[12 October 2010]
“There’s things out there that’ll bend your bones.”
One of my favorite horror movies in recent years is Trick or Treat, which tells four tightly interwoven tales that take place on Halloween, and which all end badly. Gorgeously shot in fall hues of amber and orange and twilight, and very entertaining, it’s a film I’d enjoy just because it a well-done piece of moviemaking. But what I really appreciate about it is that it treats Halloween with a little respect, taking its inspiration from the ancient belief that All Hallows Eve is a night on which the borders between worlds are thin, and anything—especially magical, horrible things—can happen. It’s a night when urban legends bear more than a ring of truth, and when a serial killer is far from the most dangerous thing walking the streets or halls or woods.
It’s pretty much a cliché these days to say that Halloween is my favorite holiday, but it is. It’s been that way since grade school, when a friend and I laughed hysterically at the lyrics to “Monster Mash”, and when my Ace Frehley costume got me invited into the local biker gang’s crash house. As those two examples would indicate, music and Halloween became woven together for me pretty early.
So it should come as no surprise that every year I burden my friends with a Halloween mix. The first year I put one together, it was pretty easy to find rock ‘n’ roll songs full of monsters and ghosts. After that, it started getting more challenging. Keeping my audience in mind, I couldn’t dive too far into metal, which is a shame. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre with a foot more firmly rooted in Halloween. I’m also hamstrung by the fact that most of my friends can’t stand Celtic music, so there go plenty of plaintive songs about the ghosts of fishermen and warriors haunting the bays and moors.
So with that in mind, I’m pretty much left to rock ‘n’ roll, where there’s plenty of good stuff. Heck, you could probably find ten songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival alone with a touch of the supernatural. If you like a little sci-fi flavor to your Halloween, Blue Oyster Cult rarely disappoints. So there are definitely some expected standbys out there.
However, I’ve found myself relying on some surprising names each year when it comes time to put together something a little spooky. It’s not that I try to be obscure, but I’ve long ago given up on making a mix that’s scary or spooky, when there are so many cool shades of emotional gray to work with. It’s probably safe to say that a zombie has a better chance of making it through the heavy ordnance firing range near my house than I have of making a mix – even a Halloween mix—that doesn’t devolve into sad, introspective territory somewhere along the line. To scratch that “sad bastard” itch, these are some artists that I’ve found to be particularly useful:
Naysayers of Waits’s music would say, “Well hell, he sounds like a skeleton army fighting a zombie mob to begin with!” If I had one sound clip to scare away kids from my porch on Halloween, it would probably involve Waits growling at his most guttural. Lyrically, though, Waits seems to be getting more dark and spooky as part of his current gutbucket blues persona. Ever since his mortality caught his full attention on 1992’s Bone Machine, Waits has spent a lot of time singing about death and shadowy things.
The spaghetti western tones of “Black Wings” envision what may or not be a supernatural avenging figure. “Dirt in the Ground” got a fine gospel treatment from the Blind Boys of Alabama, but I’ve always wondered if its windswept graveyard gloom didn’t also provide the template for some of Danny Elfman’s music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. “Murder in the Red Barn”, awash in “autumn’s red glaze”, makes you look at every strange bump in the ground as a shallow grave. “What’s He Building?” turns that paranoia in the direction of a neighbor who may or may not be up to no good behind closed doors, and raises the question of who’s spookier: him, or the neighbors who slowly let their suspicions rile them towards action? “Dead and Lovely” bears echoes of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabelle Lee”.
Waits also provided the music for The Black Rider, his collaboration with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. Start-to-finish, it’s a tale of a young man making a deal with the devil in order to win the love of a girl. Wait’s Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs/Frank’s Wild Years trilogy boasts a solid set of songs about the devil, although they’re usually of the “resisting temptation” variety. But hey, it’s your Halloween comp; I’m sure you can find a way to make it work.
Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Company)
Plenty of rock songs contain ghosts, but they usually refer to the memories of old loves who have merely walked way, not died. With Molina, though, you find yourself thinking that the ghost in a song like “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” might be the memory of a past flame, but if so, it’s one powerful enough to bend him to its will. And it’s certainly possible that the narrators of Molina’s songs are under the sway of something more sinister or supernatural.
Molina’s a songwriter who uses ghosts, wolves, and moons to document his emotional peaks and valleys like other songwriters use cars, whiskey, or mama. If you just want to talk song titles, you’ve got Magnolia gems like “In the Human World”, “Will-O-the-Wisp”, “Talk to Me Devil Again”, “The Spell”, “The Big Beast”, and “Riding with the Ghost”. If you want to talk lyrics, you can’t get much more ominous than “Farewell Transmission”’s “Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws”.
John Darnielle/The Mountain Goats
While we’re talking about using someone’s personal anguish for our own holiday entertainment purposes, we might as well bring the Mountain Goats into the discussion. The song titles are certainly there – “New Monster Avenue”, “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”, “Michael Myers Resplendent”, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature”, etc. – informed by Darnielle’s obvious love of horror films. Darnielle’s tricky, though. I think he hits a raw autobiographical nerve that can make Molina look walled-off and reserved by comparison.
For every song like “Maybe Sprout Wings” that contains something you can bend to your purpose (“I thought of old friends, the one’s who’d gone missing / Said all their names three times / Phantoms in the early dark”), you’ve also got something like “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature”, which is more of a panic attack than the tale of something from literal dark waters. So I think you have to tread more carefully with Darnielle than with other songwriters.
