1.11.2012

songs from beyond the grave (a list in progress)

I was driving around Mississauga listening to Bob Dylan's Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue, a great live album, when I realized that the narrator of "Romance In Durango" dies at the end of the song. Or does he?

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 heard
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
I'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.

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 day
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
If anyone knows any other songs where the narrator turns out to be dead, please list them here!

37 comments:

Amy said...

When I started reading this, I immediately thought of that awful Tell Laura song. I hated that song!

I guess Teen Angel doesn't qualify since the teen angel is not the narrator. Or Ringo either (the Ben Cartwright, um, I mean Lorne Greene, song, not the Beatle). I hated those songs also.

laura k said...

I also hated Tell Laura because people would sing it to me sarcastically in camp - or worse, sing it to my boyfriends.

Yes, I also thought of Teen Angel, one of the many "dead teen" songs, but like you said, the teen angel is not singing.

I don't know Ringo! Although of course I know Lorne Greene (Canadian) and Ben Cartwright. I'll check out the song online.

allan said...

We also heard ZZ Top's Master of Sparks, and wondered if that qualified. I'm not sure.

High class Slim came floatin' in down from the county line
Just gettin' right on Saturday night, ridin' with some friends of mine

They invited me to come and see just what was on their minds
And then I took my first long look
at the Master of Sparks on high

In the back of Jimmy's Mack stood a round steel cage
Welded into shape by Slim, made out of sucker gauge
How fine, they cried, now with you inside, strapped in there safe and sound
I thought, my oh my, how the sparks will fly if that thing ever hit the ground

Slim was so pleased when I had eased into his trap of death
He had slammed the door but said no more and I thought I'd breathed my last breath

We was out in the sticks down Highway Six and the crowd was just about right
The speed was too, so out I flew like a stick of rollin' dynamite

When I hit the ground you could hear the sound and see the sparks a country mile
End over end I began to spin but the ball started runnin' wild
But it was too late as I met my fate and the ball started gettin' hot
But through the sparks and the flame I knew that the claim of the Master of Sparks was gone

***

Good Old wiki: "It tells the (apparently true, according to an interview in Sound magazine c.1976 with guitarist Billy Gibbons) story of a bunch of rednecks who weld together a round steel cage, tie it to the back of their truck, and encourage the hapless narrator to take a ride inside it."

allan said...

Another possibility: Bruce Springsteen's "Matamoros Banks"

laura k said...

Oh damn, I forgot about Master of Sparks! Should have included that in this post.

laura k said...

The Bruce song is ambiguous. But it might be a dead narrator! Good find!

laura k said...

I just Googled "songs where the narrator dies" again, and this post comes up. Scary!

allan said...

The Band - Long Black Veil (from 1970; the song was first recorded in 1959 by Lefty Frizell)

Decemberists - Leslie Ann Levine

allan said...

Laura Bonus: Young Rick Danko Content!

laura k said...

Long Black Veil, very good!!

I did see The Decembrists from Googling, but since I don't know the song, I didn't include it. Gotta check it out.

laura k said...

She walks these hills in a long black veil,
She visits my grave, when the night winds wail,
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows, but me...


Johnny Cash also recorded it, among others.

allan said...

Off-Topic: The Band, Up On Cripple Creek, Ed Sullivan, November 1969
(I have never seen this before!)

laura k said...

Laura Bonus: Young Rick Danko Content!

Hey now!

laura k said...

Off-Topic: The Band, Up On Cripple Creek, Ed Sullivan, November 1969 (I have never seen this before!)

OMG I love it. You'd hardly know Robbie was in the band!

The Band is never off-topic on this blog. :)

laura k said...

In "Ghost in the House", a ghost is narrating, but it wasn't alive in the song, it's been a ghost the whole time. Doesn't count.

laura k said...

Oh wait, Leslie Ann Levine is a ghost the whole time, too. So is the guy from Long Black Veil.

So Ghost In The House counts. Alison Krauss recorded it... not sure if she wrote it.

laura k said...

Here's a list of posthumous narrators in movies and TV shows.

allan said...

OMG I love it. You'd hardly know Robbie was in the band!

Should we assume that his mic was not plugged in for this performance, too?

James said...

How about songs where the narrator's dead at the start of the song? Two come to mind right off:

Dead by They Might Be Giants:

I will never say the word
"Procrastinate" again; I'll never
See myself in the mirror with my eyes closed
I didn't apologize for
When I was eight and I made my younger brother
Have to be my personal slave

Did a large procession wave their Torches as my head fell in the basket,
And was everybody dancing on the casket?

Now it's over I'm dead and I haven't done anything that I want
Or, I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do


Dream of Death / Forfar Hunt by Kilt -- I couldn't find the music or the lyrics online, but it's a great song.

People stop by, never knew them
Priest makes them feel nothing
No enemies anymore
Everyone's your friend
And even those who hated you
Are glad to see your... end

Pass by my window
Stopping as I go
Looking at my body
The one I no longer own
Laying in a wooden box
Needles hold my frown
Try to wake my silent body
Before I'm in the ground

When will I awake?
This is my...
It's my life at stake
This is my dream of death


Also, there's the final movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, in which the narrator, who was executed in the fourth movement, is subjected to a Witch's Sabbath in Hell. No lyrics, though.

As I said, I couldn't find Kilt's Dream of Death online, but I did find this video of Los Besos, an air guitar band, doing a routing to Kilt's amazing cover of Kiss's I Was Made For Loving You Baby while dressed in Mariachi outfits.

James said...

Oh, and Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo!

All dressed up with nowhere to go
Walkin' with a dead man
Waitin' for an invitation to arrive
With a dead man... Dead Man...

