Sad songs say so much
What do Pink Floyd, Bette Midler and Metallica have in common? They've all written horribly depressing tunes, according to Tom Reynolds, author of I Hate Myself and Want to Die. He offers his top 25 miserable tracks.
Friday June 10 2005
25. "Sam Stone" -- John Prine (1972) A grim song about a strung-out former soldier that remains a favourite of audiences who prefer their Vietnam vets to be total losers. Over finger-picked guitar, Prine sings about Sam Stone, a drug-addicted veteran who injects morphine and neglects his impoverished family before overdosing in a decrepit room "that smelled like death". Sam Stone is basically a composite for Hollywood's ideal Vietnam veteran: an hallucinating psycho with a Fu Manchu moustache who goes barking mad every time a Doors song comes on the radio.
24. "My Immortal" -- Evanescence (2002) A whimpering post-breakup tune in which lead singer Amy Lee pitifully mourns the end of a relationship over a piano accompaniment that sounds like Pachelbel after the Prozac wore off. My Immortal closely follows the "quantum tragedy paradigm": the shorter the time two people spent together as a couple, the more overwrought the song is that describes their break-up. Judging by the lorry-load of anguish Lee spews out, she split from someone she dated for about an hour (if her lyrics are to be believed, the guy was a real freak, too).
23. "You don't bring me flowers" Neil Diamond & Barbra Streisand (1978) Neil and Babs phoned in this turgid song with all the energy of a ping-pong match played in zero gravity. Though performed as a duet, Streisand should have recorded it alone, since the lyrics are clearly from a woman's point of view; no self-respecting guy ever complains about not getting flowers or hearing any love songs. You Don't Bring Me Flowers is the most egregious example of middle-of-the-road music, so named because if you drive in the middle of the road, you'll eventually die in a head-on collision.
22. "The River" -- Bruce Springsteen (1980) The title cut from Springsteen's fifth album, The River is the blue-collar hero's 473rd song about how bad blue-collar life is, featuring yet another unemployed dope from New Jersey hitched to an unhappy girl named Mary (every girl in Springsteen's songs is called Mary). As teenagers, the couple went "down to the river" where they swam, frolicked, had sex, got pregnant and ruined their lives. The River makes one wish Springsteen would write a song about getting plastered on Cristal and driving a Bentley into a swimming pool.
21. "Tell Laura I love her" -- Ray Peterson (1960) Tell Laura was the first of the infamous teenage car-crash songs of the early 1960s, where adolescents get incinerated in fiery auto wrecks due to their altruism and stunning lack of common sense. A love-struck teenager named Tommy impulsively enters a stock car race so he can buy a wedding ring for his girl Laura with the prize money. One problem: he knows nothing about racing and flips his car which bursts into flames. As he's pulled from the wreckage coughing carbon, Tommy's dying words of "Tell Laura I love her" permeate the song's weepy chorus. It was covered in the UK by Welsh singer Ricky Valance the same year and topped the charts.
20. "All By Myself" -- Celine Dion (1996) The Canadian superstar's bombastic cover of Eric Carmen's 1970s hit about loneliness is the audio equivalent of the fire-bombing of Dresden. Celine's vocal histrionics surpass the blood-soaked psychic fury which slaughters the prom-goers in the movie Carrie. Had Ms Dion been around during D-Day, the Allies could have dropped her off at Omaha Beach with a PA system and have her sing All By Myself until the German infantry bayoneted themselves.
19. "Woman's Prison" -- Loretta Lynn (2004) Despite her extensive catalogue of tears-in-your-beer country songs, the legendary Loretta Lynn outdoes herself with this mind-blowing murder tune which puts her on death row for blowing away her cheatin' husband. Produced by White Stripes' Jack White (who knows jack about country music), the song climaxes with Loretta being strapped into the electric chair to await the juice. As the banging music drops down to a humming organ, she sings Amazing Grace to herself before getting fried to a crisp. Unsettling and bizarre, Women's Prison sounds like a roots rock band jamming with their death-obsessed grandmother.
18. "Prayers for Rain" -- The Cure (1989) The following are some of the words found in the lyrics to Prayers for Rain: shatter, dull, kill, stifle, infectious, hopelessness, rain, suffocate, dirt, nowhere, desolate, drab, killing, fracture, stale, strangle, entangle, deteriorate, drearily, tired. Drop in a few pronouns and conjunctions and you have the entire song. Music-wise, the band lumbers back and forth between two menacing chords like Frankenstein's monster deciding which villager to pummel, while Robert Smith's neurotic vocals sound like he just got punched in the stomach after eating a three-course meal.
17. "The Freshmen" -- The Verve Pipe (1997) Not to be confused with the Verve, the American faux grunge band the Verve Pipe hit no 1 in the US with this tragic number about two young men dealing with the suicide of a girl they both dated and later dumped. Though it offers some fine musical dynamics, the song alienates the listener with its oft-repeated chorus of "I can't be held responsible." Note singer Brian Vander Ark's vocal similarity to Kurt Cobain.
