The song seems to fall into a small subcategory of ballads - story-songs, not slow songs by rock bands - sung in the first person, and when the story ends, the narrator dies. It turns out he's been singing the song from beyond the grave.
The most famous song like this must be "El Paso," written and originally recorded by country-western singer Marty Robbins. I heard this song a lot as a child, and like most songs I learned at a young age, some of the lyrics are locked in my head, especially the famous opening lines.
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Night-time would find me in Rosa's cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl
So listening to one of Dylan's stories of the old West and lovers riding on horseback, I suddenly realized: wait, does the narrator of "Durango" die?? I think he does.
Was that the thunder that I heardI've been trying to find more of these songs. They must be out there. I found lists of "dead teen" songs and there are plenty of murder ballads, but no "dead narrator" songs.
My head is vibrating, I feel a sharp pain
Come sit by me don't say a word
Oh can it be that I am slain?
Quick, Magdalena, take my gun
Look up in the hills that flash of light
Aim well my little one
We may not make it through the night
Then driving home from Vermont the other day, we were listening to a Neil Young live CD, and Allan and I both realized at the same time that we were hearing another one - one of my favourite Neil Young tunes, "Powderfinger". The crazy thing is, I've been misinterpreting this song all these years. I always heard the story as the narrator shooting up the ship, crossing the line where he has now killed a man. I now realize that the narrator is killed, possibly before he can even squeeze a shot out of his daddy's rifle. (I thought his "face flashed in the sky," but no... it's "then I saw black, and my face splashed in the sky".)
It's that one guitar line that makes this song so memorable. I love the line, "I don't think they're here to deliver... the mail."
Then I thought I came up with one other song where the narrator is dead and singing from beyond the grave: "Tell Laura I Love Her". But according to these lyrics, the dude killed in the car crash is not telling the story; a narrator is relating Johnny's last words after the fatal wreck.
No one knows what happened that dayIf anyone knows any other songs where the narrator turns out to be dead, please list them here!
Or how his car overturned in flames
But as they pulled him from the twisted wreck
With his dying breath, they heard him say
Tell Laura I love her
Tell Laura I need her
Tell Laura not to cry
My love for her will never die