Music is never sad, people are. I’ve collected these songs based on the stories that the artists lay between the lines. I was looking for broken words that capture an honest expression of pain and confusion and not a sad melody just for the sake of it. I was looking for songs based on real events but also for songs that unfold like a fairytale gone wrong. A close examination of the human psyche and the events or actions that can leave scars and bruises that can alter its surface. Abuse, rape, murder, addiction, discrimination, depression, loss, betrayal and heartache, used as inspiration sources to create art that can ascent the heart and the soul beyond and above the breaking point. Words and sounds that can leave an emotional print on your mind, that will never fade out.
This mixtape is not meant to make you feel sad, unless you really are.
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Lhasa de Sela / Soon This Space Will Be Too Small
I used to listen to this song without knowing anything about the story behind it. It is based on a philosophical view that her father held, about conception, birth and the existence of a parallel world that follow us until our passing. Her fragile voice is placed over a haunting piano melody, while the words paint a tragic and ironic prediction about her own imminent death, “Soon this space will be too small/ All my veins and bones, Will be burned to dust”. Seven years after the recording of the song Lhasa would pass away due to breast cancer. Her death is not the case though, I’m not trying to connect this song with a tragic event, as to emotionally charge it more than it already is. What really matters is the body of work she left behind and how this work connect us with the artist. “You can throw me into/ A black iron pot/ And my dust will tell/ What my flesh would not”
Amanda Palmer / Polly
Kurt Cobain wrote”Polly” after reading a newspaper article about the abduction, torture and rape in August 1987 of a 14-year-old girl by Gerald Arthur Friend; Friend had her picked up near the Tacoma Dome with his car after she had attended a rock concert. She managed to escape when he stopped for gas; she got out of the vehicle and made a scene, attracting attention from surrounding people. What makes this song terrifying is the fact that Kurt adopts the role of the rapist, while singing in a soft, calming and gentle voice. “Polly says her back hurts/ And she’s just as bored as me” It sounds like a beautiful nursery rhyme the devil uses to put his children to sleep, “Promise you/ I have been true/ Let me take a ride/ Don’t cut yourself/ I want some help/ to please myself”. This is no way an empathy or sympathy stand towards the rapist, this is a sad reminder that there are no mythical creatures that want to hurt us, there are only people who, under the right circumstances, fall way down the scale of emotional wretchedness. We are the monsters under the bed. Amanda Palmer’s version is no way better than the original one, but she was able to re-create this scene, up against a creepy and dark background that evokes the pure horror of the story.
The Velvet Underground / Candy Says
Candy says’ is a gentle hymn, written by Lou Reed, dedicated to the cross-dresser performer and key figure in Andy Warhol’s Factory. Candy Darling died of lymphoma on March 21, 1974, aged 29, at the Columbia University Medical Centre division of the Cabrini Health Centre. In a letter written on her deathbed and intended for Andy Warhol and his followers, Darling said, “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life… I am just so bored by everything. You might say bored to death. Did you know I couldn’t last? I always knew it. I wish I could meet you all again.” Lou Reed wrote the song for her. His inspiration came after visiting her at the hospital, a few days before she passed away. Lou adopts the part of Candy, she sings the song lying at her deathbed, projecting an image of bittersweet emotions that reflect her cynical sense of humor and melancholy, “Candy says/ I’ve come to hate my body/ and all that it requires/ in this world”. Lyrically it seems to be one of the most simple Lou has ever written, but it is this simplicity that causes the biggest impact, “I’m gonna watch/ the blue birds fly/ over my shoulder/ I’m gonna watch them pass me by/ Maybe when I’m older/ What do you think I’d see/ If I could walk away from me”.
Mum Smokes / House Music
There are no words here to tell a story. Sometimes music itself is capable enough to create a vivid feeling that you cannot really describe. This instrumental piece seems to balance on an offbeat rhythm that creates the illusion that it’s going to collapse under its own weight. Like musicians playing at the funeral of a friend or a lover, desperately trying to hold back the emotions and continue performing.
