Top 10 Songs About Death
When you strip down songwriting to its most essential subjects, you’re usually left with stories about love and stories about death. Today we’re focusing on the latter with the Top 10 Songs About Death. For as long as rock and roll has been around, musicians have been obsessed with their mortality – not a surprise, given how many of their fellow rockers have died tragically young. Despite being about a real downer of a subject, some of the tunes below are playful, some are inspiring and others merely illustrate how the great beyond is a universally fascinating topic.
From: ‘Planet Waves’ (1974)
From ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ to ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ to the entirety of ‘Time Out of Mind,’ Bob Dylan has spent a fair amount of time writing about life’s last act. On this chestnut, ol’ Bob contemplates suicide with the help of the Band. “I’ve just reached the place / Where the willow don’t bend,” he howls. It’s an earnest, dark and soulful song, backed by Dylan’s most inspired collaborators – one of whom, Richard Manuel, would take his own life 12 years later.
From: ‘Goats Head Soup’ (1973)
Appropriately grimy for a song about a dalliance with death (that’s what the “D” stands for), the Rolling Stones' ‘Dancing with Mr. D’ finds Mick Jagger theorizing about his possible coup de grace. Jagger wonders, “Will it be poison I put in my glass? / Will it be slow or will it be fast?” Perhaps he had his partner in crime, Keith Richards, in mind. Between drug addiction, house fires, brutal falls and a near-electrocution, Keef’s been dancing with Mr. D all his life.
From: ‘Working on a Dream’ (2009)
Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band have proven resilient in the face of death, and continue to press on following the deaths of founding members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici in recent years. This track, from the otherwise upbeat ‘Working on a Dream,’ finds Springsteen paying tribute to one of them by revisiting 1973’s ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story,’ on which Federici played accordion (his son Jason performs the honors this time). Bruce laments, “We won't be dancing together on the high wire / Facing the lines with you at my side,” and sings about how the train keeps on rolling anyway.
From: ‘Ride the Lightning’ (1984)
The metal legends contributed one of the Top 10 Songs About Death during a period in which the band members were obsessed with the subject (after all, the title of ‘Ride the Lightning’ refers to the electric chair). ‘Fade to Black’ was Metallica’s first ballad and the first to set the slow and heavy template that the band would return to again and again. In the epic song, frontman James Hetfield roars about suicide and an emptiness that fills him. He had his own brush with death when, while performing the song in 1992, he walked into a pyrotechnic stage effect and suffered second- and third-degree burns.
From: ‘The Wind’ (2003)
It’s one thing to theorize about your death or reflect on a fallen friend. It’s another to write a song about staring your own mortality in the face. That’s what singer-songwriter Warren Zevon did in 2003, after being given a short amount of time to live with terminal mesothelioma. An audibly weary Zevon ruminates about shuffling off this mortal coil, and hopes his loved ones won’t forget him. He sings in simple terms, which makes his more poetic lyrics all the more meaningful. “Engine driver’s headed north to Pleasant Stream,” Zevon warbles over a scintillating acoustic guitar. “Keep me in your heard for a while.” He died two weeks after his last album was released.
From: ‘Physical Graffiti’ (1975)
Although the album credits would tell your different, Led Zeppelin did not write ‘In My Time of Dying.’ It's an old gospel tune that had been kicking around for at least 50 years before the boys got hold of it. Dylan had even done a version on his debut LP. But nobody but Zeppelin could have done this to it, making it an 11-minute stunner (the band’s longest studio track) with woozy slide from Jimmy Page and relentless pounding from John Bonham, who accidentally ends the song with a coughing fit. Through the song, Robert Plant sings a plea for deliverance, despite his misdeeds, and the band delivers one of the most thrilling performances of their career.
From: ‘Summertime Dream’ (1976)
The record store nerds in ‘High Fidelity’ call this one of the best death songs, and we have to agree. Gordon Lightfoot’s modern version of the sea shanty took inspiration from an actual bulk carrier that sank on Lake Superior in November 1975, taking its 29-member crew to an icy grave. The Canadian songwriter (a boating enthusiast himself) tells the story earnestly and with a modicum of creative license, placing the focus on the tragic tale and the punishing forces of nature against which no man can win. In the middle of the storm, he allows himself a philosophical moment: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes / When the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
From: ‘Innuendo’ (1991)
Brian May was the prime mover behind this Queen barnstormer, which is about frontman Freddie Mercury pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion as a performer, as he was becoming weaker and weaker from his struggle with AIDS. Near the song’s end, Mercury belts, “I have to find the will to carry on.” At the time – about a year before Freddie’s death in 1991 – May didn’t know if Mercury would be able to deliver the powerful vocal that the track demanded. He was overjoyed to see his bandmate muster all his strength to tear the song to shreds. The show must go on, indeed.
From: ‘Rush’ (1992)
Following the tragic death of his four-year-old song Conor, the Eric Clapton found solace in songwriting. The result was this heartfelt ballad, in which the guitar great imagines a situation in which he can spend a little more time with his little boy. But ‘Tears in Heaven’ isn’t just about death, but finding the resolve to deal with all-encompassing grief. “Beyond the door / There’s peace, I’m sure” he sings, sounding unconvinced. E.C. actually retired the song from his performances in 2004, feeling that he couldn’t connect to it in the way he had in the years following Conor’s death (such as on 1992’s Grammy-winning ‘Unplugged’ album). But in 2013, he began playing ‘Tears in Heaven’ again.
From: ‘Agents of Fortune’ (1976)
Proving that death and cowbell go together like Romeo and Juliet is the track that ends the Top 10 Songs About Death. Frontman Buck Dharma wrote the Blue Oyster Cult classic while contemplating an early demise for himself. While some misinterpreted ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ as a song about some sort of murder-suicide arrangement, Dharma (a.k.a. Donald Roeser) went on record that he was writing about the inevitability of death and the futility of being scared of it. The radio staple didn’t just become Blue Oyster Cult’s biggest hit; it also inspired Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ and a certain ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. But not even more cowbell will save you from the grim reaper.