Songs To Play At My Funeral – Part One

There’s a scene in the excellent film ‘High Fidelity’ where John Cusack attends a funeral. He turns ands speaks to camera in a moment that confirms his unutterable music geekdom. ‘Five best songs to play at funeral,’ he says.

Sitting beside me in the cinema, Laura says: ‘That’s you, that is.‘

I deny it of course, but she’s got me bang to rights. There is indeed on my iPod a list of songs I want played at my funeral. Do I think when I cash in my chips Laura will be burning the play list on a CD and slipping it into the player at the crematorium? I can dream.

In case she forgets, here’s the list, in some cases with an explanation why the song is there.

1. “One Love/People Get Ready” – Bob Marley and the Wailers

Bob Marley did various versions of this song. The one I love best appeared on the Exodus album. The song kicks in with a rattle of drums like stones hitting a kettle, followed by the melody picked out on a few high piano notes. The rhythm is locked down tight by a fluid bass and knife-sharp guitar chops. The initial chorus is fine enough. But the track really gathers strength after about 45 seconds. Marley sings the first few lines of the verse and is followed by the heavenly I-Threes (including his wife, Rita) belting out the backing vocals with such style and energy that it lifts the song up high. It makes me smile and want to punch the air every time I hear it. Then the second chorus just takes it all up to an even higher level.

I don’t care how much ganja Marley was putting away each day (a lot, by all accounts), you will never hear a more spirited, clear-eyed and just plain joyful vocal performance than on this track. Put this on and you’ll be grinning as you watch my coffin go through those curtains.

I love music. I guess we all say that. Most of us have a song which has some special meaning, memories forever linked with a song or piece of music. You only have to hear the song and the emotions you felt that day flood back. I once had an argument with a friend at university. He got all literary on me and said how his ambition was to write a novel that would really say something, really have an effect on people. I told him I thought you could convey more emotion in a song than in a whole book.

On one level this is obvious nonsense. It is hardly possible in a song – even a very long one – to build up the complexity and depth of feeling and expression that a skilful writer can weave into a novel. But on another level I still believe it to be true. In a song the right musical backing, the quality of the voice and the way the words are delivered, can combine with the simplest of words to pack an emotional punch that most writers of prose would die for.

We all have memories in which particular songs are linked with some important event in our lives. It doesn’t seem to work that way with other forms of art. How often do we say for example that seeing a copy of The Return of the Native reminds us of an old boyfriend? I can recall only one book making me cry (Waterland, by Graham Swift, since you ask). But I have shed tears listening to many songs and I could name dozens which have made the hair on my forearms stand up, or caused a tightness in my chest through a sudden rush of emotion.

2. “Song to the Siren” – This Mortal Coil

This started life as an unusual and fine song by Tim Buckley. But personally I always found Buckley’s stuff a bit hit and miss, and for all the excellence of his version, this is simply other-worldly. There’s little more to it than a very atmospheric electric guitar, strummed languidly by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau twins, and some ethereal wordless backing vocals. And of course Elizabeth Fraser’s voice. Fraser sang for years in the Cocteau Twins and no one (least of all her, I suspect) knew what she was singing about, as over the years she developed a unique way of singing beautifully in her own invented words. On this song she gets to sing some words in English but still makes it sound like a language you haven’t heard before but somehow understand.

She sings like she’s died and is trying to leave the song behind as her soul slowly slips from her body. The vocals are drenched in reverb and Fraser bends the words all over the place, adding extra syllables as she almost yodels some lines. Just listen to the line at the end of the first verse: “Here I am, he-ee -ear I a-a-am, waiting to ho-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’dyou” and feel the shivers roll down your spine.  Straight after that the guitar fades away, leaving Fraser half-singing, half gasping “Did I dream…you dreamed about me?” It’s like being haunted by someone who is herself haunted.

I don’t want to die. Ever. But if I have to go, I guess this will do on the soundtrack. You should be able to hear it at this link.

3. “Holiday” – Madonna

Not an obvious funeral song. On the surface this is just empty-headed, good-time pop music. A bass drum thumps a steady beat as a cheesy synthesizer riff floats the first sketch of the melody high above your head. Then, fifteen seconds in, the track leaps into a Latin-tinged disco groove (played in part on what sounds like cowbells) that starts your feet twitching in seconds.

There’s a wonderful book by a guy called Dave Marsh, called The Heart of Rock and Soul. It’s his list of the 1001 “greatest singles ever made”. Marsh’s take on this song seems to me absolutely spot on. He puts his finger on the way the frothy good-time girl lyrics (“Holiday. Celebrate…It’s time for the good times, forget about the bad times.”) are subverted by the hint of desperation and dread in Madonna’s singing.

Despite the pop jingle catchiness of the music, the breathless edge of anxiety and strain in Madonna’s voice undermines the ostensibly happy words. The full version on Madonna’s first album climaxes with some rolling barroom piano in the last minute, as Madonna’s voice becomes increasingly desperate. “We have got to get together,” she yelps. “Take some time to celebrate. Just one day out of life. It would be so nice.” She sounds so fearful at the prospect that this is not in fact going to happen that you want to get hold of her and promise that you’ll get her that day in the sunshine if it’s the last thing you do.

You’ll take time out from all the worries that grind you down, and take a slow train to the coast. You’ll remember that every day that passes is another day that will never come again so you’d better seize it and spread some happiness while you can.

And if that isn’t a good sentiment to carry away from a funeral, I don’t know what is.

4. “For A Dancer” – Jackson Browne

A song that is itself set during a funeral seems worth including.

For a very long time I didn’t ‘get’ Jackson Browne. It wasn’t that I didn’t like his music, in fact I didn’t get to hear it. I didn’t need to; in the didactic certainty of youth I just that I knew I wouldn’t like it, even if I heard it. He didn’t fit my idea of what a singer ought to be like. Too right-on, too Californian.

But as you get older you realise life is too short for those kind of prejudices. This, like most of the songs on the album if comes from, ‘Late For The Sky’, is just lovely. The final line is: ‘somewhere between the time you arrive, and when you go, may lie a reason you were alive, but you’ll never know.’

And I’ve never heard something that was at the same time so sad and yet so full of a reason for living.

To be continued soon……more songs to come

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