Van Morrison / T.B. Sheets
Recorded in only two takes, this song about a girl dying of Tuberculosis almost sucked the life out of its creator. It is being said that Van Morrison collapsed in tears after the recording, leading to the cancellation of the rest of the session. The story as narrated in the song takes place in a room where a young girl lies, dying of tuberculosis and is visited by the story-teller. The overwhelming pain and guilt he feels leads to a desperate urge to escape the enclosed room, full of the smell of death and disease.
I could only dream about writing something better than the following:
“A Paste review by Steve Labate commented on the theme of the song: “‘T.B. Sheets’ is one of the most real songs about death you’ll ever hear. As life saps steadily from the singer’s beloved, tuberculosis-ridden Julie, there is no trite drama, no nostalgic sugar coating or grand deathbed epiphany, but rather an ‘Is That All There Is?’ fatalism—a mild, detached, slowly-suffocating bleakness. ‘The sunlight shining through the crack in the window pane numbs my brain,’ Morrison moans over a skittering Hammond organ.”
Nina Simone / Four Women
Just close your eyes and stay still for a few minutes. Let her voice lift you off and drive you straight to her heart. There are no “based on a true story” themes here, no “inspired by” topics. She didn’t read something in the newspaper and she didn’t hear a story from a friend. Her ancestors and herself, all lived through what she describes. This is her “truth”, transmitted to your mind by the tension of her voice. The way her voice charges the phrasing of each word, makes this song more powerful and radical, than all the Rage Against The Machine records combined together. “My skin is yellow/ My hair is long/ Between two worlds/ I do belong/ My father was rich and white/ He forced my mother late one night/ What do they call me?”.
Billie Holiday / Love For Sale
Love for sale was written by Cole Porter as part of the “The New Yorkers” musical. The song is written from the viewpoint of a prostitute advertising, “love for sale. The Billy Holiday adaption stands as the most exceptional one, due to Billy’s fragile performance and the personal experience that connected her with the words of this young prostitute.
“Holiday’s mother returned to their home on December 24, 1926, to discover a neighbor, Wilbur Rich, attempting to rape Billie, but failing. She fought back. Rich was arrested. Officials placed Billie in the House of the Good Shepherd under protective custody as a state witness in the rape case. Holiday was released in February 1927, nearly twelve. She found a job running errands in a brothel. During this time, Holiday first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. By the end of 1928, Holiday’s mother decided to try her luck in Harlem, New York, and left Holiday again with Martha Miller.
By early 1929, Holiday joined her mother in Harlem. Their landlady was a sharply dressed woman named Florence Williams, who ran a brothel at 151 West 140th Street. Holiday’s mother became a prostitute and, within a matter of days of arriving in New York, Holiday, who had not yet turned fourteen, also became a prostitute at $5 a client. On May 2, 1929, the house was raided, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison. After spending some time in a workhouse, her mother was released in July, followed by Holiday in October, at the age of 14.”
Fred Neil / That’s The Bag I’m In
Fred Neil was one of these artists that can stand on his own value of work, even though he never received the recognition he deserved. His deep-vibrato, crooning-voice was able to evoke a plethora of contradicted emotions. Whether he sings about bittersweet cocaine, the death of his father, or a sad break-up. That’s the bag I’m in, perfectly describes a state of depression and social dysfunction caused by personal misfortunes and heartbreak, “Every morning when I wake up/ I burn my fingers on the pot/ Toast is cold and the orange juice is hot/ I should start over but you know I’d rather not”. There’s a sense of loss and personal defeat through out his word play, “Same thing gonna happen again/ Cause that’s the bag I’m in”. This is not a “getting better” song, it’s not about winning or overcoming depression, it’s about dealing with it in your everyday day life and trying your best not let it sink you deeper than you already are.
