Dance (of Death) Party Playlist: Songs of Crime and Murder
By Patrick ColemanJuly 30, 2019
Join author Patrick Coleman as he shares a curated playlist of crime-related songs that he compiled with the help of singer-songwriter Nicholas Altobelli. It just might be the perfect musical cocktail to inspire a future crime novel.
And be sure to leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of Coleman’s newest book—The Churchgoer.
I listen to a lot of music while I write. It’s an important part of my process—curated playlists galore, for different parts of different projects, for different stages of each project. A good song can suggest not just a mood or a feeling (though they do this exceptionally well) but a whole world and the people in it. Similarly, crime novels take us into worlds most of us don’t know in daily life. That got me thinking about songs that are, in themselves, crime novels, or that could be the basis of one in the right hands.
As I started putting together that playlist, I reached out to my cousin, the Dallas singer-songwriter Nicholas Altobelli. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and we share a grim sensibility. Soon we had about a hundred tracks, and could have kept going on like that for years. So that’s to say: what follows is an idiosyncratic tour through some of the great crime songs. Not a definitive list, or a ranking by any means. But maybe they’ll inspire you to write a crime novel—or crime song—of your own.
One thing that stood out immediately when you start searching out songs of crime: there are a lot of murder ballads, and most of the dead are women. This is the case for obvious and depressing reasons. There are whole Ph.D. dissertations on murder ballads—if you’re interested, seek those out—but for this list, we tried to select just a few that do something interesting with the trope.
A lot of other songs didn’t make the final cut for one reason or another. In some cases, like Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” the real drama is in the songwriter identifying with a serial killer, and less that the song itself creates a world for a crime story to take place within. There’s not a novel there, but a poem. (And that’s fine and good! Just not for this list.) Other songs, like “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace, could technically be crime novels—but you’d have to match the campiness somehow. (Actually, a slapstick novel about Al Capone doesn’t sound half bad. Nevermind, that’s my idea now…) A few were in some way too obvious (“I Shot the Sheriff,” for example) and didn’t leave much room for a novelistic imagination. Many great songs were left off because the kind of story they tell was covered by someone else; sorry, Jason Isbell. “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates is probably best left off for obvious reasons, but I love it all the same.
Nevertheless, we find ourselves with this for your consideration: a few crime songs that could inspire a novel.
Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells”
Nearly every other Neko Case song could be a novel of some kind. As a true-crime murder ballad, “Deep Red Bells” does a few things in the “violence against women” genre that are vital. It humanizes the victims of Gary “Green River Killer” Ridgway (Case noted in an interview, “I grew up while he was killing women, and on the news, they never talked about them like they were women. They just called them ‘prostitutes.’”), with acute passages like, “A handprint on the driver’s side / It looks a lot like engine oil / And tastes like being poor and small / And Popsicles in the summer.” It has a massive, haunting chorus, perfect for Case’s massive and haunting voice, that makes a specific tragedy reverberate with larger meaning. And, as Nick quickly points out, “The music changes during the bridge, around 2:45 in the song. It goes from this dark, moody tone to a more uplifting country shuffle with light and air. Then it immediately disperses as quickly as it came—almost ghostlike.”
Kendrick Lamar, “The Art of Peer Pressure”
The album good kid, m.A.A.d city is a crime novel and more than that. For pure storytelling verve (and a terrific beat), I’m pulling “The Art of Peer Pressure” from it, partly because its story of a B&E close call fits the crime novel bill. But it’s a brilliantly handled first person, putting you inside the tension of the protagonist torn between group identity and his own, and the fuzziness between. Elsewhere on the record, the skit at the end of “Swimming Pools (Drank),” when his friend Dave gets killed, is as gutting as an episode of The Wire, and Kendrick’s move to rap from the perspective of others affected by that murder speaking back to him is such a novelist’s move—meta, even. The sonic effect of those gunshots quieting the first speaker and the slow fade of the second one as she succumbs to illness—whew.
