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On the first Sunday of every month, Sound Fix Lounge behind the record store has a mix exchange. The theme for each month is voted on the previous month. Each participant brings in a mix and in return get one from a fellow mixer, along with socializing and $2 PBRs. Here’s my mix for the December 2 exchange: “The Saddest Songs in the World.”
DIETRICH FISCHER-DIESKAU – “Der Leiermann” from Schubert’s Die Winterreise
In the final number of FRANZ SCHUBERT’s unparalleled song cycle Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey), the unrelieved bleakness of the harmony not only depicts the drone of the title figure, the hurdy-gurdy man, but also the desolation of the snow-covered landscape and the narrator’s utter abandonment of hope for love. I used to think that his desire to go with the hurdy-gurdy man signaled the redemptive power of music giving him reason to live, but no, it turns out that our nearly frozen narrator is in fact seeing not a real human figure, but Death himself. He had earlier wished to die; now it appears he will get his wish. The saddest part, therefore, is the chilling climax, when he asks, “Strange old man, shall I go with you? / Will you play your organ to my songs?”
BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD – “Expecting to Fly” (Buffalo Springfield Again)
Really this is a NEIL YOUNG solo effort, and certainly there are a lot of Neil songs that qualify as sad, but thanks to arranger JACK NITZSCHE’s combination of strings and tremolo guitar, this is the one that sounds the saddest. Saddest lyric: “All the years we spent with feeling / ended with a cry.”
LEFT BANKE – “Walk Away Renee” (There’s Gonna Be a Storm: The Complete Recordings 1966-69)
Another beautiful arrangement boasting sweet violin and tangy harpsichord, plus great vocal harmonies. (Jens Lekman would give his nuts to have written this; he’s cribbed from lesser-known Left Banke material, but this song is sacred ground on which he dares not tread, though often he comes close). Saddest part: “Your name and mine inside / a heart upon a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / though they’re so small.”
WILLIE NELSON – “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (The Essential Willie Nelson)
I was seriously considering “Three Days,” but it’s so witty and snappy that its sadness is mitigated. This one, though, offers no respite, especially not in Willie’s most wistful voice. Saddest part: “Love is like a dying ember / And only memories remain.”
DIONNE WARWICK – “Walk on By” (Her All-Time Greatest Hits)
A BURT BACHARACH and HAL DAVID gem, delivered perfectly by your psychic friend. Saddest part: “Make believe / that you don’t see the tears / Just let me grieve / in private / ‘cause each time I see you / I break down and cry.”
THE DELLS – “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” (Greatest Hits)
Bittersweet soul music from a truly classic quintet. The contrast in tone among the different singers is masterful: high tenor JOHNNY CARTER wistful, baritone MARVIN JUNIOR wailing. Saddest part: “Early this morning, when I opened up my eyes / That old lonesome feeling took me by surprise / I guess you meant more to me than I realized.” Or maybe it’s just the hopeless repetitions of “How I wish that you were here.” (There’s also an excellent version of this tune on FRED WESLEY’s New Friends, with the vocal by CARMEN LUNDY.)
JONI MITCHELL – “River” (Blue)
There are a lot of songs about being lonely at Christmastime. Most of them are maudlin and overstated and manipulative (I love PRINCE, but “Another Lonely Christmas” is all of those plus overdetermined). Joni’s low-key about it, which works better. Saddest part: the way her voice soars on “I would teach my feet to fly,” holding on desperately while knowing that she can’t. Some refreshing honesty: “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had.”
TOM WAITS – “Time” (Rain Dogs)
For all the great wordplay, the saddest part is nonetheless the simple refrain: “Oh, it’s time, time, time / and it’s time, time, time / And it’s time, time, time that you love / And it’s time, time, time.” Sung in his weathered voice, with bare-bones accompaniment, it’s sad even though I don’t know on a logical level what the hell he’s talking about.
THE CARPENTERS – “Rainy Days and Mondays” (The Carpenters)
Things aren’t really so bad – she’s got someone who loves her – but clearly this is a depressed woman. Saddest part: “Nothing is really wrong / feeling like I don’t belong / Walking around / some kind of lonely clown.” Later she followed this up with “Goodbye to Love,” arguably the first power ballad.