16. "The Rose" -- Bette Midler (1980) The Divine Miss M's biggest and most manipulative hit was first heard over the final scene in the movie The Rose where Midler's rock-star character drops dead in front of a live audience. The Rose has a disturbing air of Songwriting 101 around it, with a rudimentary melody right out of an instruction book. The lyrics sound like they were borrowed from a 13-year-old girl's diary, offering up awkward metaphors like how love is a river that "drowns the tender reed". Treacly and miserable.
15. "Maggie's Dream" -- Don Williams (1984) Nashville may have a rich heritage of depressing music but this hemlock-gulping country weeper will force listeners to throw themselves into a vat of possum poo. Over a soporific music track, Williams sings about Maggie, a waitress who's spent 30 years working at a diner and never had anyone to go home to. She plays the saddest songs on the diner's jukebox while lamenting how she's destined to die alone. It doesn't help that Maggie is the size of a whale. We're never told this but, hey, waitress, truck stop, platters of fried food? You work it out.
14. "Comfortably Numb" -- Pink Floyd (1979) This classic rock dirge appears on Pink Floyd's notorious magnum opus The Wall, the one album you can never listen to in its entirety unless you own a bong the size of a mop. In Comfortably Numb, bassist/grump Roger Waters plays the unctuous doctor who medicates tortured rock star Pink voiced by guitarist/better singer David Gilmour. Disturbing references to pricking needles and hallucinatory ships abound, with Waters singing like a demented Peter Lorre. A great pile-driver guitar solo by Gilmour at the end prevents us from wanting to bury ourselves alive.
13. "Brick" -- Ben Folds Five (1997) (NB: Many listeners, including me, first assumed Brick was about a relationship ending. We discovered later that it's about a couple getting an abortion. The following is based on the first scenario. Therefore it's all wrong.) A gloomy piano-and-voice song about a couple breaking up (wrong), Brick tells of a guy who picks up his girlfriend, bitches, takes her someplace, bitches, waits for her, bitches, then brings her back home, referring to her as a "brick" (this is true). We never learn what's transpired in between (this is wrong). All that's certain is the couple wants to split up (this is wrong). Brick offers the same pleasure that comes with dropping one on your foot (this is really true).
12. "Ruby, Don't take your love to town" -- Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (1969) Upbeat music does nothing to obscure the creepiness of this early Kenny Rogers song. Ruby is about a paralysed man who sits at home every night while his trampy wife Ruby dolls herself up before heading out to pick up any Billy Bob, Wyatt, or Bubba she can find. The man finally threatens to get his gun and shoot her but he can't move to retrieve it. Instead, he begs Ruby: "For God's sake, turn around." A skipping drum fades off, leaving the poor sap stranded in his wheelchair listening to her car drive off. Even Kenny Rogers doesn't sing it anymore.
11. "One" -- Metallica (1988) The heavy metal band raised the depression bar dramatically when it based its gruesome song One on the world's most depressing novel, Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun; it makes Foxe's Book of Martyrs read like Helen Fielding. A frenzied metal jam underpins the screaming interior monologue of a blind, deaf and dismembered war veteran, similar to the narrator of the 1939 book. Though falsely accused of promoting devil worship in their music, Metallica would have been better off borrowing from some demonic tome on goat slaughtering rather than Trumbo's novel.
10. "People Who Died" -- The Jim Carroll Band (1980) While most punk music sounds like screaming winos crammed inside a runaway shopping cart, this violent death anthem goes way beyond the usual mohawk bellowings. Over a bed of crystal meth rockabilly, writer/former junkie Jim Carroll speed-rants his way through the factual obituaries of 13 friends and associates who "died, died!" in various horrific ways, including three who were thrown off buildings and one who killed himself on his wedding night by drinking drain cleaner. People Who Died remains a cult favourite of budding nihilists who sigh wistfully whenever one of their piercings becomes infected.
9. "Sister Morphine" -- Marianne Faithfull (1979) Though not as well known as the Rolling Stones' earlier version she helped write, Marianne Faithfull's 1979 cover version of the morbid Sister Morphine is infinitely more debilitating, if only because of the craggy quality of her voice. She croaks about lying in a hospital bed while waiting for Sister Morphine to appear, recalling ambulance sirens, faceless doctors, and red sheets. Curiously, Faithfull suffered most of the pitfalls her lyrics warn against in the years after she wrote them.
8. "Hurt" -- Nine Inch Nails (1994) Marvellously covered in 2002 by Johnny Cash, the original version of Hurt closes out Nine Inch Nails's The Downward Spiral, the perfect album to crank while you're tossing live hamsters into a blender. Featuring strident hisses, tortured singing, and mentally defective guitars, the six-minute long Hurt is a woe-is-me addiction song overloaded with excessive details; after listening to it, you need a penicillin shot. Cash's superior acoustic remake of Hurt, however, does away with the compressor noises and goes straight to the song's wounded heart.