Townes Van Zandt / Sixteen Summers, Fifteen Falls
I got my first Townes Van Zandt record as present at the tender age of 16. I knew nothing about him and he was introduced to me as a “miles better than Bob fucking Dylan” artist. I never really liked Dylan anyways, so I wasn’t too eager to listen to this guy. A few years after and while going through all my records at the time, I’ve stumbled upon “For The Sake Of The Song” and I’ve decided to have a more careful listen. Soon, I realized that I was doing everything the wrong way. This was not your typical roots-y experience. One needs a glass of bourbon and a pack of cigarettes to fully appreciate this album. You’ll need to convey yourself back to a time where traditional tales always had a dark twist at the middle of the narration. An unescapable fate that would only bring heartache and tears.
Let me tell you a story ’bout a girl I knew
Fairest skin with eyes of blue
I swear to the Lord that I loved her true
It’s a year now she’s been gone
Her spirit was as bright as the soft sunshine
Lips, the color of strawberry wine
I wish to God, she still were mine
the chance won’t come againAfter first, we lay in loves sweet bed
With one look at her eyes, I might have read
All the pain that was flying through her head
Through my guilt I could not seeI turned to her when the morning came
Hungry thoughts racing through my brain
but the knife in her heart screamed herself she’d slain
and a note whispered love too soonHer old man screamed and her mother cried
All I could do was to wonder why
A girl in her youth was forced to die
is loving such a crime?She died
(Few in the years)
With breasts still small
seeing sixteens summers and fifteen falls
me and my blindness never realized all
the fear she kept insideLet me tell you a story ’bout a girl I knew
Fairest skin with eyes of blue
I swear to the Lord that I loved her true”
David Bowie / Letter To Hermione
I have no idea who David Robert Jones is. I don’t think he knows either. He may be the man who sold the world, he may be Aladin Sane, the thin white duke, Ziggy, or you know, David Bowie. He always saw himself more as an actor, than just a rock n’ roll singer. David Bowie was always another person when he was performing, and he was always able to invent a fictional narrator to tell a story through his lyrics. A passionate collector of everything abnormal, eccentric and interesting enough, to draw his attention. It’s really a hard task, to find the songs where Bowie speaks, being the narrator and not through a fictional persona. Even “The Bewlay Brothers”, which is written about his brother, fails to deliver a deeper insight in his own feelings. The letter he sends to Hermione is one of the rare occasions where Bowie writes a completely heartfelt and desperate story that is being told in first person, “He makes you laugh/ he brings you out in style/ He treats you well and makes you up real fine/ And when he’s strong/ he’s strong for you/ And when you kiss it’s something new/ But did you ever call my name just by mistake?”. The break up with Hermione Farthingale resulted in one of the most “human” songs written by the alien. After that he continued writing about, homo-superiors, Andy Warhol, Bob fucking Dylan, androgynous aliens, Bertolt Brecht and Kabbalah influenced nonsense but “Letter To Hermione” will always be a recorded evidence that he’s actually made of flesh and bones, at least in the beginning.
Pink Floyd / Jugband Blues
His trip down the rabbit hole was too intense and too short, like a firecracker in the darkest night. His psychedelic experience altered his perception of reality. He got lost in the Land of Oz and forgot how to function in real life. The fellow band members decided one morning not to pick him up for a concert. That was the end of it, similar to the Brian Jones abandonment by the rest of the Rolling Stones. Early drug casualties whose genius worked against them and defeated them, braking their spirits. Jungband Blues reflects Syd’s feelings for this abandonment. It’s honest and bitter, sustaining a hidden anger that chooses to manifest through a joyful and celebrating hymn that soon collapses into a psychedelic breakdown, leading to an acoustic outro where he softly sings “And what exactly is a dream/ and what exactly is a joke”. The fact that the rest of the band decided to include the song as a closing track on the “A Saucerful Of Secrets” album, only goes to show the huge amount of respect they actually had for him.
