Saturday, July 12, 2008

Crime songs

Cop Killer, Weegee, negative, January 16, 1941; print, about 1950
© International Center of Photography

This one began as a post on Declan Burke's Crime Always Pays and continued in a discussion with one of my colleagues at work. The subject as enunciated by Declan: "songs as condensed crime fiction novels – stripped-back and pared-down narratives about losers, loners and the kind of suckers who never caught an even break."

Bruce Sprinsteen's Nebraska came up, and I am proud to say that one of its crimes ("They blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night") happened not far from where I live. Bobbie Gentry’s "Ode to Billie Joe" drew a mention, and someone suggested Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."

The first verse of Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," the part before the song turns to crap, has the makings of a crime story, but my contribution on C.A.P. was "Ocultei," recorded by the great Brazilian singer Elizeth Cardoso with a last verse (rendered into English for blogging purposes) that runs tremulously thus:

"And my most ardent desire
– May God pardon me the sin! –
Is that another woman by your side
Kill you in the hour of a kiss."

Now, let's hear from you. What songs would make good crime stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

First, somebody answer me a question: If Johnny Cash "shot a man in Reno," why is he in Folsom Prison? The crime took place in Nevada, not California.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Johnny Cash was never "inside" except to play concerts. What the hell did he know?

But he is a good choice for any number of story songs, including "Long Black Veil," though the only version of the song I have heard is the Band's excellent one.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I know that. I meant the character he sings about.

Country music in general has way more potential for crime songs than rock does, I'd say. ("I Fought the Law" is not rock!) So does blues. Although one of the most famous rock songs of all is about adultery, come to think of it (Clapton's "Layla").

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Just remembered that "Alice's Restaurant" was ostensibly about littering. Talk about a story song!

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I know that you know that. I was just funnin', son.

Your remark about country and blues vs. rock as potential vehicles for crime songs is interesting because I think it's right, with a qualification. The qualification is that the country has to be country with an edge, and not sappy, sugary shite. Or maybe the qualification is that the best recipe for crime music is a country-type song performed by a rock performer, e.g., the Band and "Long Black Veil" or Bruce Springsteen and "Atlantic City."

I was thinking about this as I listened to various versions of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." I knew that bluegrass groups had performed it, which I thought of as a tribute to Richard Thompson's gritty authenticity. But the bluegrass version I listened to robbed the song of all the urgency Thompson put into it and turned it into just one more weightless fake-sad ballad.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Kerrie said...

What about Mack the Knife?

On the sidewalk, one sunday morning
Lies a body, oozin life
Someones sneaking round the corner
Could that someone be mack the knife

From a tugboat, on the river going slow
A cement bag is dropping on down
You know that cement is for the weight dear
You can make a large bet mackies back in town

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ooh, what a delicious contender, sneaking in from the theater world to elbow its way in among the country, folk, blues and rock upstarts. Excellent choice!

July 12, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

"Stan" by Eminem?

"I didn't slit her throat, I just tied her up, see I ain't like you, cause if she suffocates she'll suffer more and then she'll died too"

The title character kills himself and his fiancee in the song, but I figured they could investigate the bodies found in the water afterwards.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Cash's "I Hung My Head." It has an accidental murder, flight and pursuit, a trial and an execution.

July 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After the obligatory Nick Cave mention (he has written many "noir" songs,and compiled an entire album of new and traditional "Murder Ballads") I'll just go with two of my all-time favourite bands,The Triffids and Dream Syndicate.

Nearly all the songs of the Triffids are condensed narratives.
The subject matter is often dark,while the music can go from gloomy and haunting to catchy and cheerful.

"Trick of the Light" and "Hometown Farewell Kiss",for instance,pair extremely upbeat music with very disturbing lyrics.
The first one seems at first a tender remembrance by someone who after years still conserves the photograph of a former lover :

"Well the rim of her mouth was golden
Her eyes were just desert sands"

up until we discover what happened after she broke with him:

"I was beating on her like an anvil
Beating her out of original shape
With that same old panic caught on her face
I copied the image of the ancient embrace".