This one surprised me, but Ritter’s “Wolves” is easy to interpret as a werewolf tale. That’s not what it’s about, but lyrics like “I started listening to the wolves in the timber / Wolves in the timber at night / I heard their songs when I looked in the mirror / In the howls and the moons round my eyes” are tailor-made for a good Halloween mix, especially if you can string it together with some other (were)wolfish songs.
Ritter’s another writer who seems to like wolf imagery, but it’s often in quick flashes in service of another theme. His literate streak, though, makes him worth keeping an eye on. His most recent disc, So Runs the World Away contains “The Curse” (about a female archaeologist and a mummy falling in love) and “Folk Bloodbath” (a gathering of familiar names like Delia and Stacker Lee that finds time for a little ghost action before it’s all said and done).
Another band worth keeping an eye on for supernatural-tinged songs. Despite their heavily orchestrated sound, Sea Wolf are essentially the brainchild of Alex Church, and he shows a fondness for flashes of horror or the fantastic. Breakout single “You’re a Wolf”, with its images of gypsies and wolves, sounds like it should play over the end credits to a remake of The Wolfman.
“White Water, White Bloom” comes from the perspective of a man drowning or drowned under icy water, calling out to his love. “Leaves in the River” takes place on Halloween, and may or may not have roots in all those urban legends of ghosts who ask for a walk or ride home.
Blitzen Trapper’s sound has been all over the map, but currently they exhibit an overt Beatles love that keeps them from getting spooky about 99 percent of the time. They’ve unleashed three real corkers in recent years, though. “Furr”, much like Ritter’s “Wolves”, lends itself to either a literal or metaphorical interpretation. Did the narrator really become a wolf, or does the song use that as a metaphor for the sowing of his oats in his youth? I lean toward his really becoming a wolf, especially if it helps the Halloween cause.
“The Man Who Would Speak True” has a similar magical realist feel as it tells the tale of a man who reveals, “I had no tongue, it had been replaced / By a green and a growing flower which grew / And I knew if I ever spoke, I would speak true”. By song’s end, this man’s tongue has amassed a body count that would make Murder Ballads-era Nick Cave proud. I’m more hesitant to recommend “Black River Killer”, not because its lyrics aren’t sufficiently dark, but because ever since Michael Myers slipped on his mask in Halloween, it seems like serial killers have hijacked Halloween a little bit in the popular consciousness. I’m more a fan of the supernatural stuff.
Townes Van Zandt
Van Zandt is best known for his bittersweet, poetic songs like “Tecumseh Valley”, “Pancho & Left”, or “Flying Shoes”, which are as far away from the supernatural as you can get. But he does have a handful of songs which fit the bill. “Our Mother the Mountain” tells the tale of a man who awakens to find a woman coming to him, but when he reaches for her, “her eyes to turn to poison / And her hair turns to splinters / And her flesh turns to brine… And screams that my first-born / Will surely be blind”. Pretty scary stuff (the Great Lake Swimmers do a very nice version, too, by the way).
“Rake”, which tells the story of a user of women brought low, could work if you read the narrator’s fate as an actual curse. “The Hole” tells the tale of a cave and the old woman who lives there, with the narrator barely escaping with his soul intact.
That’s just a piddlin’ few examples; this is far from an exhaustive list. It doesn’t mention Roky Erickson, who penned any number of songs about zombies, creatures with two- brains, and vampires. There’s Eels ringleader E, who has penned songs like “My Beloved Monster” (in several variations) and “Souljacker, Part 1”. Concrete Blonde found a number of songs inspired by Anne Rice’s Vampire Trilogy. Southern Culture on the Skids released an EP in their early days called Zombified, full of rockabilly-fueled Halloween fare. Newcomer A.A. Bondy seems to like vampires and other dark things as metaphors for life. The list goes on and on and on.
As soon as you start a list like this, it becomes obvious how much is out there, and that you don’t have to resort to Groovy Ghoulies-style parody songs to make your way through the holiday. Turns out you can make it as rockin’ or as contemplative as you want. Type in a search term like “ghost” or “monster” or “devil” into a site like the Hype Machine during the month of October and you’ll find tracks in styles ranging from metal to techno to folk. If you have at least a little bit of love for Halloween in your soul, October is one hell of a month to be a music fan.
Here are some of the best “Halloweeny” songs to come out in the past year:
Magnolia Mountain, “Hellbound Train”
Album: Redbird Green
Website: Magnolia Mountain.net
A bluesy barn-burning rock ‘n’ roll song about getting on that hellbound train as it feasts on lost souls, and engaging in a little snake hip moan as you “drink a little whiskey, bourbon, beer, and wine”. Not exactly the most penitent attitude (although the pleas to Jesus do come later), but it sounds like this is just the sort of train that would take you to…
Anais Mitchell, “Hadestown”
Website: Anais Mitchell.com
With contributions from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Ani Difranco, the Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller, Greg Brown, and the Haden Triplets, Hadestown is a full-blown folk opera based on the Oprheus myth. The title track is a rousing number that makes the underworld sound like an expoited mill town under the iron thumb of Mr. Hades.
Josh Ritter, “The Curse”
Album: So Runs the World Away
Website: Josh Ritter.com
Tender and stately, the bittersweet tale of an archaeologist and a mummy falling in love with one another.
The National, “Anyone’s Ghost”
Album: High Violet
Website: American Mary.com
OK, this is one of those “ghost of a relationship” songs, but I totally dig that part about “Go out at night with your headphones on again / And walk through the Manhattan valleys of the dead”.