The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Monster Mash - Terrifying Tunes and Mournful Music

So,Halloween isn't just about scary stories - or scary films, for that matter - sometimes music can be more evocative of fear than anything we read or watch, sometimes it can compliment both books and movies and sometimes it's just awesome in it's own right.  Today, Cannonball Jones returns with a few of his favourite Halloween tunes. Perhaps suitable for an All Hallow's Listen?

It's easy to forget, living in this increasingly visual and visceral world of horror movies competing to out-shock and out-gore each other at every turn, that ghost stories were once purely an oral tradition. The remnants still survive in our culture: tales told around the campfire, their chill countering the warmth of the embers; slumber parties, torches in hand while quivering under blanket tents; even urban legends, passed on at the holy circle of The Water Cooler to be crafted and mangled into ever more ludicrous forms. Thinking about Hallowe'en stirred these memories and my thoughts turned to one of the last bastions of the ghost story in its purest form – music.

It seems only natural that music would form an alliance with tales of terror. After all, music can haunt the darkest corners of our psyches in much the same way as any headless horseman. The melodies can add to the intensity of the experience, lighten the mood or even, as I hope you'll agree, transform an autobiographical tune into a beautifully sombre reminder of a candle now snuffed out. I've picked three songs for this post, each with differing moods and subjects.

Tom Waits – Big Joe and Phantom 309
Possibly the most iconic and instantly recognisable voice in music today, Tom Waits has spent his career making an art out of storytelling set to music ranging from shambolic to sublime. Although I love his entire back catalogue I have a soft spot for his early days playing the part of booze-soaked barfly, rattling the piano keys for drinking money. This track from the Nighthawks At The Diner live set is a cover of a Red Sovine tune but Tom's delivery beats the original hands down.

Old Joe's yarn is familiar enough – how many times have you heard the old “But there hasn't been a house in that spot for 200 years!” line – but the details manage to keep things fresh. The musical backing has a forlorn feel, particularly the morose double bass, and the feeling is far more wistful than frightening. I challenge anyone to listen without releasing a forlorn sigh at the end.

Grant Lee Buffalo – Dixie Drugstore
Once again taking on the theme of harmless phantoms from the past is Grant Lee Buffalo, a criminally underrated three piece who teetered on the verge of fame in the mid-90s without ever making good on the promise. GLB's catalogue was obsessed with Americana and the darker side of their country's nature. However there was always a playfulness under the surface and this was never  more clearly manifested in Dixie Drugstore.

In this song we're transported to New Orleans, following a drifter who has pulled into town and needs to find some shelter for the night. Fortune smiles on him in the shape of a voodoo store and its enchanting, overly friendly owner, both of which seem to be open for the night. Of course voodoo runs through every street in New Orleans so our travelling friend awakens to a surprise in the morning.

Nirvana – Something In The Way
Yes, this post is about ghost stories set to music and yes, I'm serious. I grew up listening to Nirvana in my formative years – I was 15 when Nevermind was unleashed on the world so as an aspiring rock drummer you can imagine how quickly they became the centre of my universe. However, following Kurt's suicide and my diversifying musical tastes I had less and less cause to play the albums. Perhaps they had made one too many circuits through my aural nerves. Years could easily pass without me so much as playing a single of their songs. However, the minute I contemplated writing this post I found myself humming a familiar dirge, something about fish and feelings.

Something In The Way is most certainly not a ghost story in the traditional sense. It relates Kurt's life during a brief period of homelessness and eerily captures his feelings of helplessness, boredom and the fear of drifting too far from reality. Just listen though. You can hear the dripping from his broken tarpaulin. You can see the darkness encroaching on his meagre home, almost feel the space shrinking around you. More than any other Nirvana song, this feels like someone dead is there, listening over your shoulder. He's singing to you now. The song used to display a snapshot of his life, perhaps now it's his afterlife. This thought, once it squirmed its way into my mind, unsettled me far more than the two actual ghost stories.

And that's your lot. This barely scratches the surface of musical spirits though, so please add your own favourites in the comments. Oh, and I'm indulging in some rather more raucous Hallowe'en tunesmithery at my personal blog for those who may be interested....
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