Thursday 24 December 2009

Sixteen Songs that Make Me Cry

OK, so it IS a list but it's not exactly a list. And I'm not just talking songs that bring a little tear - I am, after all, one of the world's great blubberbuses, so that'd be a pretty long list. No, these are the gushers!

So why such an unseasonal list? And why sixteen? Well, the latter question is easy, and it has to do neither with Harry Christophers nor John Hughes, but simply the sonorousness of the words (mwah, dahling). Why? Well, I love lists, and this is the list time of year, but most of all beacuse of my next novel. I've always liked the idea of writing a novel that genuinely makes people cry. Songs from the Other Side of the Wall does it to me, the ending has me blubbing like a blubby thing but I get the impression it leaves most people a little confused.

Why do I want to write a novel that makes people cry? Well, for me that's the point of connection we were talking about in the "pain" debate - the moment when a writer's words and my life intersect, when she speaks to me and only me, when she unlocks me with her words, and the tears are what she releases as the door opens. It's an intimate, beautiful, very special moment between reader and writer. I would love to speak in that way - even if only once, to one reader.

So why songs instead of books? Two reasons - first, I came up with the idea whilst listening to music - so it seemed obvious. Second, thinking it over, I actually found it easier to put my finger on what it was about songs that drove me to gushing than I did books - so it's more instructional to me as a writer.

Finally, for info - Life Drawn Freehand will go into production over the next few days, with a summer 2010 release date. It's the story of 50-something art teacher Ella, who realises, when her son dies on a gap year, that she has had her life on hold for 30 years. In order to win an audience for her art, she decides to give everything she does for a whole year away free. EVERYTHING. She gets recognition, but it brings more than she bargained for, in the shape of two intense affairs, with alcoholic ex-model and musician Sabrina, and her 16 year-old pupil Matthew. As the year draws to a close, Matthew takes Ella and Sabrina on a journey to the place where Ella's son died. It's a journey from which all know only one of them will return. It's a love story that examines every single connotation we put on the word "free".

OK, so here's The Sixteen, the songs most likely to flood the room with sentimental saline. As an authorial aide, I've put them into categories, according to why they make me cry. With apologies to Polly Harvey and Janis Joplin - I have no reason why you aren't on this list. Possibly because just the mention of your names can make me gush.

The words
All the songs on this list are, musically, constructed a certain way. I'm not enough of a musician to put my finger on it but it's something to do with rise and fall, a soaring, fragile voice slightlyu at odds with a melody that does a certain somethnig. BUT some songs have words that just pile on that effect.

Black Balloon - The Kills - OK, I'm gonna try really hard to avoid the copyright police. A line like "I've starred in a thousand street scenes just around the corner form you, on the edge of your dreams" - if that were a poem with no muisc it would have me in tears - it's a situation we all know - looking on but not being able to touch. Knowing we will come so close but no closer.

E-Bow the Letter R.E.M. "These corrosives work their magic slowly" and above all else "dreaming of Maria Callas, whoever she is" - it's blankness - teh kind of blank despair that's beyond despair Daisy Anne Gree writes. Oh, and the deep, deep sliding melody, and the howling Patti Smith solo doesn't make it less tearjerking.

Nothing Compares 2 U - Sinnead O'Connor Yes, I know it's kitsch and uncool, but it's my age. And if it needs to be explained why the words make you cry, you're probably a cyborg.

The music
Very hard for me to say what it is about these, although I intend to analyse them at length. The first two are, in my non-musical opinion, the most perfectly-crafted rock songs ever written. I should also note that I limited myself to one song a band. When I drew up an original top 10, 6 were Radiohead. Thom Yorke has a LOT to do with it - his voice, and his stage persona, are in themselves enough to reduce me to tears. If I'd chosen High & Dry or Fake Plastic Trees I may have put the song in the "delivery" category for that reason. lucky could, after a magical set at Reading, belong in the personal association category. Oh, and it's one of my tests of character whether people prefer Jealous Guy or Imagine; up there with the great Notting Hill v Four Weddings/ Unbearable Lightness of Being v Book fo Laughter and Forgetting debates

Lucky - Radiohead

Jealous Guy - John Lennon

Don't Look Back into the Sun - Libertines - I CAN say what it is about this - it's in the guitar sound - the way the tone of the sound somehow makes you feel as though something beautiful has been lost forever

The delivery
These are songs that make me cry largely because of the persona/unique voice of the singer (if I'd picked a different Skunk Anansie song it would have gone here)

End of the Century - Blur - Damon sounds like he's about to cry at any moment throughout - and especially when he says "there's ants on the carpet" - and it works by sympathy. He also sounds like a man who's realising for the first time that everything he loved has turned out to be crap.

She's a Star - James - because the voice seems to hit resonance with something in my brain and they enter this feedback loop of melancholy

Saturday Night - Suede - no one does fragile and broken but with a lilting beauty that keeps its dignity (that's the real thing - the defiance you know is futile - think the guy in Tiannenmen) like Brett Anderson.

