Phyllis Diller’s death today at age 95 got me thinking a little bit about sad songs (please don’t ask exactly how I got from point A to point B; I’m not sure myself). Diller was an outstanding comedian and pioneer (I always loved the jokes about her husband, Fang), and while her death made me a little sad, it wasn’t like my gramma had died or something.
I love sad songs myself. My own theory is that I get to experience the emotion without going through the bad thing that caused it (I like to live vicariously, like Andy Warhol). It’s not just the catharsis found in sad songs, though. There’s something incredibly intimate about getting inside a songwriter’s head like that, because even if the song isn’t literally true, the emotion usually is. If it’s not true, then the song is mawkish and sappy and not sad in the least. There’s a very thin line between sad and sop, and it can be difficult for artists to navigate it.
There are a lot of truly great sad songs. The more I think about it, the longer the list becomes: “Good Day,” “Monopoly,” Pancho and Lefty,” “Morning Song for Sally,” “Raining in Baltimore,” and “Storms” are just the first few that come to mind (I’m gonna be mean and make you look up the artists). Some artists, like Counting Crows and the Cure and the brilliant Townes Van Zandt, have built careers on sad songs. The Cure recorded what I once regarded as the number one, all-time, so-sad-you-might-want-to-throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-bus song with “Pictures of You.” I could not get past that song on my old cassette of Disintegration. I think it started side two; I would listen to it, and have to stop the tape and go do something happy (seriously, it was like reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which you must think very carefully about before reading, and possibly get a note from a psychiatrist first).
But some of the best sad songs are inexplicably sad. On the surface, they seem innocuous enough, happy even. The Faces “Ooh La La” is like that, but it’s kind of a nostalgic sadness, something you almost see coming from the beginning. The most inexplicably sad song I’ve ever heard is also quite possibly the saddest song I’ve ever heard, period. It’s by the Beach Boys, of all people.
“Sloop John B” is actually based on an old folk tune, reworked a little bit by Brian Wilson for Pet Sounds. I’d known the title for many years, knew it was a cover, but I’d never heard it or thought much about it. It is legendary among rock historians, though as one of the greatest Beach Boys songs ever. So when I finally got myself a copy of Pet Sounds, I was very much looking forward to this track. I have to go a little into the background of Pet Sounds for a minute here, because it sets the context a little better. Pet Sounds is the Beach Boys equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released in 1966, it shows the level of studio and songwriting mastery that Brian Wilson had reached. It is his masterpiece, and the last truly great work of art Brian ever completed. Two of the tracks, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice? and “God Only Knows,” could easily stand by themselves as great; but listened to within the album, they become even more poignant. Because the other thing Pet Sounds does is chronicle the way Brian Wilson was beginning to lose his mind. (In the couple of years after completing the album, Brian went on to have a complete mental breakdown. He was non-functional for a very long time.) You can hear it on every single track. Brian is desperately trying to hold on to his sanity, but with every passing hour sees it slipping away. This is tremendous stuff, which makes for amazing art but breaks my heart every time I hear it. That’s the album “Sloop John B” was born into. Warning: I recommend just listening to this first. Close your eyes if you have to. The silliness of the film offsets the sadness of the song to a degree.
I cried the first time I heard this, and I still have no idea why. It comes more than midway through the album, so maybe it’s the cumulative effect of the whole album. I know that not everyone is going to have the same experience listening to this I did. And this kind of thing is so subjective anyway. Of course, now I feel like I have to ask the inevitable question:
What’s the saddest song you’ve ever heard?