Casey Jarman is a music critic, writer and illustrator, contributing to The Believer, Willamette Week and Portland Monthly, among others. His latest work is Death: An Oral History, a collection of conversations with people on the topic of death. He will be talking about his new book at Wordstock, Nov. 5 at the Portland Art Museum and at Powells on Oct. 27 at 7:30 pm.
I wrote a book about death partly because I was sick of writing about music. That’s my background, for the most part: writing profiles of and doing interviews with musicians. I’m a nerd about songwriters and music production, but I thought I needed to write about something that shook me up a bit and challenged me. So I pitched a book of interviews about death, and I was lucky enough to have an editor go for it.
When I started the book, almost two years ago, I interviewed a retired Catholic priest in Eugene. We had a lovely conversation — it didn’t make it into the final book, but it still floats to the forefront of my mind often. When I got into my car to leave the church where we spoke, I tuned the radio to the local college radio station. The DJ was playing “Farewell Transmission” by Magnolia Electric Company. I felt a sort of buzz go through my body as Jason Molina, who himself died a pretty dismal death in 2013, sang “The real truth about it is / There ain't no end to the desert I'll cross / I've really known that all along.” And then, “I will be gone, but not forever.”
This sort of thing kept happening. The deeper I got into these intense interviews, the more I noticed themes of death and grief coming up in the music I loved. I started hearing these songs in a new light, because of the really personal discussions I was having with people. So I started keeping a list of songs that addressed death in a thoughtful way, and I started daydreaming about making a Death Mixtape that I could hand out after readings or discussions. Readings and discussions make me pretty nervous, but sharing a compilation of songs I love, that’s a joy. So here it is!
There are a lot of sappy, sentimental songs about death. There’s a time and place for those, I’m sure, but I haven’t found that time or place just yet. The songs on this list are funny or pretty or abstract. I tried to leave out songs that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Leonard Cohen doing “Hallelujah” is no less a wonder because we’ve all heard it a hundred times, but hopefully you'll find something new here.
1. “Poor Bastard,” Kyle Morton
The opening track from the Typhoon frontman’s recent solo debut, What Will Destroy You, finds its protagonist regaining consciousness in the midst of his own funeral. When he springs from his coffin, he announces, “I’m feeling so much better now, I want to thank you all for coming out — though premature, it truly means the world.” It’s a darkly funny tune, but the arrangement is deeply melancholy. Morton has spent years writing insightful songs about mortality, but this might be the first time he’s used an absurdist comic fantasy to get into it. It reminded me that many of the deepest and most moving conversations I had about death, while working on this book, also involved a lot of laughter.
2. “Undertaker,” Bry Webb
A brooding gothic folk tune with a funeral dirge brass arrangement that probably should have landed on the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack at some point. This one really only has a vague narrative, but I believe it. A small-town undertaker singing “all my enemies come back to me” gets me every time.
3. “This Woman’s Work,” Kate Bush
It’s so shocking to me that Bush wrote this incredible song for a mediocre John Hughes film starring Kevin Bacon. Ostensibly about complications during childbirth, to me it reads like a song about the frantic and overwhelming pause before grief. It has these cascading moments of sheer panic and confusion — I’m reminded of discussions I had with Jana DeCristofaro about Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief refusing to proceed in an orderly fashion — but then it also has these distinct moments of clarity. It’s a wise and generous song.
4. “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” Bobby Bare
Like I said, there are many sappy country songs about death. This one, though — written by Tom T Hall — seems so honest and unvarnished. It’s a small story with little details that wouldn’t matter much to anyone but the narrator. It’s not a big sentimental number about some great American — it’s about a random guitar player that just made an impression on Hall when he was a kid.