HANK WILLIAMS – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (more albums than I can count)
Back from when men didn’t cry, or so we were told. Saddest part? Well, there’s “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill / he sounds too blue to fly,” and “The moon just went behind the clouds / to hide its face and cry,” and “Did you ever see a robin weep / when leaves begin to die / That means he’s lost the will to live.” Hell, every damn line of this song is gut-wrenching. Pure folk poetry. And with Hank’s voice and the fiddle, he could sing a Monty Python routine to this music and still leave ‘em bawling.
RICK DERRINGER – “Jump, Jump, Jump” (All American Boy)
The lyrics and singing are melodramatic, sometimes verging on laughable teenage angst (“the girls nowadays all boss me around”), but the guitar solos lacerate the heart. And when he sings, “I’ll freeze my very soul,” you can almost believe it, he puts such cold determination into his voice.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – “One Step Up” (Tunnel of Love)
Unlike Rick, Bruce delivers the adult response to adversity, the one you’re stuck with when you’re too mature for the drama of suicide: live with it and suffer until numbness dims the pain. Saddest part: “When I look at myself, I don’t see / the man I wanted to be / Somewhere ‘long the line I slipped off track / Moving one step up and two steps back.”
KAREN RAMOS – “Waiting” (Karen Ramos)
This longtime favorite singer-songwriter of mine has a much sadder song than even this, “No More Love,” but she never made a commercial recording of it. Nonetheless, you’d better hide the knives before playing this one. Saddest line: “You can’t even feel me / I’m right here / You just watch me / Disappear.” The variety of timbres in which she sings – the cliché “from a whisper to a scream” definitely fits – accents the sadness, as does the steel guitar.
BRENDA KAHN – “Lost” (Epiphany in Brooklyn)
Another favorite of mine; her first two albums (both out of print) are both masterpieces. An electronic hum drones through this song, underpinning acoustic guitar strummed as if with clenched fists. The saddest moment comes in the parting shot of a darkly bitter song: “Life at a distance / You’re lost / in your own personal / holocaust.” After that, she’s left with no other way to convey her feelings than by beating the hell out of her guitar.
BIG STAR – “Holocaust” (Third/Sister Lovers)
The natural segue. The watery piano, the electric guitar crying from another room, and a vocal that’s beyond despair. I suppose the saddest lyric is “Everybody goes / Leaving those who fall behind,” but really the saddest part is the weird guitar solo, one of the most alienated moments in purportedly pop music.
JENNIFER O’CONNOR – “Sister” (Over the Mountain, across the Valley and back to the Stars)
The newest song in the mix, from a Brooklyn-based artist who’s got a world of talent. Saddest line: “And he calls twice a week / just to hear me speak / and we don’t talk about / what’s gone or who’s left without.” Or maybe it’s “When the phone rings late at night / there’s no way it’s ever gonna be right / ever again.” Or the way O’Connor’s voice rises plaintively when she sings the simple statement “Sister, I miss you.” When a sister is dead and a father is dying, there’s so much grief that, let’s face it, the sadness is overwhelming and all-encompassing. Another song that ends in instrumental gnashing.
YOKO ONO – “I Don’t Know Why” (Season of Glass)
I can barely imagine what it must be like to see one’s husband assassinated right in front of you. There’s no cleverness or artifice in Yoko’s words here, just pure pain and loss, plus an outburst of anger. The near-constant repetition of the title exhibits a desperate attempt to process the unthinkable. Saddest part: “The room’s so empty / the room’s so empty without you / My body’s so empty / The world’s so empty / without you.”
KARLA BONOFF – “Goodbye My Friend” (All My Life)
True, she’s singing about a lost cat presumed dead, which is hardly at the level of the losses of the previous two songs, but as a cat owner I empathize. Plus, after the unmitigated suffering of the previous two songs, something where some tiny amount of closure has been reached is a merciful relief. The saddest part comes in the bridge: “Life’s so fragile and love’s so pure / We can’t hold on but we try / We watch how quickly it disappears / and we’ll never know why.”
