A Personal Playlist for My Eventual Death
Yes, I've thought about the songs I would have played at my funeral. Yes, the list has changed over time, and yes, it will change again. But I'm writing about it anyway.
Setting your funeral playlist may seem morbid, but when you love music as much as we do, it’s just the kind of thing you think about. I’ve also thought about my walk-up music if I played Major League Baseball or were a WWE wrestler. The answer is “The Blue” by Acid Bath both times, by the way. But I think deeply about songs that I could imagine representing who I have been as a human and music fan during my time here on this earth. Obviously, these things change over time, but it’s a great excuse to write about some of my favorite songs of all time in the genre - sad music - that might be my bread and butter.
Additional context… I’m not thinking about what it will be like for people attending my funeral. I’m not trying to set that mood. I’m not going to be cheeky and play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. I’m leaning into the sadness and leaning into it. I also won’t dive deep into the lyrics to figure out what the artist meant by the tune. If a birth song sounds sad as hell, I might very well use it because it sounds like sadness and wistfulness to me. If you want to play gotcha in the lyrics, I’m sure you’ll be able to do it. So, cool. You win.
You have one assignment. Make sure you let me know what your funeral songs would be in the comments.
Now, on with my songs as of now.
Fever Dream by Iron and Wine
This is one of my favorite songs by Iron and Wine. It’s one of the prettiest, most sparse songs I’ve ever heard. The vocals and melodies are incredible, but the heartbreaking bit is the little acoustic guitar solo. Sometimes I roll my eyes when people talk about song lyrics as poetry, but I’d never roll my eyes at that description for Sam Beam’s Iron and Wine.
I want your flowers like babies want God's love
Or maybe, as sure as tomorrow will come
It’s Good to Be King by Tom Petty
This is just me ripping off the “best” song I’ve ever heard at a memorial service when I was a teenager. After being there with my candle and hearing this song rip me apart as some dark clouds rolled in from the North, I just can’t bear the thought of not carrying on the tradition of this song. Ultimately, the song is about dealing with stardom, but there’s something about the feeling of this tune that just feels regretful and longing and sarcastic. It’s impossibly beautiful as it ends with a Michael Kaman string arrangement.
The Silence by Manchester Orchestra
One of my favorite bands in the world, with one of their most beautiful songs that ended the album that began their second act as a band. It’s a confusing song to become a phenomenon, but the video on YouTube went insane about three years ago and quickly had over 100 million views and thousands of comments almost like testimonials of people who had been through harsh times and found comfort in the song. We’re talking about families that suffered children’s deaths commenting about how the song lived with them in their worst moments and gave them comfort.
My daughter became so very ill, and we discovered this song... throughout her last 8 months we listened to this often. I then played it for her one last time as she was leaving this world...there will always be a special place in my heart for this one. Thank you. ❤
This song found me, i never asked for it, but damn I needed it.
Its weird, how different silences can have the same tune. Thank you for being the voice to mine, No better words could explain them.
My daughter was 28 yrs old when she passed. This song (CD) was in her radio. You have no idea how much this song connects me to her. Much love 🥰
Go read them for yourself when you need a good cry. It’s so therapeutic and everything that I look for when I listen to music.
The Last Word is Rejoice by Mineral
I’m not a religious man, but I’ve found much peace and comfort from music written by people who are and wrote about that as a topic. It has felt weird at times growing up and thinking deeply about music as art, but I’m mostly at peace with the inconsistencies in my life. This song is just beautiful and glorious and probably should be at the end of the playlist, but let’s not get weird about track order right now. This might be one of the shortest lyric sheets ever.
How will I drink from that stream?
How will my heart sing your praise?
How will I lay down in green grass fields
When my soul is so afraid to
Street Spirit (Fade Out) by Radiohead
There was a time when I couldn’t stop collecting versions of this song in the MP3 download days. When Radiohead promoted their album The Bends, part of the overall strategy must have included many acoustic performances. There were acoustic performances all over the sharing sites, and I downloaded every one. I had at least three or four versions of Thom Yorke playing Street Spirit acoustic. The way he wrenched his voice to go for all the notes fed my soul.
“Immerse your soul in love” never sounded so sad as how Thom Yorke sings it to end this tune.
Drown by Smashing Pumpkins
This song has big rock sections, but I would include it anyway. Before I get into it, let me specify that it has the be the full-blown version that is over eight minutes long. I don’t recognize the shortened version at all. I need those guitar noise leads that usher in the end of the real version. I need the delay cranked up to a million and squealing back in existential crisis as depicted by Fender.