About the second,let's just say that the narrator has a decidedly too literal understanding of the phrase "burning bridges with the past".More than bridges,in fact:he cheerfully watches from a hill his entire hometown burning down,
houses,people and all.
"Kelly's Blues" and "One Mechanic Town" are suspenseful tales in which the narrator deals with the sudden,unexplained disappearance of a woman;"Bright Lights,Big City" is about a man who knows his girl is slowly losing it (and has already been found with a bloodstained knife)but fears he's unable to stop her.
Many of the lyrics center around dysfunctional relationships,and the slow-motion drift into crime or insanity appears often logic and inevitable:
"Life of Crime","Vagabond Holes","Blackeyed Susan","Unmade Love".
But really I could go on and on,so I'll better stop.

Turning to Dream Syndicate,in "Merritville" the narrator is tortured and left to die by the family of a girl he made love with in the fields;"Boston" is a pressing request to someone to "come back to Boston" because "The whole thing ain't going down according to the plan" and the narrator fears for his life:

"Poets, politicians, beauty queens and crooks
I wonder where he stood when the information came
Come back to Boston before I jump the train";

"Burn" starts with the story of a man who sets fire to a field for no apparent reason,and goes on about those things that cannot be told,that "you can feel burn in your heart and your soul until you lose control".

July 12, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Love this post, Peter! Anyone familiar with Tony Carey from the 80's? He came up with a few good ones. "It's a fine fine day for a reunion." About his Uncle Sony, a mobster who had done time and returns home. Or "will you come see me when I'm still inside." A story about a cocaine dealer in Manhattan who is busted and goes to prison. But they're so melodic with a celtic feel, you'd never think they're so dark. Petra p.s. btw, I recently started a blog entitled "Whose Role is it Anyway?" A mini-script is posted with the ability to vote for the listed actors to play the roles. Interested in voting? Take a walk on the wild side! :))

July 12, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

The late great Warren Zevon springs immediately to mind - 'Jeannie Needs a Shooter', 'Seminole Bingo','Carmelita', 'Charlie's Medicine' and numerous others. This is, after all, a man who collaborated with Carl Hiassen and Thomas McGuane, dedicated an album to Ross Macdonald, and had several of his titles, um, borrowed by crime film-makers and novelists (from 'Things to do in Denver...' to Christopher Brookmyre's 'Quite Ugly One Morning').

There are many other Richard Thompson songs that read like condensed crime novels - 'Cold Kisses' (which mentions Margaret Millar), 'Love in a Faithless Country', 'Woods of Darney' and many more. Incidentally, I threw a passing reference to 'Vincent Black Lightning 1952' into my book, 'The Adversary'.

And mention of The Triffids reminds me of another favourite Antipodean band, The Mutton Birds, many of whose songs ('The Heater', 'Dominion Road', 'A Thing Well Made') are wonderfully suggestive narratives which leave the listener speculating about quite what story lies between the lines...

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I love this title and the song from the Patty Loveless album Mountain Soul; You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive by Darell Scott.

Till a man from the North East arrived
Waving hundred dollar bills said
I'll pay for your minerals
But he never left Harlan alive

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

Speaking of Richard Thompson, his "I Feel So Good" speaks directly from the criminal perspective, and not in a poignant way:

I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight
I feel so good I'm going to take someone apart tonight
They put me in jail for my deviant ways
Two years, seven months and sixteen days
Now I'm back on the street in a purple haze

I feel so good I'm going to make somebody's day tonight
I feel so good I'm going to make somebody pay tonight
I'm old enough to sin but I'm too young to vote
Society been dragging on the tail of my coat
But I've got a suitcase full of fifty pound notes
And a half-naked woman with her tongue down my throat

I always laugh at that last line ...

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Elvis Costello's 'What's Her Name Today?' is a very dark song, that on one interpretation might be about a serial killer.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

"Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" by Lucinda Williams. Already used this is a flash piece a few years ago.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Samurai, I've only ever heard "Stan" in that odd version that Eminem performed with Elton John at an awards show a few years ago. Even if there is no investigation of the bodies found in the water afterwards, it could work as a noir story, if not a crime story. Noir does not imply crime, but the two are close enough that no one will resent the distinction as long as the story is good.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

not sure about song titles but some lyrics kinda can send a writer's mind off on a tangent---"---Love me tender, love me cruel---never let me go!!". Or maybe something like, --The Night they shot Liberty Valance"----and then there's Cher's song, "Bang Bang!!"


