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Welcome to 2009: Songs about disaster

January 9, 2009 |  1:10 pm

Ah, the comforts of song.

But sometimes we don't want songs that comfort. We want music to blare aloud our fear, trouble and pain, so we don’t have to go through the emotional exertion of doing it ourselves. Instead, we can take an artificial but cathartic plunge into life’s grimness, and come up feeling momentarily purged.

For example, I can say from experience that Lou Reed’s “Berlin” album has an antidepressant effect. Taking a mud bath in this most sordid of rock operettas brings me relief because,  however badly things are going, they’re not as bad as this. Just be sure to apply sparingly.

So -- our little rag is in bankruptcy court, the American automobile industry -- heavens to Chuck Berry, could be motorvating over the hill for good -- and it has become increasingly clear that Chaos Theory, rather than representative democracy, is the underlying principle of California state government. Can you understand why I started thinking about songs of disaster?

Here’s a list of them, in no particular order of preference. The criteria: the problems of a few little people, or some other small subset of society, don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy category, no matter how disastrous their outcome. We’re dealing here with  songs about the Big Ones -- the kinds of disasters that don’t just rock your world, but nearly everybody’s.

“1945,” Social Distortion. Sample lyric: “Atom bomb, TNT/New disease, poor city.” Pithily put, Mr. Ness. Emphatically too.   

“Cities Rise to Fall,” Rash of Stabbings. You never heard of 'em, but I’ll never forget 'em -- a U2-meets-goth-rock 1980s Rhode Island band that rocked with raging eloquence, historic sweep and palpable detail about humanity’s endless capacity for insanity. 

“Fall on Me,” R.E.M. One of my most memorable rock experiences was being at their concert in Providence on the night of the October 1987 stock market crash. They closed by roaring through “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” with such exhilaration that one could walk away thinking the world turned upside down might be better than the same-old-same-old experienced right side up.

“Balloon Burning,” the Pretty Things. The Hindenburg disaster immortalized in a fiery, alarmed song. From “S.F. Sorrow,” an impressionistic “rock opera” that’s one of the obscure treasures of 1960s British rock.

“All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix. Depending on whether you prefer to imagine the apocalypse cantering toward you shrouded in stark acoustic stillness, or arriving at a gallop in an electric maelstrom.

“All Going Out Together,” Big Dipper. As in shuffling off this mortal coil en masse in a huge earthquake. This Boston band briefly contended on the true-alternative scene during the 1980s, leaving us something catchy to hum when that 8.9 hits along the San Andreas or the Newport-Inglewood.

“And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” the Pogues. Folkie Eric Bogle wrote this ballad about Australian troops getting chopped to pieces by the thousands during World War I.

“Child in Time,” Deep Purple. The ominous and anguished slow parts feature Ian Gillan’s great falsetto, keening over our shared fate in a world of existential “bullets flying, taking toll.” The long, hurtling instrumental charge led by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and organist Jon Lord conjures, for me, a vision of airplanes bearing down on the World Trade Center. Use sparingly.

“A Salty Dog”/ "Wreck of the Hesperus,” Procol Harum. Both are from the stately “A Salty Dog” album. In the title track, grateful sailors escape the sea’s treachery by the skin of their teeth; in “Hesperus,” the sea claims what’s hers. 

“Look Out, Cleveland,” the Band. A certain manic glee can take hold when fire or natural disaster hits, at least among those lucky enough to witness it from a safe remove. That kind of dizzy vibe shivers through this exuberant classic. 

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Band. It took a Canadian, Robbie Robertson, to capture why the Civil War never ended for the South. It took a strident American, Joan Baez, to totally screw the song up. 

“How to Avoid Disaster,” the Saints. “Here I am in a psychopathic world/Trying to avoid disaster,” muses front man Chris Bailey at the start of this catchy, brisk rocker from the marvelous, orchestrally adorned  “All Fools Day” album. Unfortunately, the song ends before he tells us the “how to” part.

“Louisiana 1927,” Randy Newman. Cal Coolidge’s Washington fiddles while the Bayou State almost gets washed away by a flood. Never again. Oops. A hymn to gritty survival.

“Life Goes On,” the Kinks
. Let’s end this gloomy exercise with a proper Ray Davies  affirmation: 

“Tornado, cyclone and hurricane/Can batter the houses with the thunder and rain /
Blizzards can blow, the waves hit the shore/ But the people recover and come back for more /Somehow the people fight back, even if the future looks black /
Life goes on and on and on/Life goes on and on and on.

-- Mike Boehm

Related: Ray Davies knows about being broke

Photo: Shane MacGowan of the Pogues in 1995. Courtesy: Reuters.