From a personal standpoint, I used to crank this song up and do my best to emulate drummer Jimmy Chamberlain pounding out hose flammy triplet fills that only he can make sound so splendidly ginormous.
Black by Pearl Jam
This one makes me self-conscious - or at least as self-conscious as I allow myself to be these days - which might not be that much. But it does make me self-conscious. I love Pearl Jam unequivocally. I make no apologies for it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t see the eye-rolling from those around me over Pearl Jam, including from my 13-year-old son and his generation. To them, Pearl Jam has graduated into overzealous fans of aging butt rock. Every Pearl Jam show is a celebration and an incredible experience for the fans, but I get it that the older we all get, the less vital all that music sounds to our ears and in the wider culture that has grown and changed around it. I guess this is growing up.
That said, I can’t erase my origin story. Pearl Jam was probably my third or fourth “favorite band,” but it was the one that hit me as I became a teenager. Ten came out in 1991, and it’s definitely a 90s album, but you can still hear some of the 80s in there too. It was one of those transitional bands that helped usher in the 90s, but these are musicians who came of age in the 80s. Even in Black, the piano that helps make this rock ballad bigger is a nod to 80s hard rock bands playing their softer tunes. Think of Tommy Lee banging out the piano to Home Sweet Home for Motley Crue.
But no matter. That time period is mine. I worshipped Pearl Jam. I worshipped Black. I knew the lyrics and melody so cold that it’s the first rock song I ever sang at an open mic because a guitar player I knew could play it on guitar. Not only did I sing it, but for that size stage and on that particular night I impressed people and got affirmation that I could sing - and not in the school choir kind of way. It felt good. It set me on a path. It became a bit of mine at that point.
It’s a song about relationships, yes, but it’s also a song about letting go. It has to go on my death playlist, and it gives me pause but fuck it, it’s on there.
Hey Jupiter by Tori Amos
I need to have this song on this playlist, but it scares me. Tori Amos scares me. I love her music deeply, but I feel weird about it. I know her music isn’t necessarily always for me. I am not in the demographic that can personally identify with it, even though I would like to with every fiber of my being as a fan of the art. And so out of deference and respect and yes, a sort of fear of Tori Amos, I generally don’t talk about her much. Like I’m lurking in a place where I don’t necessarily belong. I’m sure all of this is completely stupid, but for whatever reason, as I started listening to Little Earthquakes, and Under the Pink, I was a young teenager. “Crucify,” “Silent All these Years,” and “Winter” were the singles I remember. I had the “Crucify” ep that included her haunting cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a time where it meant something much different culturally.
I was so in on Tori Amos after that. Under the Pink blew me away as well. “Cornflake Girl” was the hit, and I loved the whole record, but “Past the Mission” with Trent Reznor in the background was my song. There was cultural power in having Trent Reznor on your record, but his perceived deference to be the backup singer for Tori Amos cemented my feelings about her as well. It’s really the best kind of confirmation bias, right?
Anyway, fast forward to Boys for Pele, her album from 1996 was released just before my 17th birthday. I pre-ordered that disc and had a copy waiting for me at the record store. It was late January and that album will forever be winter to me. Pay no attention to the fact that Tori is sitting on a rocking chair with a gun across her lap with the dirtiest bare feet you’ve ever seen on the album cover. It’s an album about winter to me, no matter what that cover looks like.
Cleveland winters are pretty special, especially in Geauga County, and this album sounded great when it was bitter cold out and you found yourself cozy and warm inside. Finally, I’m to “Hey Jupiter.” I probably should have done an entire essay about Tori Amos and Boys for Pele, huh?
In “Hey Jupiter” I found a song that is superlative. In what way? I don’t know. All of the ways? It’s just one of THOSE songs. First of all, in the flow of the record, you go from “Caught a Lite Sneeze” which is almost industrial pop. That flows into “Muhammad My Friend.” That’s an incredible song, that incidentally would be performed by Tori and Maynard from Tool at a RAINN benefit concert.
After that jaunty little song, is when Tori unleashes “Hey Jupiter.” The piano just breathes its way in and so does Tori. I don’t mean to be vulgar, but you can hear every single one of Tori Amos’ mouth noises in “Hey Jupiter.” You can hear her breaths, how her lips touch to form the words. It’s so personal in its production and presentation, you almost feel like you’re not supposed to be hearing it. Are you a voyeur for even playing it?