July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I don't know if Johnny Cash wrote "I Hung My Head," but he certainly had a penchant for singing about empty, purposeless killings. The lines

"I drew a bead on him
To practice my aim"

remind me of

"I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die."

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, many thanks. Because of my relative ignorance of rock and roll and pop from after my youth (this ignorance or innocence may be the subject of a new post soon), Nick Cave and Dream Syndicate are just two of the acts with whom I have only the barest acquaintance. But anyone who calls an album Dig, Lazarus, Dig, as Nick Cave did, is a potential writer of crime stories with a touch of macabre humor.

The Triffids sounds as if they had a Jim Thompson thing going on, with psychotic losers narrating the tales of their own demise. And Dream Syndicate sounds pretty damned grim, too.

I am probably having more fun with this than with any of the previous posts. The comments are introducing me to some exciting new music. So thanks again to all.

Oh, any suggestions as to which Dream Syndicate, Nick Cave and Triffids albums to look for?

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Petra, I have just looked in on "Whose Role is it Anyway?" and cast my vote. With the music contributing to the effect, it was one of my odder blogosphere experiences, and a jolt of fizzy fun. Congratulations.

Your note about about the melody and Celtic feel of the songs are interesting. It has me thinking about what constitutes a good noir story and a good crime story. The question of mood always comes up in discussions of what noir is, and the idea of an at least superficially cheerful song or story about a grim subject is tantalizing.

Michael, I say to you what I said to anonymous: Thanks for introducing me to some groups I had not known before. The Mutton Birds is one of the great names.

And the guy who smears the pot roast over his chest in Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy" could be a villain in one of Ken Bruen's more mischievous outings. For some reason he reminds me of the fellow who kills people because they have bad manners in, I think, Calibre.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah, I don't know the Patti Loveless song, but this discussion could get me listening to a bit of country music. Only hard, ragged rough country, though.

Dave, I didn't know those lyrics, but I do recall critics' noting the astonishing harshness of songs Richard Thompson wrote after and about his breakup with Linda Thompson. Is that one of them?

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And, Martin, there is always that line about "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake" from "Watching the Detectives."

Patti, is that flash story of yours still available?

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

GJG, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is an excellent crime story of an off-beat kind. "Bang, Bang ... " is not a bad song, but it's undercut by its stupid title and the trivial sounds of the words "Bang, Bang" in the chorus. I once heard a recording of the song by a French singer that slowed it down, played up the menace and made it a lot more effective.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

From folk music: Tom Dooley.

"I met her on the mountain, there I took her life
Met her on the mountain, stabbed her with my knife"

I am greatly amused that the particular site at which those lyrics are found is the National Institutes of Health.

July 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aargh! I forgot to mention one of their most famous songs,"Field of Glass",the story of an unrequited love ending in murder.


Field of Glass Ep
Treeless Plain
Born Sandy Devotional
In the Pines
The Black Swan

Either Born Sandy Devotional or Calenture are generally considered the best albums.Some think that Calenture suffers from overly elaborate arrangements while The Black Swan is too cold and "synthetic".
While after the first hearing I had different reactions to the albums,
now I deeply love all three.
BSD is more traditionally folk-country-blues-rock,however.

I believe they have been all remastered and reissued in recent years.

Dream Syndicate:
The Medicine Show is their best album, with Days of Wine of Roses a tad behind,but the Live at the Raji's has almost all their best songs and just blows you away.

Nick Cave:
From Her to Eternity
Tender Prey (with "The Mercy Seat" about a man waiting to be executed)
The Good Son (more relaxed,with a hint of Brazilian music)
Henry's Dream
Murder Ballads (with guest vocals by Pj Harvey and Kylie Minogue)

And yes,with Nick Cave the difficulty is finding a song which is NOT crime-oriented.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Damn, I could wind up listening to rock and roll for the first time in years. Actually, my most recent contact with the music was a tremendous Alejandro Escovedo show I saw in the last year or two. His songs may not be crime stories, but some of them would certainly fit nicely on the soundtrack of a movie about a lonesome crime in the dusty West.

