Musicians are known for being a sad bunch. They often channel their feelings in a much more refined way than you or I am capable of — song, and we love them for it. Some artists in particular were affected by a tragedy in one way or another, and retold the story through song. Others produced songs that had tragic backstories. From James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” to Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love,” here are 15 classic songs associated with real-life tragic tales.
Read about some of the saddest stories behind hit classic songs, and watch James Taylor perform “Fire And Rain” for VH1 Storytellers.
“Fire And Rain” by James Taylor
“Fire And Rain” has a multifaceted story. “Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you” is about James Taylor’s longtime friend, Suzanne Schnerr, who committed suicide while Taylor was recording his debut album in London. “Sweet dreams and Flying Machines in pieces on the ground” refers to The Flying Machine, Taylor’s band that never quite took off. The song was also written while Taylor was struggling with drug abuse.
“The Needle And The Damage Done” by Neil Young
Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done” tells the story of Daniel Ray Whitten, Young’s friend and colleague from his backing band Crazy Horse, and his struggle with heroin addiction. “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done / A little part of it in everyone.” Young’s lyrics expose the heroin addiction that plagued the whole band, but particularly Whitten. Young fired Whitten after he was unable to keep up with the band during rehearsals, and Whitten overdosed on Valium and alcohol later that night.
“I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations
Roger Penzabene, Motown staff writer, wrote the lyrics to “I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations. The song is centered around a man wishing it would rain to hide the tears he’s shed upon learning his wife has left him for another man. Penzabene channeled his own experience into writing the melancholy lyrics, drawing from how he felt upon hearing that his wife cheated on him. Penzabene committed suicide a week after the single dropped on New Year’s Eve 1967.
“Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” is based on his experience losing his son, Conor, in 1991. Conor was four-and-a-half years old when he fell 53 stories from a window in his room in New York City. Lory Del Santo, Conor’s mother and Clapton’s former girlfriend, opened up about the incident to ABC News 15 years after it happened.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding
Just two days after recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” Otis Redding drowned. He and five others had boarded a private plane, the engine of which failed, sending all of them into Wisconsin’s Lake Monoma. Redding and four of his bandmates drowned, and one survived. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” rose to number one on the charts following its release, and became the first posthumous song by an artist in the U.S. to do so. Redding had predicted that it would be a number one track.
“Jeremy” by Pearl Jam
Eddie Vedder began writing the lyrics to Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” in 1991 after reading a newspaper article in The Dallas Morning News about the suicide of a 16-year-old boy, Jeremy Delle. Jeremy was a transfer from Dallas to Richardson High School in Richardson, Texas. He shot himself in front of about 30 students after being told to get an admittance slip for having missed a class.
“Sex In The Summer” by Prince
“Sex In The Summer” from Prince’s 1996 album Emancipation is thought to have previously been named “Conception.” It’s rumored that the underlying sound of the song is a heartbeat, that of Prince’s son, Boy Gregory, who died of natural causes.
“Hurricane” by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s 1975 political protest song, “Hurricane,” tells the heartbreaking story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a famous boxer who was wrongly charged in 1966 with murder in a robbery case in Paterson, New Jersey. Carter spent almost 20 years in prison, during which Dylan visited him. Dylan believed Carter’s sentencing was a twisted manifestation of racism. Long after “Hurricane” came out, Carter was released from prison. He died in April of last year.
“Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones’ 1969 album, captured the anxiety of the troubled era during which it was released, and “Gimme Shelter” particularly portrays the dreariness of the time. Merry Clayton became famous for her soprano vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” but her recording experience wasn’t a happy one. Shortly after being persuaded to shirk sleep and head to the studio after midnight to record the vocals, Clayton suffered a miscarriage. It was thought that the emotional intensity of her performance paired with her lack of sleep that night caused the miscarriage. “It was a dark, dark period for me, but God gave me the strength to overcome it,” Clayton told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.
“Mama Said” by Metallica
“Mama Said” is often looked at as a failed attempt by Metallica at infusing country and blues into the band’s sound, but the song’s story speaks louder than its experimentality. James Hetfield penned the song, about a son paving his own path in life without the help of his mother, about his own mother, who died of cancer when Hetfield was 16.
“Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor” by Eels
Eel’s sophomore album Electric Shock Blues reflected Mark “E” Everett’s pain after his sister committed suicide and his mother died of lung cancer. The track “Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor” was inspired by an entry in Everett’s sister’s diary. She had written in it after one of many failed attempts at taking her own life.
“I Shot The Sheriff” by Bob Marley
It wasn’t until Esther Anderson’s Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend that we learned Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” was a clever metaphor. Marley had an affair with Anderson, and wanted to have kids with her, which is why he was upset when she stayed on the pill. He thought that their love was sacred, and that it was sinful for Anderson to be on the pill. The doctor who prescribed Anderson the birth control became the sheriff. “Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don’t know / Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grow.”
“All My Love” by Led Zeppelin
“All My Love” was written in honor of Robert Plant’s son, Karac, who died of a stomach virus while Led Zeppelin was on tour in 1977. Karac was just five years old. According to Rolling Stone, Jimmy Page supposedly “hated ’All My Love,’ but because it was about Karac, he couldn’t criticize it.”
“Circus” by Eric Clapton
In 1998, seven years after “Tears In Heaven” came out as a part of the Rush soundtrack, Eric Clapton released “Circus.” The song, like “Tears In Heaven,” is about Clapton’s deceased son, Conor. “Circus” is about the last day that Clapton and his son spent together.
“Never Learn Not To Love” by The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys’ founding member Dennis Wilson befriended Charles Manson in the late ’60s. Manson wrote a song, “Cease To Exist,” for the group, and told Wilson that he could toy with the music itself, so long as the lyrics remained the same. Wilson played around with the song, rewriting the music to be less bluesy and ultimately changing some of the lyrics, including the opening line. “Cease To Exist” became “Never Learn Not To Love,” and Manson was upset to find out that the lyrics had been changed against his wishes. Some say Manson threatened to kill Wilson over the changes, and others say Beach Boys producer Terry Melcher became Manson’s target. The incident went down as one of the most scarring ones of The Beach Boys’ history.
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