5. “I Seen a Man Die,” Scarface
There are certain MCs who function more like journalists or ethnologists than entertainers, and Scarface is one of those. Even for him, “I Seen a Man Die” is a pretty deep dive. The third and final verse is especially striking: It’s basically Scarface coaching a young man through the process of dying, which reminded me a lot of talking with Katherine MacLean about guiding her sister to the unknown. Scarface’s version: “I hear you breathing but your heart no longer sounds strong / But you kinda scared of dying so you hold on / And you keep on blacking out because your pulse is low / Stop trying to fight the reaper just relax and let it go”
8. “Living Without You,” Randy Newman
It’s unclear whether the titular “You” in this song is deceased or just out of the picture, but it’s an incredibly visceral grief that a young Randy Newman touches on here, and it certainly translates to bereavement. Plain and direct and brutally honest. “Nothing’s gonna happen / Nothing’s going to change / Baby it’s so hard living without you.” The arrangement is totally flooring, too.
6. “King of Sorrow,” Sade
Thematically identical to “Living Without You,” only this has Sade’s notoriously sexy vocals and smooth production attached. “I’m crying everyone’s tears” is one of the most open-ended and compelling lyrics I can think of, though, and the total disregard for gender conformity in the chorus is something I greatly enjoy.
7. “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San,” John K Samson
I don’t know how you write a believable song from the perspective of a dying man when you’re not dying, but I think this is one. I do know that in Samson’s case, there was a lot of research about the actual Ninette Sanatorium in Manitoba. (On the same album, he also writes a song from the perspective of a graduate student who’s researching this Sanatorium, so it all gets very meta.)
9. “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” Joni Mitchell
Good to get a little funky ’round the middle of the mixtape. “Death and birth and death and birth!”
10. “Joy & Pain,” MAZE
I got to see Maze in 2012. It was a life-changing event. This is a marquee song for the band. It’s healing in its simplicity. It also keeps the funky middle-bit of the mixtape going strong.
11. “Dead Slate Pacific,” John Vanderslice
A song about mental health, suicide, and anxiety. Different readings could make it feel guilt-trippy or sweet. After years of hearing it, I’m still not sure which reading I subscribe to.
12. “Priests and Paramedics,” Pedro the Lion
I talked to Pedro co-founder David Bazan about this song, wherein a paramedic debates whether it would be best to tell a dying man that he’s dying or not, and a priest decides to reveal his own battle with depression mid-eulogy. He felt like he should have given the story another twist. But I like it just the way it is, Bazan’s bleak vocals and all. If you haven’t checked it out, Control is one of the great rock records of its era.
13. “Funeral Song,” Laura Gibson
I won’t claim to know what Gibson, a dear friend of mine, is getting at here. To me, it sounds like a story about the whole world — even inanimate objects — coming together to mourn. And there’s something very pretty about that, beyond Gibson’s great voice and playing.
14. “Even The Good Wood Gone,” Why?
I thought this was a nice bookend to pair with “Poor Bastard.” Instead of waking up in his casket, this song’s protagonist wakes up as a museum pharaoh with a “No Flash Photography” sign hung around its neck. Songwriter/frontman Yoni Wolf’s transition from rebirth to a much less exotic death is pretty compelling, too. Something about the whimsical, baroque instrumentation here just does it for me, too.
- "Handy Man" on JT by James Taylor.
- "By Your Side" on Lovers Rock by Sade.
- "Blue Light" on Silent Alarm and streaming by Bloc Party.
- Tha Carter III by Lil Wayne
"If there's a cure for this
I don't want it
Don't want it
If there's a remedy
I'll run from it
If you ask many people what the term "disco" conjures, you'll likely hear about drugs, excess, sex, celebrity and exclusive parties/clubs - not to mention the questionable fashions, the quintessential hairstyles and the inevitable accusations of artificiality and inauthenticity (anyone remember "Disco Sucks"?).
But disco was a complex musical and cultural set of coordinates that originally emerged from the economic, sexual and racial peripheries of early 1970s New York City. Tim Lawrence's Love Saves The Day - a definitive and exhaustive intervention in cultural history - uncovers these radical roots in eye-opening detail. Lawrence draws upon a ton of archival material and interviews with many of the (surviving) primary players to construct a wonderful narrative that should appeal to anyone fascinated by the intersections of the social, economic and cultural in the 1970s. Lawrence documents the founding of David Mancuso's legendary Loft and tracks the myriad divergent strands forward that ultimately lead to the dead end of Studio 54 and the mass burning of disco LPs in Chicago's Comiskey Park.