Bessie Smith, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair”
In the genre of murder ballads, Bessie Smith’s blues “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” stands out for a few reasons. It’s got a sultry musical confidence that fits Smith’s voice perfectly, and emphasizes the unrepentant defiance of the speaker as she proudly tells us how she killed her philandering husband with her Barlow knife. Anyone who can beg a judge to have herself executed (“Burn me ‘cause I don’t care”) gets some deserved attention. Nick adds, “I first heard this song from my friend and Dallas songwriter Kristy Kruger. She played it at a show and I was blown away by it. Although it would probably make more of a novella or short story because she’s like, ‘Yep, I did it. Send me to the chair. Deuces.’”
Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska” v. “Atlantic City”
Nick and I got into a knife fight over this, so it’s best to call it a draw. Springsteen’s “Nebraska” is a stark murder ballad, sung from the point of view of Charles Starkweather. That makes it a shoe-in for Nick, who says, “The narrator kills ten people! And it’s a wonderful nod to Terrence Malick’s Badlands which is probably one of the best crime movies, ever.” It is tough to argue with that last line (“Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”) and its echo of Flannery O’Connor.
But argue we did. Because for my money (and novelist Tod Goldberg backed this, too), “Atlantic City” has a more novelistic scope. It’s got a young couple moving to the titular hellhole, the mob, the gambling commission, the DA, and economic scarcity leading to some desperate moves—a whole world. If you can start a song with “They blew up the chicken man in Philly last night” and end it with “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” you’ve got some chops—and a lot of room to move between those two fixed points.
Drive-By Truckers, “Go-Go Boots”
You might think, of all the Drive-By Truckers songs, I might have gone with “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” but that’s not true crime: it’s just a fucking tragedy, and it breaks my heart too much to listen to it. (I tried to in writing this, while I waited for my daughter to fall asleep, and bawled like a baby. You don’t need all that. Nick agreed: “I can’t listen to that song. I cry almost every time I hear it.”)
So let’s go with “Go-Go Boots.” It’s got a nasty beat, an overheatedly sleazy lead, and tells the story of a preacher who gets into a little infidelity and a mild footwear kink. Finally, he decides to hire a hitman to bump off his wife:
He met these guys who didn’t mind getting dirty
He was a pillar and his alibi was sturdy
It only took a little bit of cash and the deed was done
Stained glass windows, Jesus looking down
Organs playing music to the middle aged crowd
His wife’s in the ground the devil’s in his head
Them go-go boots are underneath the bed
I have a soft spot for the crimes involving religious institutions, as you might imagine. And in San Diego, we had our own story of a Christian metal singer turning to a contract killer. But the thing that sets this song apart is the second point of view threaded through it, of the preacher’s fuck-up son who begins to get hip to what happened but is afraid to ask because “he’s scared he might have to kill the old man.”
Rhiannon Giddens, “Birmingham Sunday”
This song does a few remarkable things. It tells the story of the 1963 KKK bombing of an African American Baptist church in Alabama that killed four girls and injured another 22 people—a ghastly act of terrorism, carried out by a long-running criminal organization. The style is hushed, unhurried, and in a way considerate of the audience (“Come round by my side and I’ll sing you a song / I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong”), and yet it’s serious in telling the story—and giving the full name—of each of the four victims. It was written by Richard Fariña, the half-Cuban, half-Irish singer-songwriter partner of Mimi Baez and writer of Been Down So Long It Looked Like Up to Me (he died in a motorcycle accident two days after it was released)—and it was first made famous by Mimi’s sister, Joan Baez. Rhiannon Giddens covered it beautifully, in a spare full band arrangement, in 2017, implicitly connecting that earlier crime against humanity to the more recent church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
The Pogues, “Waltzing Matilda”
This song, a cover of Eric Bogle’s original, is about the crimes a nation commits against its own people in the name of war. A young Australian man who loves to roam the backcountry first experiences that violence when he is conscripted into fighting in World War I, barely survives a disastrous seven weeks of battle at Suvla Bay, and loses his legs. The second violence is the treatment he receives back home, along with the other injured soldiers. They arrive, the band playing “Waltzing Matilda,” but “nobody cheered, they just stood and stared / And they turned their faces away.” The third violence comes during the annual parades, that same song playing again proudly, veterans of the war marching and being cheered by the crowds. “The young people ask me, ‘What are they marching for?’ / And I ask myself the same question.” This guy’s primed to take some drastic action, and I’d read that book in a heartbeat.
