I don’t remember when I first heard Frank Sinatra’s 1965 song "It Was A Very Good Year," mainly because that was grown-up music -- something for old people like my parents, who must’ve been well into their thirties, to listen to. I do remember when I first really listened to it, though. I’d taken an overnight job at a radio station in Westchester while I was still in school – it wasn’t rock, but it was a paying radio gig. The station’s format was a kind of mix of Sinatra/Tony Bennett with Chris Cross and Donna Summer and other “adult contemporary” music. Horrified by most of the latter, I tried to play as much of the former as possible. One night, around 3 in the morning, I found myself listening to “It Was A Very Good Year” -- and finally realized what it was about. This guy is about to die, and he’s taking stock, and he’s meeting his end with a sense of having lived a full, rich life. And I thought, what else could you ask for? From a song or from life itself?
Of course, being an analytical music nerd, I immediately needed to listen to the song again. This meant the listening audience also had to hear the song again, but I figured hey, it’s 3 am and they’ll all just think they’ve dreamed it or something. That’s when I realized what a killer arrangement Gordon Jenkins had done for the song. The orchestral strings, different for each stage of the singer’s life, were brilliantly yet subtly handled. Otherwise, the whole thing could easily have slid into gooey sentimentality.
Anyway, I have discovered a fondness for songs that deal with death – from the old English murder ballads to a song like Peter Gabriel’s “Family Snapshot,” told from the vantage point of an assassin, about to bring death to a politician. (I always assumed the song was about the JFK assassination, but later learned it was about the guy who attempted to kill the segregationist politician George Wallace.) And as Graeme Thomson’s book “I Shot A Man In Reno” shows, I seem to have lots of company.
What about you? Do you have a favorite song about death?