. [Based on his description in the song he reads just like a stereotypical pimp you’d find in a big city: “He got a custom Continental / He got an El Dorado, too”.] In Croce’s patois (his attempt at early Seventies’ “jive”) we hear that “Leroy, he a gambler, and he like his fancy clothes”.
Later, Leroy was shootin’ dice in a bar when he hits on a woman whose old man just happens to be nearby. Croce told us that Leroy carried a razor in his shoe—we can only presume the other man had a knife or something like that, too. The woman’s husband and Leroy get into it, and the other man beats and/or cuts Leroy to death with his bare hands, thus making him truly the baddest man in the whole damned town!
Most people who hear the song are quietly happy that Leroy ate it in a big way. No one likes a cocky SOB wandering around like he owns the place. I know I don’t, and I always enjoy the sense of karmic justice that accompanies such a person’s downfall.
Croce himself, unfortunately, had his life tragically cut short in a small plane crash on September 20, 1973; the man had a true talent as a song crafter, and the world lost a good one with his death. [“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” reached #1 on the charts for two weeks in July 1973, just a few months before Croce’s death.]
There’s probably a good death-themed song waiting to be written based on that fact alone.
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4. "(Don't Fear)The Reaper", Blue Öyster Cult, 1976
(written by: Donald Roeser, a/k/a, Buck Dharma)
One of the greatest—and most easily recognizable—opening guitar riffs in rock music (followed by a clunky, jarring cowbell to set the rhythmic pace) helped this epic, intelligent, sprawling non-love song hit #12 on Billboard back in ’76.
And while this Death tune makes passing references to the apocalyptic vision of the End Times and The Rapture as espoused by such fundamentalist religions as Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s really about what the title says: don’t be afraid of death, it’s inevitable, and if you believe in an Afterlife you’ll be re-united with your loved ones.
So don’t sweat it. Don’t be afraid.
It rocks darkly—it is atmospheric and downright spooky with its oblique lyrics, the barely mouthed and hushed vocal delivery, and the “la-la-la-la-la” murmuring, backing vocals.
This song truly embodies all that is Classic Rock; while quintessentially of The Seventies it is also timeless at the same time. Repeated listenings do not cause it to wear thin, and the guitar work during the bridge and the midway solo are amazing even today.
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3. "I Don't Like Mondays", Boomtown Rats, 1979
(written by: Bob Geldof)
School shootings seem to be in the news more and more these days, with some puke showing up and rat-tatting his way through his perceived enemies (usually the jocks or high-toned chicks he’s too socially inept to engage). Many fail to get their intended targets; almost always there’s a lot of collateral damage in the form of teachers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or students from out-of-class that the belligerent didn’t even know.
One infamous case from California in the late 1970s, though, found a flaky teenage girl shooting up a local institutional learning facility (one she did not attend, I might add) and mowing down schoolchildren who happened to be near the school’s grounds.
Brenda Ann Spencer, age 16, was cozily sitting in her house across the street from the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, on the morning of January 29, 1979. The summer before she had shot out some of the windows of that school with a BB gun. She was arrested for that incident and for burglary.
Perhaps still carrying some kind of grudge against the school (and it was later learned Spencer had some serious mental and home life issues, living in abject poverty in a single-parent home with her alcoholic father) she sat holding a semi-automatic .22 rifle in her meat-hooks. [The rifle was a Christmas gift from her old man just a month earlier.]
Children stood at the school yard’s gates, waiting for the school’s principal to open them for the day. Spencer began systematically shooting the children and the supervising adults standing by.
Two adults—the principal and a custodian—were killed outright. Nine others (eight kids and a cop) were injured during her spree.
No one knew immediately where the shots were coming from; alerted to the situation almost at the first firings, an enterprising journalist started calling the houses in the neighborhood to see if any of the residents could give any information about what was happening.
One of the homes called was Spencer’s—she actually answered the phone and admitted it was she causing all the ruckus. When asked why she was shooting people randomly, her response was blasé: “I don’t like Mondays.”
Spencer was tried as an adult (captured after a seven-hour stand-off; she had barricaded herself inside her house after firing a total of 30 rounds of ammo). She drew a 25-year-to-life sentence and has been denied parole on multiple occasions. Her next chance for a parole hearing will be in 2019.
And while Brenda Ann Spencer got a heavy prison term The Boomtown Rats, new-wavish rockers from Ireland, ended up with a catch-phrase that formed the hook for a great song.
“I Don’t Like Mondays” ( from the LP, The Fine Art Of Surfacing) opens with a disarmingly charming and twee piano (considering the serious nature of the song’s subject). Bob Geldof (Sir Bob Geldof these days, thanks to his famine relief work over the decades) then launches into the lyrics that allegorically tell of Spencer’s crime.
The single got airplay in the US but only reached #73 on the charts, though it was a #1 smash in the UK, riding high for four weeks in the summer of 1979.
Brenda Ann Spencer was a hot mess as a human being.
The Boomtown Rats, however, gave us a slick piece of definitely un-messy music, a gem of a tune with its tinkling piano and spare handclaps.
2. "People Who Died", Jim Carroll Band, 1980
(written by: Jim Carroll, Brian Linsley, Stephen Linsley, Terrell Winn, Wayne Woods)
Jim Carroll (d: 2009) was a New York City street punk in his younger days, a junkie puke who found a creative outlet in beat-style poetry and other writings.