Got my best suit and my tie
Shiny silver dollar on either eye
I hear the chauffeur comin' to the door
Says there's room for maybe just one more...

James said...

That should be "routine", not "routing", above, of course. I've been doing too much computer work lately.

laura k said...

Great to add TMBG to this list!

How about songs where the narrator's dead at the start of the song?

I realized that Long Black Veil and Leslie Ann Levine are both those, so yeah, let's figure as long as the narrator is dead, they're in.

Also, there's the final movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

I love Symphonie Fantastique. Haven't thought about it or heard it in ages, but I love it. I guess this is a conceptual addition to the list. :)

laura k said...

Los Besos, an air guitar band, doing a routing to Kilt's amazing cover of Kiss's I Was Made For Loving You Baby while dressed in Mariachi outfits.

Just had to repeat this. :)

James said...

Los Besos, an air guitar band, doing a routing to Kilt's amazing cover of Kiss's I Was Made For Loving You Baby while dressed in Mariachi outfits.

I forgot to include, "and wearing Kiss make-up."

allan said...

The Blasters' "Long White Cadillac" is a first-person account of the night Hank Williams died.

the headlights shine
the highway fades to black
it's my last ride
i'm never comin' back
in a long white cadillac

Jere said...

"Fade to Black"--he's talking about wanting to die but at the end he says "death greets me warm" so I'm pretty sure he's actually dead at that point. (I think if you delve into those classic metal bands, you'll find a crapload of this stuff.)

Great call on TMBG--that's one of my favorite songs of theirs and I didn't think of it.

laura k said...

Jere, I was hoping you'd weigh in - if I didn't hear from you soon I was going to send you the post.

(I think if you delve into those classic metal bands, you'll find a crapload of this stuff.)

That's a job best love to someone who would enjoy it. :)

James said...

A couple of blatant ones:

My Death by David Bowie, depending on how to take the ending.

My death waits there, in a double bed
sails of oblivion at my head
so pull up the sheets
against the passing time

But whatever lies behind the door
there is nothing much to do
angel or devil...I dont care
for in front of that door
there is you


The entire My Chemical Romance album The Black Parade is along these lines: the narrator, "The Patient", dies at the start of the album, and the rest of the songs reflect on his life.

Dead! by My Chemical Romance:

Have
you heard the news that you're dead?
No one ever had much nice to say
I think they never liked you anyway
Oh take
Me from the hospital bed
Wouldn't it be grand
To take a pistol by the hand?

And wouldn't it be great
If we were dead?

And in my honest observation
During this operation
Found a complication in your heart
So long
'Cause now you've got
Maybe just two weeks to live
Is that the most the both of you can give?

If life ain't just a joke
Then why are we laughing?
If life ain't a joke
Then why am I dead?
Dead!

James said...

It doesn't quite fit the rules, but I'd give an honourable mention to Warren Zevon's cover of Knockin' on Heaven's Door, recorded while he was dying of cancer.

laura k said...

I love Zevon's version of the Dylan classic. It's so poignant that his final album was his best work in years (maybe ever). But I've been listening to Dylan and many others sing Knockin' On Heaven's Door for so many years. The narrator's not dead!

(But hey, you did say honourable mention.)

laura k said...

I don't think the Bowie song fits, that seems to be more along the lines of DFTReaper. But this

The entire My Chemical Romance album The Black Parade is along these lines: the narrator, "The Patient", dies at the start of the album, and the rest of the songs reflect on his life.

is bonus points!!

Rich said...

I love "Powderfinger". So cinematic. So easy to picture the scene as the kid attempts to defend the homestead.

Can think of a bunch where the narrator is about to be dead.

A favorite is "The Ledge" - by The Replacements.
"for the first time in my life I'm sure"
lyrics at
http://www.lyricsdepot.com/the-replacements/the-ledge.html

laura k said...

Cinematic, good word for it.

The narrator about to be dead, I can think of many, too - including Knockin' On Heaven's Door, mentioned above. But does the narrator continue singing *after* he is dead? Is it revealed during the song that the narrator has been dead all along? That's what we're looking for here.

(Although my partner will be pleased to see the Mats reference.)

James said...

I had completely forgotten about this one: The Complicated Song by Weird Al (a parody of Complicated by Avril Lavigne) -- specifically, the third verse:

I had so much on my mind
I thought maybe I'd unwind
Try out that new roller coaster ride
And the guide

Said not to stand
But that's a demand
That I couldn't meet
I got on my feet
And stood up instead
And knocked off my head, you see

Tell me
Why'd I have to go and get myself decapitated?
This really is a major inconvenience, oh man, I really hate it
Such a drag, now ... Can't eat, I can't breathe, I can't snore
I can't belch or yodel anymore
Can't spit or blow my nose or even read Sports Illustrated

Oh no
Why'd I have to go and get myself all mutilated? (yeah, yeah)
I gotta tell ya, life without a head kinda makes me irritated
What a bummer
Can't blink, I can't cough, I can't sneeeze
But my neck is enjoyin' a pleasant breeze now
Haven't been the same since my head and I were separated
No no no

laura k said...

Tell me
Why'd I have to go and get myself decapitated?
This really is a major inconvenience, oh man, I really hate it


That's hilarious. I don't know the original song, I'm going to find both on YouTube.

James Redekop said...

Just remembered this one: Re: Your Brains by Jonathan Coulton. Does it count if the protagonist is undead?

laura k said...

Does it count if the protagonist is undead?

I don't see why not. The undead are dead, right? In the sense that they're not living. And they're definitely beyond the grave. Way beyond! :)