The artist
Not a lot I can do with this. There are some songs that, whilst they would always pull the heartstrings, bring out the monsoon because we know what happened next. Because we are actually crying for the artist. With apologies to anyone who ever thought I had any taste. Yes, that IS Karen Carpenter. But, com eon - it's Karen Carpenter! Piaff is part because it's her, part the dignity in teh voice - the defiance (that's something, like the Suede above, I CAN learn from)

Where Did You Sleep Last Night - Nirvana Unplugged version

Somewhere Over the Rainbow - Karen Carpenter version

La Vie en Rose - Edith Piaff

Personal association
Interestingly, I think it is nostalgia rather than heartbreak that does it here - a perfect moment never to be recaptured. That would be true of Lucky.

Secretly - Skunk Anansie - has to do with a rather unpleasant ex, and most of it is actually about the song itself - it's about as manipulative as you can get with it's quiet-loud-quiet. Not nearly so good a song as Smells Like Teen Spirit or anything by the Pixies that uses the form better, but definitely the queintessence of heartbreaking. It's all to do with the sudden changes and the fact that you never quite, even in the moments of exhilaration, escape the underlying melancholy.

Other associations
Songs that make you cry because of what went with them - most often with me a film. Something one can learn from by remembering taht we need to engage the whole reader, and not just the bit of the brain that takes in the words on the page - why a live performance will always work better.

California Dreaming - Mamas and Papas -because I saw Chungking Express at an impressionable age

Anthem from Three Colours: Blue - Zbigniew Priesner - because it's the saddest film ever made (the defiance, fragility and everything to do with the tragedy of Kieslowski's early death and the fact it's got Juliette Binoche in doing that kind of "thousand emotions with one movement of the eyebrow" thing), and this tune is an integral part of that.

OK, so now you know my 2010 playlist. What I hope more than anythnig is that in some way, however small, I can make Life Drawn Freehand speak to one of you enough to draw a tear. Just one would do!


  1. You need to hear Stop the Dams (by the Gorillaz -- aka Damon Albarn) and the live version of Hong Kong -- talk about Damon's voice being heartbreaking! Oh lordy.
    I think I'm going to my own list. Though only one song has actually ever made me cry.

  2. WHAT IS IT? :)

    Yeah, I love Gorillaz.

    Hmm, & I still can't believe we somehow didn't go and see Monkey when it was on in London. Damon was on absolute top form at Hyde Park this summer - End of the Century, Tender, The Universal were all mindblowingly beautiful.

  3. You get to see it when it's in my list! I'm working on it now.

    Man, you DIDN'T see Monkey? Well, I don't know if I would have. Not the Gorillaz . . . I dunno. Damon is one of my favourite sexy singing Brits. Maybe number one?

  4. There's an aria from Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice sung by Maria Callas and during the aria she calls Eurydice's name and then there's a pause and she sing 'silence morte' and it gets me everytime in the chest - no matter how many times I listen. Also a Mozart violin concerto, number five I think, I can't put my finger on it exactly but there is a moment in the adagio that I can't listen to if I'm down. Another one I avoid if I'm low is the middle movement of a Haydne cello concerto played by Jacqueline Du Pre that causes tears. That Sinead O'connor song is a teary one, primarily because of the way she sings it, I think another person could sing it and it would be schmaltzy. There are heaps of songs that have made me cry, but those three classical ones do it for me consistently. And John Tavener's music often does it too, I love him passionately but have to be in a strong mood to listen to him.

  5. Hi Phillipa,

    Orpheus and Eurydice is sucha sad tale I think any rendering would be heartbreaking - I remembering having to do a reading in Latin from Virgil's account in the Georgics (I think).

    It's interesting what you say about needing to be strong to listen. I actually find when I'm low I need songs that make me cry - as though I need to flush out the poison.

  6. "Groovy Situation" by Keith Rowe when he lets rip towards the end makes my spine tingle every time
    "Decades" final track of Joy Division's "Closer" having listened to the whole album, is just the depths of despair. Otherwise, listen to "Atmosphere" for the sound of a man who's completely alienated from his own species.
    Nick Cave's "Box For Black Paul" is simply stunning poetry of the highest order asking who will build a coffin so a man know one likes can be buried.
    "Boys Don't Cry" by the Cure, Robert Smith's reedy, whiny voice is perfect for the sentiment "Hiding the tears in my eyes"
    "Armenia" by Einsturzende Neubauten is melancholia personified, based on Armenian folk music, it captures and brutalises a nation's pain. Strangely it appeared on the soundtrack of a hollywood Cop movie cos Henry Rollins acted in it &presumably had some say over the music. Otherwise you could have "Thirsty Animal" where they mic'd up Blixa's ribs as they hit them with various objects. Now that's writing (or singing) pain!
    The Fall's "In My Area" always makes me feel sad, cos it does what it says on the tin. Smith listing the insanity of our times in that indifferent drawl: "I have seen the birth of bad/I have seen declining tracks/I have seen the madness in my area"