The song isn’t one about death, but once again, this is where the fear comes in. I have such respect and deference that I almost fear repurposing this perfect song for my own purposes. But as long as I do it with the appropriate amount of love and respect, I hope it’s ok. This song makes me tear up just thinking about it. The way Tori sings the chorus which is just her singing “oooooooo yes” but with more melody and perfect dynamics.
Holocene by Bon Iver
Bon Iver is Justin Vernon. I call Justin Vernon “the cheat code.” His own material is incredible, and whenever he guests on a song, he makes it better. If you won’t take my word for it, take Taylor Swift’s. Here are some of the most incredible songs Justin Vernon has helped out.
But when Bon Iver released “Holocene” it was a song that I knew I was going to love forever. It’s a song that always seems to be waiting to hit its peak and never quite does, but the more you listen to it, you realize that’s a feature not a bug. Vernon’s signature falsetto stands about above the arpeggio guitars that hold the song together. It’s a song that is longing and building and absolutely gorgeous.
Sunshower by Chris Cornell
I love Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, so I knew I wanted a song from him or them. I have expected to just pick “Zero Chance” by Soundgarden, but I decided with something that at least sounds more hopeful in “Sunshower.” There was a period of time after Cornell’s death where I had a very difficult time hearing his incredible voice. It was just too painful, but now enough time has passed that it feels better to hear him than not.
When you're all in pain
And you feel the rain come down
Oh, it's all right
When you find your way
Then you see it disappear
Oh, it's all right
Though your garden's gray
I know all your graces
Someday will flower
Hear You Me by Jimmy Eat World
This one is just on the nose. It’s essentially a funeral song already. Yes, it’s about a very specific person, but I’m going to go with it. Jimmy Eat World is one of those bands that sometimes gets questioned because they feel so very professional, but their artistic bona fides shouldn’t be questioned. Yes, they handle their business, they play the hits at their live shows, but they continually challenge the norms they created for themselves with the work that gave them a name, but without totally abandoning the aesthetic that caused them to have fans in the first place.
May angels lead you in.
Ode to LRC by Band of Horses
“The world is such a wonderful place. La di da!”
I wanted to have a hopeful and beautiful song in there too. Obviously when you go with Band of Horses, people expect you to go with “The Funeral,” but that song apparently isn’t actually about a funeral. It’s about feeling the expectations to deliver on holidays and birthdays and then having the anticipation feel like a funeral. On top of it, that song feels thrilling to me, for whatever reason. I love how “Ode to LRC” has an anti-chorus. It starts like a rocker, but the chorus is where they stretch out and get all pretty.
The Gulf of Araby by Natalie Merchant
The Gulf of Araby is a cover for Natalie Merchant, but not really. When Natalie Merchant decides to sing a song, she makes it her own. The song is originally by Katell Keineg and it’s a sparse little folk tune. She does an incredible job with the tune, but it’s in even more capable hands with an all-time singer like Natalie Merchant. It’s a gut-wrenching song that is gigantic and powerful. Natalie Merchant recorded it for her live DVD and album from 1999. Most artists can’t add a live song from their catalog to an all-time status in their career.
The Ron and Fez Finish
Into the Mystic by Van Morrison and Satellite of Love by Lou Reed
One of my biggest musical influences in life is a radio show host named Ron Bennington. Over the years I listened to his show Ron and Fez and now the one he does with his daughter Gail, simply titled Bennington. Ron Bennington has built communities of people in real life through his radio shows. His listeners become family. It’s a funny and entertaining show, but when the real world arrives, Ron always has a way to talk about it and deal with things. When someone dies, he plays the perfect songs and gives them the greatest tributes.
For the longest time, he ended every Ron and Fez show with Satellite of Love, which is why it feels like the perfect bookend. And whenever the show needed to honor the passing of someone dear to our community, it felt like they would play the perfect song. More than one occasion, they played “Into the Mystic.”
I was lucky enough to meet Ron a few years back pre-pandemic; it was the thrill of a lifetime. I got to go see Ron interview The Smothers Brothers with my mom and me as audience members. Then, after doing an interview in the Chautauqua Amphitheater, I had the chance to meet Ron on the back porch of the Amp, which has become a tradition. I was such a goof, but he was so nice about it.
When his longtime radio partner Fez Whatley passed away, he opened the show with Satellite of Love in honor of his chosen brother and uncle to Gail. It felt like I lost an uncle that day too, and I will cling to that song forever.
So I’m ending mine with “Into the Mystic” and “Satellite of Love.”
Make sure you tell me what your songs are in the comments. There are no wrong answers.