MERLE HAGGARD – “Sing Me Back Home” (The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology 1963-1977)
Hag loves to pull on your heartstrings, but often is so nakedly manipulative, or shamelessly bathetic, that it can be hard to stomach. But over the course of his long and magnificent career, he’s penned some great sad songs: “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Threw Away the Rose,” “Hungry Eyes,” and “If We Make It through December.” This one’s about a Death Row prisoner’s last request, and I chose it because its theme of musical redemption cuts so deep. Saddest part: “Make my old memories come alive / And take me away and turn back the years / Sing me back home before I die.” Or maybe the saddest part is the pedal steel that slips in on the second half.
THOMAS QUASTHOFF – “Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh” from Brahms’s Four Serious Songs
For sheer bone-numbing, depressing lyrics, it’s hard to beat this bit of Biblical wisdom taken from Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verses 19-22. The title (really the first line) translates as “It is for men as it is for the animals,” continuing, “as one dies, so dies the other.” The solemn tread of the music is damn near a funeral march. JOHANNES BRAHMS kept the piano in its low ranges for much of the time, which sets the somber mood; two prolonged outbursts vent the bitterness. Saddest part? I could say, “All go to one place / all are of the dust / and all turn to dust again.” But really it’s the way the two final chords take our already shattered hopes and stomp the shards into dust. The third item in the cycle, “O death, how bitter you are,” is equally suited for this list.
Of course, there are many other great sad songs that I could’ve opted for. It’s hard to believe that there’s no BILLIE HOLIDAY, nor are there any GEORGE JONES songs, particularly “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” A couple of classic RAY CHARLES numbers almost made it, “Drown in My Own Tears” and “Lonely Avenue.” JOHN LENNON’s “Isolation” is certainly sad enough to qualify, but the perils of fame are not something most of us will have to overcome – it’s not exactly a universal statement, is all. JACKSON BROWNE’s “Here Come Those Tears Again” and “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” remain personal favorites. NINA SIMONE offers an abundance of choices, notably RANDY NEWMAN’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and GEORGE GERSHWIN’s “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess. There are three SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY & THE ASBURY JUKES tracks just from Hearts of Stone that would be perfect: “This Time Baby’s Gone for Good,” the title track, and “Light Don’t Shine.”
I stayed away from instrumentals, but if you want to hear a guitar cry, it’s hard to beat JEFF BECK on ”’Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” (a STEVIE WONDER song originally recorded by SYREETA WRIGHT, a version also considered for this list). Hell, FRANK ZAPPA’s “Watermelon in Easter Hay” (Joe’s Garage) would be here anyway except 1) his snarky narrative over the beginning ruins the mood of his most beautiful composition; 2) it’s too long (nine minutes). Similarly, the BOZ SCAGGS rendition of FENTON ROBINSON’s blues classic “Loan Me a Dime” – with DUANE ALLMAN ripping it up on multiple guitar solos – clocks in at 12:32 and that’s just too much space to grant a single track. JOHNNY THUNDERS’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” was a strong contender. Left off for reasons of production were BILL LASWELL’s cover of HUGH HOPPER’s “Memories” (with pre-fame WHITNEY HOUSTON singing and ARCHIE SHEPP unleashing an emotional torrent on tenor sax), because the electric piano sound is ridiculously dated, and the BONNIE RAITT tearjerker “I Can’t Make You Love Me” because it’s way too slick (BRUCE HORNSBY, yech), though the song itself is damn near flawless, as is Raitt’s delivery.
Space considerations alone nixed MICHAEL MCDONALD’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near),” WARREN ZEVON’s deathbed plea “Keep Me in Your Heart,” SADE’s “You’re Not the Man” (the last cut to get down to 75 minutes), a pair of tunes from DARYL HALL’s first solo LP, and TODD RUNDGREN’s beautifully aching “Hurting for You.”
Well, I’ve damn near constructed a second mix in this coda of second-guessing. And now you’ll put your excellent suggestions in the comments. But consider putting them on a disc and bringing them to Sound Fix on Sunday night at 8, 110 Bedford Ave. (entrance on North 11th Street).
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