Gillian Welch, “Caleb Meyer”
There’s a masterful sense of pacing in this Welch song. We first learn about Caleb, a local drunk. He comes to the house of the woman who’s singing this story. He asks where her husband is. She tells him he’s gone to Bowling Green on business. Caleb attempts to rape her. The woman begins to pray. Each part of the story is interrupted by the speaker commanding:
Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna
Wear them rattlin’ chains
But when I go to sleep at night
Don’t you call my name
That’s some heavy foreshadowing. And yet it still comes as a shock when, after her prayer is done, she grabs a broken bottle and slits Caleb’s throat. The final refrain of the chorus is defiant in its sense of justice.
Mark Kozelek, “You Missed My Heart”
This was Nick’s ride or die song, so I’ll let him take the lead: “Where do I start with this one? For me this is a flawless crime song that should be a novel. A deranged man discovers his ex with a new love, and he decides to confront them and ultimately kills the new lover. However, it’s kind of ambiguous if her life is spared. What I think is the most interesting part of the song is, during the last act, we see him confront a memory from his childhood as he dies: ‘The most poetic dream came flowing like the sea / Laying there my lifeblood draining out of me / A childhood scene then, sky moon beams / Fishing with my friends sitting in the wild reeds.’ It is so beautifully written that you are reminded that no matter how evil a person may be, or what path we may go down (good or bad), we ALL have these childhood plot points in our timelines that are innocent, beautiful, and universal. And, yes, some of us will eventually commit murder.”
All I’d add is that I’m on a massive Phoebe Bridgers kick, and her cover of this song is phenomenal.
Pedro the Lion, “Priests and Paramedics”
Pedro the Lion is songwriter David Bazan’s former-but-now-resurrected band, famously Christian and then, into a series of solo albums, chronicling his “break-up” with God. On Control, the concept album “Priests and Paramedics” is from, he tells the story of a married couple with children, an affair, and a murder. What sets the record apart is the connections drawn between this fairly stock crime story and a paternalistic American culture that values profit, aggressively markets success, and villainizes failure, which gives the story a wider resonance and sweep. It has sex, lies, and bad parenting decisions, politics, religion, and capitalism, all in bed with one another, and a satiric edge that still resonates:
If you’re just joining us now
You missed a brilliant speech
We go now live in the streets
To find our what the voters think
“He’s worked a miracle
I just now bought a brand new car”
As on the Kendrick Lamar record, the perspective on the story shifts in “Priests and Paramedics.” We arrive at the scene of the murder alongside the paramedics, who know how to deal with someone asking if they’re going to die: “At times like these they’d been taught to lie / ‘Buddy just calm down, you’ll be alright.’” The song ends with the words of a nihilistic priest at the husband’s funeral. So this could be a crime novel, or it could be staged as a really strange crime musical theater piece, too. (Someone get on that!)
Amy LaVere, “Killing Him”
It’s simple—another cheating man murdered by his wife—but “Killing Him” has such an unhurried feel, such a slinky baseline, and that resigned, relatable chorus (“Killing him didn’t make the love go away.”) makes this a pure gem. It’s the simple matter-of-factness (“He didn’t come home till the light of the day / He wasn’t with her he would say / They fought through the morning and all of the day / She’d have to kill him to get him to stay”), making murder seem like the most rational thing to do, that fires the novelistic imagination here, giving more psychological complexity than its three minutes should allow.
Tom Waits, “Dirt in the Ground”
Goddamn are there are a lot of prostitutes and dead women in Tom Waits’ songs. I love Waits, but it’s a problem—but it’d also be odd if he weren’t on this list. (“I wonder if there is a body count page on the internet somewhere that combs through every Tom Waits song,” asks Nick. “If there isn’t, there should be. That goes for the Drive-By Truckers, as well.”) I should probably go with “Walking Spanish,” but of the murder songs I prefer “Dirt in the Ground.” It isn’t so much a novel in its own right—there’s a killer heading to the hangman’s noose in it, sure—but it’s a perfect mood-setter for writing one: the funeral dirge arrangement, Waits’ raspy falsetto, the ambivalent resignation of the chorus (“We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground”).
Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch, “Death Valley ‘69”
One of many, many songs (and stories and novels and essays) about Charles Manson and his followers, “Death Valley ‘69,” in its title, refers to the Barker Ranch HQ of Manson’s cult. Starting with a wail, the song doesn’t exactly tell a story (though there’s definitely murder and sex in there) as it howls a kind of madness in which a violent story takes place. There’s been some great Manson-inspired art, and maybe we need a break from it—but this could be the jumping-off point for all kinds of dark stories.
Loretta Lynn, “Women’s Prison,” and Smog, “River Guard”
Loretta Lynn is incredible, and this country-rock prison song/murder ballad hits all the best elements of the genre: the defiance, the love, the bleak moral outlook. But musically, it builds to the chorus crescendos of the mob’s chants of “Let that murderer fry!” in contrast to the sound of the murderer’s mother, in the same crowd, crying. As the song says, it’s the last voice the prisoner hears on earth. Then, over a sustained organ chord, Lynn barely whisper-sings “Amazing Grace.” Together, it emotionally complicates things in all the right ways.
I’m slipping in “River Guard” as a bonus prison song because it takes a simple but unusual occasion—a guard looks the other way while his prisoners go for a swim—and turns it into this moment of grace between them all. For guard and prisoner alike, “Our sentences will not be served / We are constantly on trial / It’s a way to be free.” With an insight like that, what the guard does next could certainly be the start of a terrific novel.
Nina Simone, “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”
Simone’s is my favorite version of this Randy Newman song. She is incredible here, world-weary and poignant and powerful—balancing all the ambivalence and irony of the lyrics perfectly, and adding a weight all her own. I wanted to add it to this crime songs list as a reminder that so many crime writers and their protagonists (and their readers) are idealists at heart. That’s where their rage and preoccupation with darkness, violence, and injustice come from. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That it could be better than it is today. You don’t get the sense that Simone believes human kindness is actually overflowing, or that it’s going to rain that kindness down today. (Newman didn’t either and reportedly wanted to scrap the song as too bleak.) But Simeon’s rendition represents the still-ineradicable hope that it could—a feeling I get, perhaps oddly, from a lot of crime fiction.
Billy Bragg and Wilco, “All You Fascists”
Fascists are some of the defining criminals of our day. For an anthem to listen to while writing some fiction about their transgressions against justice, or to motivate yourself to get out and take other kinds of action, you can’t go wrong with this Woody Guthrie-penned anthem set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco on Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. “All you fascists are bound to lose!”
Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”
Okay, you’d need a French dictionary to fully parse this song, but that isn’t the point. The point is: sometimes the workings of a criminal mind are very, very danceable. And after all the rest of this bleakness, maybe we need to dance, before it’s all over.
About The Churchgoer by Patrick Coleman:
“He was finished with church, with God, with all of it. But to find the girl, he has to go back.”
In Mark Haines’s former life, he was an evangelical youth pastor, a role model, and a family man—until he abandoned his wife, his daughter, and his beliefs. Now he’s marking time between sunny days surfing and dark nights working security at an industrial complex. His isolation is broken when Cindy, a charming twenty-two-year old drifter he sees hitchhiking on the Pacific Coast Highway, hustles him for a breakfast and a place to crash—two cynical kindred spirits.
Then his co-worker is murdered in a robbery gone wrong and Cindy disappears on the same night. Haines knows he should let it go and return to his safe life of solitude. Instead, he’s driven to find out where Cindy went, under stranger and stranger circumstances. Soon Mark is chasing leads, each one taking him back into a world where his old life came crashing down—into the seedier side of southern California’s drug trade and ultimately into the secrets of an Evangelical megachurch where his past and his future are about to converge. What begins as an investigation becomes a haunting mystery and a psychological journey both for Mark, and for the elusive young stranger he won’t let get away.
Set in the early 2000s, The Churchgoer is a gripping noir, a quiet subversion of the genre, and a powerful meditation on belief, morality, and the nature of evil in contemporary life.
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