7. "Strange Fruit" -- Billie Holiday (1939) Strange indeed and insufferable, too. This notorious anti-lynching song unfortunately helped cement Billie Holiday's reputation as a wounded torch singer, gardenia optional. Musically tedious, Strange Fruit is outfitted with grotesque lyrics ("bulging eyes", "twisted mouth", "burning flesh") which exploit the horrors of lynching more than they condemn it. Holiday began her career as a superb interpreter of swinging pop songs but eventually succumbed to the melodramatics of songs like this. While some Holiday acolytes feel that no vocalists are worthy enough to cover the song, it's really the other way round. It's impossible for anyone to sing Strange Fruit without sounding like an agitprop fanatic.
6. "DOA" -- Bloodrock (1971) An ode to the ephemeral joy that comes from being a corpse who perished in a plane crash, the sick DOA describes the searing pain in the victim's body, his blood oozing out of him while his mangled girlfriend lies nearby. A see-sawing organ resembling an ambulance siren slogs its way through the entire track. The song became a minor hit for Bloodrock, leading to the song's most depressing aspect: being forced to play it over and over again. Weary of waking up screaming at night, the band refused audience requests to perform it during their concerts, causing mass walkouts. The group soon broke up.
5. "Seasons in the Sun" -- Terry Jacks (1974) This mawkish translation of the Jacques Brel song Le Moribond hit no 1 and tormented a generation of radio listeners with its mortal sappiness and earworm chorus ("we had joy, we had fun ... "). Seasons in the Sun is about a dying man bidding farewell to a close friend, his father, and some girl named Michelle. Featuring four superfluous key changes, the song has not lost its power to fold and mutilate listeners.
4. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" -- Bonnie Tyler (1984) The Welsh singer's collaboration with Meat Loaf producer Jim Steinman still vanquishes all those who turn around to gaze into its bright eyes. Under Steinman's direction, Tyler rasps her way through a million permutations of the phrase "every now and then, I get a little bit [insert neurosis here]" before losing it during the song's demented chorus. Clocking in at over seven minutes, Total Eclipse is Wagner's Ring Cycle without the funny hats; the equivalent of an opera company pelting you with copies of Anne Rice novels. You're completely drained when it's over and desperately in need of a shower to rinse off the raven droppings.
3. "Honey" -- Bobby Goldsboro (1968) The world's wordiest dead wife song, Honey is jammed full of blooming flowers, puffy clouds, singing robins, planted trees, and a puppy, all of which just make you want to swallow a hand grenade. The narrator mourns Honey, his deceased spouse, while condescendingly describing her as kinda dumb and kinda smart. If you feel inclined to listen to Honey, please drink heavily and then bale out after Honey dents the car. Otherwise, you'll get hit with angels carrying Honey away and clouds crying on flower beds. You won't make it out with your senses intact. It is that bad.
2. "The Shortest Story" -- Harry Chapin (1976) The most misguided song ever written, the ghastly The Shortest Story features the late songwriter/activist Harry Chapin adopting the persona of an African baby who dies of malnutrition. From the infant's viewpoint, we hear about his hunger pangs, weeping siblings, and how his mother's shrivelled breast cannot produce milk. He finally expires while sickly birds "crawl across the sky". The song ends with the portentous clang of a tubular bell, the banshee of musical instruments. Though it was meant to instill awareness about world hunger, The Shortest Story is like 50 tons of nuclear waste dumped in the middle of a park to show how bad it is to drop litter.
1. "The Christmas Shoes" -- Newsong (2000) Never heard of it? Well, you should. This serotonin-draining Yuletide song, based on an apocryphal story passed around the internet, hit no 1 on the adult contemporary charts in the US while spawning a best- selling novella and a top-rated TV movie. It tells of a disgruntled holiday shopper who encounters a lone dishevelled little boy trying to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother. The lad doesn't have enough money and pleads with the man to help so mummy can look good when she "meets Jesus tonight". The man's Grinch facade melts and he chips in some cash. The little boy runs out of the store by himself while the guy thanks God for reminding him about the true spirit of Christmas. Following this logic, then, Christmas is about afflicting a boy's mother with a terminal disease so a self-absorbed moron can feel good about giving a few quid to an unaccompanied seven-year-old. The Christmas Shoes is smug, saccharine and more depressing than the Cure's entire career. And because it's Christmas-themed and we have to hear it year after year in the US, it gets my vote as the most depressing song ever. Download at your own peril.
I might have replaced Metallica's "One" with their lesser known but [in my opinion] better "Fade to Black," and to be technical, Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud" probably goes in there somewhere.