Thursday, April 8, 2021


 Yup, can't resist, the elephant in the room, or rather the dead elephant in the room, as passed over always has me reaching for the reflex, however thoughtful or thoughtless, sorry for your loss. It isn't a phrase that sits neatly in my lexicon, smacking of euphemism and a coy avoidance of the reality. So and so has passed over, so and so has passed on, all of that. To where says the passive-aggressive agnostic inside me? The other side isn't exactly helpful and arguably is also somewhat unrealistic. Mind you, I'm not keen on rest rooms or comfort stations either, and you can blame my earthy medical anglo-saxon roots for that, where folk die and go to the toilet, or even, sometimes, even  the other way round. 

Death songs then, a surprisingly large and popular canon from time immemorial, the annals of trad. arr. littered with maidens killing and being killed. But that's too easy, here I want to explore those songs written from the viewpoint of the slain. I love 'em. Here are five of the best.

Long Black Veil has to be one of the best, the happy little tale of how the honour of the canoodling was preserved, the song's protagonist taking the rap for a murder, as his only alibi would have to have been his paramour, his neighbour's wife. So that's all right then, is it? She gets off scot free, if then still leaving the neighbour wondering quite why, or where, his wife gets the penchant for going out of a rainy night, dressed in black and howling at the moon. One of many versions, this one, by the Band is the best, the lead vocals, all of the exquisitely ragged vocals for that matter, sounding distinctly of the grave. Which, sadly, is indeed now the case.

To follow, a beautiful song, set within a glorious string setting, coming from John Wesley Harding, aka Wesley Stace, initially a skinny tie "noo wave" singer, with hints of Costello in his style and timbre, to, now, an increasingly folky solo troubadour, an artist I have much time for. The song weaves a story of come uppance with a real sting in the tale and stunned me to silence the first time heard it. A warning to any uxoricidal maniacs out there, it certainly gave me pause for thought.

The sort of song perhaps older readers will remember from their parent's collection, the old Marty Robbins chestnut, with The Old 97s giving it a good kicking, providing a bit more of the adrenaline that a real gunfight might provide, the momentum giving credence to that apparent sense of disbelief that seems to arise after a wound sustained in the heat of skirmish.At least, that's what happens in films. The Old 97s have an intrinsic knack for polishing up old tropes and giving them a modern sheen.

Neither a judiciary death nor a killing, is this one about a natural death? Of course, with the way Elvis writes his songs, the whole thing may be an allegory. But irrespective of such musing, I like the way it is the first to offer a view of the life beyond the threshold. Rather than a wraith stranded here on this earth, here the protagonist offers a description of a disappointed creator, rueing his creation. Am I alone if feeling some hope in that? It is certainly preferable to the burning pit of hell, but is it heaven? Costello has always struck me as a man who thinks deeply about the human condition, his songs often offering the sour aftertaste of catholic guilt.

Hell, you say, you mean like this? And you can always trust the Pet Shop Boys to offer an acerbic and wry view of proceedings. So maybe this song doesn't, as actually did neither the last, overtly explain how the observer came to be where they were, and in this one there is even no reference per se to anyone dying. But, surely, any accurate reportage would require the ability to be there and even Bill and Ted had to die to get there, yes? So I have to assume the witness is deceased, my column and all that. Ex-journalist Neil Tennant effortlessly lists the names of the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know as being the main occupancy, which I suspect is a little hopeful. My hell would be full of people I know.

As would my heaven.

I'm sorry for my loss. In taste.