  7. (cont) Gang Of Four's "To Hell With Poverty" is a real rocker, but with the line "To hell with poverty/ We'll get drunk on cheap wine" ...
    Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm" always gives me goosebumps, her voice is amazing, like a security blanket wrapped around the gibbering child me
    "History Lesson pt2" by Minutemen is just so sad, the history of the band, with that West Coast drawl "Our band could be your life". Made all the more poignant by singer D.Boon's death in a car crash. Wrenching. As close as I get to crying. "Mr narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me... I could be his soldier child"
    "In A Lonely Place" New Order's first release after the death of Ian Curtis, god this just drips in lamentation "How I wish you were here with me now" and the percussion on it. Ugh
    The Ruts "Love In Vain" white reggae is so often risible, but here it is done with such feeling, a voice stretched to breaking - of course Malcolm Owen's plea "Don't want you in my arms no more" may have been to his one true love Heroin that ultimately killed him. Hmm, seems to be a lot of songs by dead people on this list.
    Saint Etienne's cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" gets to me because of Sarah Cracknell's voice giving it body, unlike the reedy one's original. Perfectly crafted pop song about loss.
    Tupac seen as just Thug Life, but I challenge you to listen to "So Many Tears" and not be moved by his prognostication of an early death living just such a lifestyle. If you think this was an aberration, listen to his "Changes"
    Husker Du's "Never Talking To You Again" with the tensions between Bob Mould and Grant Hart that splintered such a great band. You can imagine the harmonies on this being targeted at the other. A band in quiet meltdown.
    Nas "Let There Be Light" should be a song of uplift, but on such a grim LP as "Hip Hop Is Dead" it just nails the lid of the coffin down. The gospelly backing vocal slices through me like a knife. "As I walk through the shadow of death, I know I ain't got much time left"
    "Walking With Jesus" by Spacemen3, an ode to drugs, something about it just sets my bones resonating cos you know it's delusionary: "I walked with Jesus and he would say ah you poor child you ain't comin to me today, you found heaven on earth" But the song moves to, "here it comes, the sound of confusion", even singer Sonic Boom doesn't believe in its redemptive powers.

    17 tracks, 5 by/to do with dead men. So there you have it. Happy Xmas. I'm off to collate these into an I-Tunes playlist!

  8. Dan - Life Drawn Freehand is a wonderful title & I love the concept of exploring every nuance of the word free - there's a hell of a lot to juggle with. Good luck with it.

  9. Marc, thank you so much for some great playlist material. Especially looking forward to trying out the Tupac inthis context - you're right, there's an incredible emotional intensity and depth to a lot of what he did.

    and there's a lot of names in there from my past - New Order and The Cure being the ones I'm most looking forward to going back to.

    Hmm - talking of amazing songs associated with death - I totally forgot a real hair on the back of my neck one in the shape pf Red Hot Chili Peppers' Scar Tissue.

    and the whole album from REM after their drummer died - esepcially Daysleeper and Electrolyte.

    And the Manics after Richey Edwards - Design for Life being the one that comes to mind first.

  10. My musical education clearly needs extending. Almost your entire list is unknown to me!
    Bach's "Sleeper's Wake", Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, O'Carolan's "Sidhe Beag agus Sidhe Mor, the Missa Luba, Sol Inca...I will not go on. I was not brought up on popular music. We lived in a dairy farming district for a while and cows prefer classical music in the milking shed. (Yes, seriously.)

  11. Hey, Cat. I wasn't brought up on classical music - have come to that later in life. My father was in a band in the 60s so I was subjected to much UK 60s rock.

    I've heard that about cows before, I'm sure

  12. Good list, i agree about 'where did you sleep last night' the emotion in his voice is heart rendering.
    The main tear -jerking song for me is 'starry starry night' by Don McClean, everything about it, subject matter,lyrics, delivery, tone...such a beautiful song. I only discovered it recently too! Good times.

  13. I only know a few of those songs, too. I need to expand out! I love so many genres!

    I want to second what Marc said about your book - Life Drawn Freehand and the concept - I think that sounds fascinating with so much meat on that Free bone to chew on! Good luck to you!

  14. Ronkeytonk - yeah, Don MacLean - when I was a first year undergrad (1989/90) American Pie went through a revival - great song, great voice.

    Anne, thanks - I'm determined to make a proper start on it before the New Year - but I keep on procrastinating - those "50 best toatsers of 2009" reviews are just so irresistible!

  15. and the Black Angel cd by Kronos Quartet, that's a killer after a few drinks and a bad day

  16. Which band was your dad in Dan?


  17. Phillipa, thank you, I'll look that out :)

    Marc, they were a Salisbury based band called The Satellites

  18. Hey all, with all this Joy Division love about, I have to add Bauhaus's All We Ever Wanted was Everything, which, for a band that typically leaned more towards dramatis than emotus, cuts pretty deep.

  19. I remember Bauhaus from my youth - never really had them pegged as great emoters like you say, but maybe worth revisiting. Thanks