Funkadelic / Maggot Brain
Where words fail, music picks up the pieces and speaks louder than mourning thunders. George Clinton, leader of the Funkadelic, found the decomposing corpse of his brother, in a Chicago apartment. His skull was cracked open and mother nature made sure to use her maggots and worms, on the remaining of his brains. According to the legend, George Clinton told Eddie Hazel, who was under the influence of LSD at the time of the recording, to imagine that he was just been told his mother was dead, but then found out that this was not true. The result was the 10-minute guitar solo for which Hazel is most fondly remembered by many music critics and fans. Though several other musicians began the track playing, Clinton soon realized how powerful Hazel’s solo was and faded them out so that the focus would be on Hazel’s guitar. Critics have described the solo as “lengthy, mind-melting” and “an emotional apocalypse of sound.”
Roxy Music / In Every Dream Home A Heartache
This is the downward spiral to material obsession and social alienation. The narrator is stranded is his own isolated island of sexual frustration and emotional detachment. Surrounded by wealth and luxury, “The cottage is pretty, The main house a palace, Penthouse perfection, But what goes on, What to do there, Better pray there”, he slowly descents in a cynical state where he’s being moved on by an inflatable sex doll, “Disposable darling/ Can’t throw you away now/ Immortal and life size/ My breath is inside you/ I’ll dress you up daily/ And keep you till death sighs/ Inflatable doll/ Lover ungrateful/ I blew up your body/ But you blew my mind”. All these lyrics are being delivered through a minimal and hypnotic ensemble of, a repetitive organ melody, a simple guitar chord progression and a fade in and out saxophone that creates a sense of anticipation and dread. The second part of the song is so violent and intense that it actually contradicts the previous state of the narrator’s apathy and lethargy, redefining the original idea of the lyrics and creating an expiation that redeems the hero of the story.
Brian Eno / Some Of Them Are Old
There’s a certain kind of magic in the first three Brian Eno albums. Sketches that represent his “Roxy Music” years, collided with pieces of a man in pursuit for something way more unusual, bizarre and avant-garde. But although he used unorthodox means to create music, he never lost his ability to conceive simple but enchanted little songs that can stuck in your mind for the rest of your years. Some Of Them Are Old delivers a tone-down, almost crooning-like, vocal performance by Eno, that unfolds a less cynical and contemptuous side of the artist known for singing about dead finks and sticking needles in camel’s eyes. A bittersweet hymn that stands between sorrow and bliss.
“People come and go and forget to close the door
And leave their stains and cigarette butts,
trampled on the floor
And when they do
Remember me, remember me”
Joy Division / Atmosphere
Comments are useless. You already know the story.
Young Marble Giants / Final Day
It took me a few years to realize that this song was actually describing the fear and paranoia that resulted from the nuclear threat, during the height of the cold war. A generation raised under television instructions that urged them to cover the windows with mattresses in case of emergency. A less than two minutes, cynical description of poverty being overshadowed by an ultimate catastrophic event and all this delivered through a soft-vocal, gentle little poem.
Modern English / Home
Modern English was a really different band during the recording of their debut album “Mesh & Lace”. If punk was the sound of anger, this album was the sound of desperation. A bleak and dystopian blow at the heart of the conservative landscape that was beginning to take form in the beginning of the 80’s. “Home” originates from the “Mesh & Lace” recordings but it was never included in any of their releases at the time. Their record label (4AD) feared that the provocative nature of the lyrics was way too intense, even for an era where punk and death rock were thriving. The song tells the story of a teenage boy, who enjoys a typical English dinner, set in his typical, middle-class family environment. He soon starts to descent into madness and psychosis, causing him to kill his parents in the most violent way.