Especially of interest for pop music aficionados (disco touched just about every pop musical genre that followed), sound junkies, and anyone curious about the complex intersections between sexuality, technology, music and politics.
And for your dancing pleasure, here's a playlist featuring some of the best music of the period:
The Picture File is a massive collection of file cabinets that you do not see when you come in to the library to the 3rd floor at the present time. In the past, these cabinets were prominently available in the Art and Music Room for library visitors to look through and make selections to check out. We are still checking out the Picture Files, but now since we have a much larger collection of books to display plus computer stations, there is simply no room for all of these file cabinets in the Art and Music Room, and they have been moved to closed stacks.
The Picture Files consist of folders on many topics, collected from books that could not be repaired, periodicals that were duplicates, and a whole myriad of images from calendars and other sources.
What use are these in our time, when we can find internet sources for images with ease? Since this collection was created in the Art and Music Room, it is particularly strong for these topics; there are hundreds of folders for the arts with thousands of pictures all together. If you are in the library looking for images of artists' works, it can be more practical to take home a manila envelope of images than a series of books. If you are working on ideas for a mural, for example, and want to experiment with combining images of different subjects, these files are useful for composition ideas.
Recently I was preparing a display of materials about the composers Bartok and Beethoven for a local festival and library concert, for which I used the Picture Files. There were some images of these composers that I had seen in books and on the internet, but a few that were a complete delight since new to me. So I suggest that it can be worth taking a look at these if you have a project. Simply ask the staff at the Art and Music Reference desk for picture files on a subject. We have an index of the subjects in this collection, and from these you tell the staff which folders you would like to look at. You can select up to 50 pictures at a time to check out from a range of folders.
These three images are samples from one of the three folders of paintings and drawings by Jean-Antoine Watteau (October 10, 1684 - July 18, 1721) whose drawings of musicians are so evocative of 18th century French baroque music.
Questions? Send our reference staff an email question or call the library: 503.988.5234.
Vanity film projects are a terrible idea. Funding is shaky, poorly constructed scripts are battered about, and rumors of an impending Hindenburg of a movie are spread. Fueled by egos and inexperience, these problems offer easy fodder to the media waiting to rip apart the darling superstar who’s in over their head.
Purple Rain should have failed. However, it did not.
Upon its release, the film propelled Prince, and to a lesser degree the Revolution, to superstar status. Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy sheds light on Purple Rain's improbable success driven by an unlikely group of collaborators.
So, forget your shrink in Beverly Hills. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the tale of the quest to make a musically charged film which can only be described as magically cringe-worthy experience.
Emerging from an ultra conservative Jamaican childhood, Grace Jones created her own path and a life well lived. In her memoir, I'll Never Write my Memoirs she opens her life, inviting readers into a world of adventures and experiences that only her words can convey.
I’m not even going to try. Just take Grace Jones’ words for it.
Already said hello? Try this list for similar books.
Jazz vocalist Rebecca Kilgore has been described as one of the finest singers of the contemporary jazz scene. As a "song sleuth," she researches songs of the 20s, 30s and 40s, and reinterprets them for appreciative audiences. She has been a guest on shows such as Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Prairie Home Companion; she is a inductee in the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
I fell in love with the majestic downtown public library building when I first visited Portland in 1979 from the east coast. It was among the reasons I moved here a year later! Since then my library card has been working overtime.
I am a full-time jazz vocalist and song researcher, so I’m always looking for information on the music, artists and composers from the era of the Great American Songbook and the jazz age. I take advantage of the library’s printed sheet music collection, streaming music and physical books.
Researching composer Billy Strayhorn’s life was essential for a concert of his music which I performed recently, so I checked out Lush Life, A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu and Something to Live for, The Music of Billy Strayhorn by Walter van de Leur.
For escape I love listening to fiction on downloadable audiobooks. I loved Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys, Abide With Me, and the new My Name Is Lucy Barton. I adored Room by Emma Donoghue, and an unusual book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I could go on and on!
My neighborhood library is Hollywood which is perfectly friendly and convenient. I don’t often visit the Central Library, but I still get a happy feeling when I do.