Thanks for the lists. Of the Nick Cave album titles, I especially like From Her to Eternity. That could be the title of a collection of femme fatale stories.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I remember the line "Poor boy, you're going to die" from "Tom Dooley." I don't think a line like that conveys a message the National Institutes of Health would like to convey.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Lara Diamond said...

Speaking of Elvis Costello, let us not forget Watching the Detectives. I love the line, "She's filing her nails while they're dragging the lake." I can't remember the name of the other song about the couple who traded in their baby for a Chevrolet. Not as sinister, but an intriguing start to a possible crime spree.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lara, I beat you to that particular punch. I suggested that very line a few comments above in my reply to Martin Edwards. The menace in the song comes mostly from Costello's singing. Remember the edge he puts in his voice on "I don't know how much more of this I can take"? But the line you and I cited stands in its own, perhaps even more chilling on the page than it is on record.

I don't recognize the other song. I'll look for references to it. If you come up with it before I do, let me know. Thanks.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The reference is in "Less Than Zero," itself a sinister song.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

The "Murder" disk from Johnny Cash's LOVE, GOD, MURDER collection is full of candidates. Three that stick out for being dark even by his standards are Delia's Gone, Cocaine Blues, and Highway Patrolman (written by Springsteen).

Delbert McClinton writes a ton of songs suitable for crime fiction. Several favorites are Lone Star Blues, The Rub (I know how much you hate to get up in the morning, but somebody's gotta make a move; There's a parking lot full of po-lice outside, and they all axed for you.), Down Into Mexico, I'm Dyin' as Fast as I Can. B-Movie Boxcar Blues would also qualify, though there's no crime per se in it.

Great idea for a post.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words. Johnny Cash appears to have drawn the most mentions, and Springsteen is a kind of modern heir. I think I just may give Delbert McClinton a listen, too.

And don't these some of these songs of desperation transcend distinctions between rock, country and folk? They're simply American music and ought to make us think about what this term means. What is it about America that leads to the creation of so many chilling, thrilling songs that hit so hard and penetrate so deep in this way?

"Too Much of Nothing" by Bob Dylan and the Band on The Basement Tapes is another song that's not about a crime but sure could be on the soundtrack of a desperate killer's mind. Or of any desperate person's mind.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Hello Peter, Yes, Donald, goooo! He's wonderful. Thank you for stopping by and for your vote. This should be an interesting one. Will let you know who wins.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

An actor, even one as good for this role as Donald Sutherland, is only as good as the role written for him. In this case, he'd be working with a fine script.

July 12, 2008  
Blogger Lara Diamond said...

Oops, yep, on closer reading, I did see you beat me to the Elvis Costello line. Sheesh.

July 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No worries, mate. It's more evidence that Costello's line made a deep impression that has lasted decades.

July 13, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Cole Porter's 'Miss Otis regrets' is a tale of a crime of passion covered by everyone from Bette Middler to The Pogues. Miss Otis sounds like a bit of a cool customer. Not many people I can think of who would have the composure to calmly say, as they were being strung up a tree, Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today...

July 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

She is sorry to be delayed, but last evening down in Lovers' Lane she strayed ...

I like Ella Fitzgerald's version. I can't imagine the overwrought Bette Midler doing the calm Miss Otis the justice she deserves.

July 13, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Speaking of The Band, their song "The Shape I'm In" is about a guy who just got out of, "sixty days in the county jail, for the crime of having no dough," and that's a fairly common crime novel set-up.

Also, I thought I posted a comment about Alice Cooper's whole crime novel album, "Lace and Whiskey," and now I'm wondering what blog I posted it to? Hmmm...

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a highly common crime novel set-up, but "The Shape I'm In" is so much more upbeat than any of the novels I could likely come up with. It probably never would have occurred to me as a candidate.

Could you have made your Alice Cooper comment on Crime Always Pays?

July 14, 2008  
Anonymous Scott Parker said...

