The celebration of a dead celebrity is one of my favorite thematic forms in pop music and today we’re going to listen to a small sampling that runs through most genres. Some of them are genuine tributes and some less sincere.
This first track is Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” from the 2001 album Time (The Revelator). It was ranked #2 on our “Top Ten Songs About Elvis” a while back, falling behind “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper.
I have a cassette of a Springsteen show from the Born in the USA tour which has a nice tribute to Elvis – During the Nebraska-oriented, mostly acoustic section of the show, the Boss sings his song “Johnny Bye Bye” (based on Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny”) and introduces it with a story of how he heard about the King’s death. “I never understood how somebody who made so many people so happy could end up so sad himself,” says Bruce, maybe capturing what it is that is so compelling to us about Elvis decades after his death.
Believe it or not, Elvis is not the dead celebrity most often celebrated in song – That honor goes to the great Hank Williams. A short list of favorite Hank Williams tributes would include Waylon Jennings’ standard “I Don’t Think Hank Done it This Way”, Johnny Paycheck’s classic “Help Me, Hank, I’m Fallin'” and Robert Earl Keen’s bizarre “The Great Hank”. This track from Grand Ole Opry star Ernest Tubb is by far the most sincere and genuine of the dozens and dozens of songs written about Hank Williams.
“A Tribute to a King” by William Bell is an excellent follow-up to the Ernest Tubb track because each are exemplary within their respective genres. William Bell’s tribute to Otis Redding is great southern soul and probably the best track on this playlist. I first heard this great song on a mix tape made by my good friend Molly and have loved it since.
Not all songs about dead celebrities mourn their passing – Millions of Dead Cops spit on the grave of movie star John Wayne with this vitriolic attack. Its kind of hard to tell how much of John Wayne’s legacy is the interpretation of his admirers and how much was actually John Wayne. Was John Wayne a nazi? No. Is it difficult to reconcile some of the things he said? Yes. MDC took it a little too far but Lord did I love this song when I was 12 years old!
You’ve seen this record hanging on the wall at Hymie’s – Its the picture disc with a picture of Bela Lugosi (as Dracula). Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is probably a sincere tribute but its a little weird.
REM’s super-hit “Man on the Moon” is certainly the most successful tribute to a dead celebrity since “Candle in the Wind” and unlike most pervasive radio hits its aged really well. This is still a really great song. And Automatic for the People contained a second tribute to a dead celebrity, by the way – “Monty Got a Raw Deal” memorializes actor Montgomery Cliff who really did get a pretty raw deal.
I love Nick Lowe – His Pure Pop for Now People is a woefully overlooked classic. Its opener, “So It Goes”, should have become an anthem and maybe it still will. Also on Lowe’s delightful debut is this gory tribute to silent film actress Marie Provost. I was disappointed when I learned that Lowe had exaggerated and that Marie Provost’s dachshund had not, in fact, eaten her corpse. There is a great cover of this on a single by the 90s punk rock group J Church.
Kids in the Hall star Bruce McCollough probably summed it up in “Vigil”, from his truly obnoxious and listenable debut musical performance, Shame-Based Man. Its difficult to feel genuinely sad over the passing of a celebrity who took his own life but its also just difficult to understand the whole process of celebrity mourning.
This may be an unusual place to end our collection of tributes to dead celebrities – After all, what about “Candle in the Wind”, and how can any collection be complete without “American Pie”? You’ve already heard them enough and unlike “Man on the Moon” they’ve gotten to be tired old radio standards. I usually change the station when I hear those tired 70s dogs. This collection has also entirely omitted jazz, even though jazz artists reliably remember their predecessors. I think Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (Dedicated to Lester Young) is among his finest melodies, and Duke Ellington’s album And His Mother Called Him Bill is a heartbreaking tribute to the recently-deceased Billy Strayhorn that is beyond comparison. Mingus also wrote a piece about Charlie Parker called “If Charlie Parker Had Been a Gun-Slinger There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”.
Anyway, here is Simon and Garfunkel’s “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright” which is a pretty simple farewell to the great architect. Many more unusual tracks could be added to this playlist (I’m suddenly sad I didn’t find a copy of Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”). There are some celebrities overdue for a little tribute and others whose tribute was just not good enough (The great singer from The Band, Richard Manuel, was remembered with the cruddy pop tune “If I Could Give All my Love” by Counting Crows, for instance). Truly, its a growing body of work, the dead celebrity tribute. Let’s all stay tuned…
[Yes, the image you see at the top of this post is Michael Jackson at James Brown’s funeral.]