Elton Motello / Jet Boy, Jet Girl
Jet Boy, Jet Girl was originally recorded by Elton Motello, a glam-punk band consisted by members of The Damned, The Pretty Things and Pink Fairies. The backtrack of the song was used by their label to record Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça plane pour moi”, without the band’s permission. The song deals with the sexual relationship of a 15-year-old boy with an older man, who then rejects him for a girl, /Can you tell what’s on my mind?/ She’s with him, it drives me wild / I’d like to hit him on the head / until he’s dead. The song has been embraced as a gay-punk anthem and it received a lot of negative criticism due the explicit nature of the lyrics. “And though I’m only just fifteen/ I like to kick, I like to scream / And even if I have a kick or two in bed / When I’m with him it’s just a dream / Ooh, hoo, hoo, hoo / He gives me head.
Wasted Youth / I Wish I Was A Girl
This could be interpreted in the typical sarcastic manner that applies to most of their songs but there’s something quite menacing and deranged in this, confession like, performance. The lyrics go way beyond the homosexuality spectrum, digging deeper to the desire of transformation and experiencing everything through a female body, his sister body that is. The singer seems more than excited during the climax (no pun intended) of the song, “I’m lying here/ on the floor/ Covered in make-up and cheap perfume/ I wanna look like her/ smell like her/ Live like her/ die like her/ Screw like her/ eat like her/ I wanna be her”, a state that brings Iggy Pop’s and Richard Hell’s counterpart performance a few years earlier. What’s really striking about this song is its ability to keep you wondering if this is a true statement or your typical punk provocation.
Sad Lovers & Giants / Things We Never Did
This song is the perfect example of what never came after the U.K Punk explosion. The unspeakable sense of failure and disappointment that followed the desperate scream of a generation. The awful realization that nothing really changed, it only got worse. Your youth is being held hostage by your older, future self. The inevitable reality of growing old and becoming what you loathed the most, “We would be traitors/ We would forget we were young/ We would be helpless/ We are the kingdom to come”. New Wave was not a random evolutionary phase of Punk, neither was romantic and glamorous, as many insist to define it. New Wave and Post-punk music was the natural result of an explosion that wasn’t strong enough to destroy the old ways.
And Also The Trees / Map In Her Wrists & Arm
There are hundreds of songs written about heroin abuse and drug addiction. Some glorify the hedonism of this reality, while others narrate a sarcastic tale of regret and condemn towards the “habit”. In this case there are no regrets or hedonistic tendencies described among the lines. The words take their place in a poetic landscape that illustrates a division between heaven and hell, pain and pleasure, appeal and disavowal. There is no judgement in his words, only empathy and a sense of sadness and melancholy.
“Sometimes when she lifts her eyes
The room has filled with flowing sheets of silk
There’s maps in her wrists and arms
And the morphine surges terror bread and bliss
In the tent of powder and lace
She can hear some violins, watches the strings
Threading through the room
The Smiths / Suffer Little Children
“Suffer Little Children” is a song by the English rock band The Smiths, that was included on their eponymous debut album in 1984. The song is about the Moors murders that took place on Saddleworth Moor, which overlooks Manchester, between 1963 and 1965. At the time of their murders many of the victims were only a few years older than Smiths’ front man Morrissey (b. 1959), who wrote the lyrics of the song after reading a book about the murders,Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and its Detection by Emlyn Williams. It was one of the first songs that Morrissey and Johnny Marr wrote together.
It’s really difficult to write a song about the abuse and murder of innocent children without sounding corny or unnecessary provocative. Morrissey croons over a smooth guitar part about the subject with unspeakable cynicism and tenderness at the same time. Switching his narration form the children’s point of view, to a neutral observer that states the obvious, “Edward, see those alluring lights? Tonight will be your very last night’. The nursery-like melody creates a soothing atmosphere that contradicts the lyrical descent into a menacing promise of revenge that unfolds towards the end of the song, “Oh, find me/ find me!/ Find me!/ I’ll haunt you when you laugh/ Oh, I’ll haunt you when you laugh/ You might sleep/ but you will never dream.”