Springsteen is always good for a few songs like this. "Galveston Bay" is an entire story, complete with crime and passion. "Devils and Dust" is a glimpse into something that may or may not be a crime. It's all in the interpretation. Crime of another kind can be found in Genesis's 1973 song "Get 'Em Out by Friday."

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Springsteen is probably most noted for the crime songs on Nebraska, about losers getting caught up in matters beyond their control. But he's been writing crime songs throughout his career. I think someone once called "Meeting Across the River" a perfect crime song.

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A reader offered these comments about Crime songs but inadvertently posted them in the wrong place. Here they are, restored to their rightful location.

Anonymous said...
A few more unusual suspects:

Stan Ridgway
"Peg and Pete and Me"-the story is similar to "The Postman always rings twice" only Peg gets the money and the narrator is framed for the murder.
"Calling out to Carol" the narrator tries to contact Carol (a high class prostitute?) but she's disappeared without a trace.

"Frankie Teardrop" a terrifying ten-minute song about a men who kills his family and then shots himself because he cannot make enough money to maintain them and on top of that he's getting evicted blood-curdling screams are included

Slightly off-topic,there are records which,even when they do not feature explicitly criminal events in their lyrics,are strongly influenced by the noir aesthetic,and feel like imaginary soundtracks:for example Portishead's debut "Dummy" (and they did use some of the songs for the soundtrack of a ten minute spy/mystery film they made,"To kill a dead man") or Gallon Drunk's "From the Heart of the Town".

Gallon Drunk also provided the musical accompaniment to a reading of "I was Dora Suarez" by Derek Raymond.

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've learned about a lot of song titles and performers I had not heard of before, your suggestions among them, though I may have heard Stan Ridgway's name. In any case, thanks.

Even songs that may not be influenced by the noir aesthetic can feel like imagainary soundtracks. I cited the Band and Bob Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing" from The Basement Tapes. That version could play on a soundtrack as a killer flips out on his way to murder. And backing up a Derek Raymond reading is a pretty good noir credential.

July 14, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Genesis, how could I have forgotten, "Robbery, Assault and Battery," from "A Trick of the Tail."

Has anyone mentioned the Boomtown Rats, "I Don't like Mondays," or Think Lizzie's, "Jailbreak."

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How could anyone who grew up in Montreal in the 1970s forget Genesis? I probably liked a total of three or four songs by Genesis; Yes; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and Supertramp, but beyond that, I had little use for "progressive" music, and I share a doubt you expressed that such bands really hit in Montreal before anywhere else. But I've noted with interest the Genesis suggestion and others in the string of comments that are not what I would ordinarily have thought of as crime-fiction music -- not, in other words, tense, spare, lonesome ballads sung by gravelly voiced male singers.

No one had mentioned your two Irish nominations. Until you suggested "I Don't Like Mondays," I don't think any of the suggested songs touched on the disturbed-killer side of crime fiction. Once more a comment has expanded my mind.

July 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A pop-music-loving colleague suggested "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" by the Beatles, and why not?

"Bang, bang, Maxwell's silver hammer came down upon her head.
Bang, bang, Maxwell's silver hammer made sure that she was dead."

There's even a courtroom scene, with Rose and Valerie screaming from the gallery.

The song's jaunty music-hall feel only demonstrates that crime songs are almost as varied as crime fiction.

Actually, the colleague suggested two songs, and he said he would post them here himself. Being a journalist, though, he naturally blew his deadline, so I decided to give him this little nudge. But I'll let him give you the second song himself, especially since I don't know the song.

Mario, you have the floor.

July 21, 2008  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

One of my favourite stories in a song is Fairport Convention's arrangement of a traditional song, 'Matty Groves' from the 'Liege & Lief'

May 13, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of my favourite stories in a song is Fairport Convention's arrangement of a traditional song, 'Matty Groves' from the 'Liege & Lief'

"Matty Groves" might be on the one (vinyl) Fairport Convention album I have. "Sir Patrick Spens" and "Sweet Primroses" are on the record, too, ballads from a time when a ballad was a ballad, before "ballad" acquired its reduced meaning of "slow song."

May 13, 2010  

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