After a move to California in 1978 he found a publisher for his junkie’s version of Kerouac’s On the Road, a book that collected his diary scribblings covering the ages of roughly 12 to about 16.
This was The Basketball Diaries; it spoke to a certain segment of the Blank Generation in the same way that, perhaps, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was influential with a certain type of disaffected jackhole.
Influenced by the mid-1970s’ NY punk scene of the Bowery, most notably by the likes of performers Patti Smith (a poetess at heart) and the avant-garde Television (whose lead singer, Tom Verlaine, had pretensions of being an authentic poet as well) he delved into the realm of music, forming an eponymous band in California also in 1978.
Mining his NY teen years for song fodder he came up with “People Who Died”, and it was included on his band’s debut LP, Catholic Boy. The song opens with much bash and crash, and a nearly breathless Carroll speedily sing-speaks his way through a laundry list of a lotta people he knew who . . . uh . . .well . . . died.
It outlines the demises of 13 people (of which there are three distinct “Bobbys”, each biting the big one from a different cause: leukemia, suicide by DrÄno®, and another hung himself in jail).
The track is wry, sardonic and funny in places, and slammin’! [Wish I could say the same thing about the cruddy movie, The Basketball Diaries, released in 1995 that starred—go figure—girly-man Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role.]
While this song got a lotta FM airplay, mostly college radio and more forward-thinking stations, it was not a hit, per se. It has, though, managed to survive (unlike the singer and everyone else cited in the song).
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1. "The KKK Took My Baby Away", Ramones, 1981
(written by: Joey Ramone)
Not a lot can be said about the legendary Ramones that hasn’t already been said.
But one thing that can definitely be noted (if not taken into consideration in other writings) is that the mighty Ramones had not only a soft spot for bubble-gum rock ’n’ roll (of the “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Little Willie” kind) but they all possessed great senses of humor.
Never overtly controversial, most of the tunes from these godfathers of punk usually tackled love (with their particular, twisted spin on it), street hustling, dancing, and having good times. Occasionally, they’d dip into more politically-driven material, such as the immeasurably fantastic track, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”, or the pure punk punch of “Commando”.
Social issues, though, normally didn’t hit their radar, which is why “The KKK Took my Baby Away” came as quite a surprise (from their 1981 LP, Pleasant Dreams). While the song can be perceived as a bit tongue-in-cheek, the serious issue of racism is brought to the fore for the first time in a Ramones’ song.
The track carries their signature sound and is a lament from a guy whose African-American girlfriend has gone missing, and he’s sure the KKK got her. [It is not specifically noted in the song that she happens to be black—if not for the video we could otherwise only infer the woman’s race. The KKK also hates Mexicans, Jews, and Catholics. Because of the non-specificity in the lyrics she could just as easily have been a member of any of those other groups.]
The girl is off to Los Angeles during a holiday. She never makes it. While it’s never expressly stated that she is, indeed, dead, one can deduce it because a) the singer never got a ransom demand, thus ruling out simple kidnapping, and b) if she were alive, she certainly would have turned up at some point, if for no other reason than to tell the singer she’s outta there! Nope, she’s straight up dead, and it’s the KKK’s fault.
Though released as a single, this terrific track failed to get much notice outside the sphere of those who loved all things Ramones (like me!).
Sure, there are other tracks of the rock era with death as a fixture.
Some of them are great, like Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” (1959); 1964’s “Last Kiss” (J Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers); Rod Stewart's heartfelt 1976 story-in-song, “The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II)”; or Evanescence’s 2003 opus, “My Immortal”.
Others, like “Teen Angel” (1959) or “Tell Laura I Love Her” (1960), make you want to gouge your eyes out with a rusty icepick.
And, lest we forget, there are those Country music and MOR “greats” [insert sarcastic laughter here] such as “Rocky” (Dickey Lee, 1975), “Seasons in the Sun” (Terry Jacks, 1974), “Country Bumpkin” (Cal Smith, 1974), and many others.
Just because death features in a song doesn’t make that song a killer track!
The ones presented here in the “meat section” have catchy hooks, great production values, clever lyrics, and tell wonderful stories (hell, Jim Croce couldn’t keep from smiling every time he performed “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” with its sing-along vibe).
So, you smile, too.
Honorable mention: "Girlfriend in a Coma", The Smiths, 1987
(written by: Johnny Marr and Morrissey)
I tried to let this one go, but couldn’t.
This is a “not-quite-dead-yet” song, of which there aren’t many. [In fact, other than Metallica’s “One” I can’t think of any others at the moment.]
In this amazingly spritely sounding tune, with its chirrupy guitar intro, we find a gal who’s riding the line twixt life and death—in a coma! We don’t know how she got that way, all we know is she’s apparently in a hospital and not likely to come out of it anytime soon.
Lead singer Morrissey’s angst builds after his matter-of-fact delivery of the opening lines:
“Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know, it’s serious
Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know, it’s really serious”
[Kinda as if he’s saying, “Yeah, yeah, I get it, it’s serious, so whatsa big deal here?”]
First he doesn’t want to see her while she’s lying in a vegetative state; then, later in the song (apparently having mulled over his feelings for this woman a tad), he does.
Ultimately, we all learn that she’s probably not going to pull through because his final lines to the listener, still keeping pace over that too-happy guitar, are “Let me whisper my last goodbyes / I know, it’s serious”.
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