Today, Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
The song poured out of the FM radio in my mom’s Datsun Z as we drove toward the California sunset. The car was older than me, the song was older than the car. A timeless child, born before the internet, I often had trouble placing events in time. I was too aware of alterity and the intentional reproduction of the past. I thought I Love Lucy was a new show made to look like the olden days in black and white; I didn’t know Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” or anything else on the oldies station was playing to evoke a nostalgia for people my mother’s age to recall their own youth. Mine was just beginning, and the world was new.
“Why did he jump off the bridge?”
My mother did not look away from the road. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth.
“What? Oh, the song? It’s kind of hidden in the song, if you listen carefully.”
I listened. The singer had been Billy Joe’s lover, and together they had thrown something—what had it been? Off the bridge together.
I didn’t ask my mother to clarify. But I listened more carefully to these new old songs from that day forth. It seemed to me that many songs were about dead lovers whose singers loved them still.
I grooved to the teeny-bopper melodrama and understated, purring lust of the Shangri-Las over the dead biker in “Leader of the Pack.” Born to be a spooky kid, I was drawn to Jan and Dean’s ditty “Dead Man’s Curve” wherein the singer himself seems to be singing from beyond the grave. The classic crystallized fear of teenage vehicular lethality from the midcentury played out in delicious gothic tales of loss that glittered with broken glass like diamond rings never to be worn. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers gave us the magnum opus of this genre: “Last Kiss,” an up-tempo ballad less saccharine than “Teen Angel” and less gluey than “Moody River,” featuring an actual kiss with a corpse.
Growing up I discovered liner notes, and eventually the internet was born like a younger sibling whose kidney I needed to survive. Finding just the right intersection on the creepy/romantic axis was a hobby of mine. I wanted a minor key, I wanted a little mystery. I wanted Billy Joe McAllister to have committed infanticide before his suicide (scandal!) but I didn’t need it all spelled out. The best of these songs leaves a little mystery on the other side of the veil.
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The veil itself is best worn by a mysterious woman. Left Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” (1959) gives us a chilling version of this: a man sentenced to hang for want of an alibi. And he could have been saved, if the woman he was with at the time of the crime had not been the wife of his very best friend. This one swings the weight of a much older folk song, landing in the ear with the preordained approbation of your ancestors, whatever hanging regime might have troubled them. Re-recorded over and over, you can hear this one in the voice you like best: Joan Baez or Emmylou Harris, Mick Jagger or The Chieftans, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Nick Cave or Bruce Springsteen.
Gender is often important in these songs. Dead boys were/are dangerous and sexy, dead girls were/are tragically beautiful. “I Fell in Love With A Dead Boy” by Antony And The Johnsons warms that up and queers it a little, and I want to lay a few flowers down for that one. The Decemberists’ “Eli the Barrowboy” wishes for money to buy his dead lover nice things, but folks of any gender can appreciate an outfit of gold and silk Arabian thread. June Carter Cash’s “Tall Lover Man” seems doomed not by toxic masculinity, but by women who love not too wisely but stab too well. (This one is a murder ballad, creepy kids.)
I don’t listen for ghosts through the FM radio anymore. It was Spotify that played me “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men, which is one of those songs that can have you believing that love is just gone instead of gone for good. Listen carefully. The screams all sound the same. George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is about as home-fried as eighties grief can taste, but if you prefer the taste of some aughties alternative ukulele folk, “Ghost Story” by Charming Disaster is served like a funeral casserole.
But set aside your cornbread laid in shredded paper towels, your layer cake with lacy buttercream. A hot girl has come to the wake, and she’s gonna sing us all to sleep.
Lana Del Rey’s “Dark Paradise” is the best dead lover song. She’s got it all in her tranqed-out growl: a lust that won’t die, a love that won’t fade, and an understanding that the only way that love conquers death is to reunite lover and beloved on the other side of its gates.
Even though you’re not here, won’t move on
That’s how we played it
There’s no remedy for memory, your face is like a melody
It won’t leave my head
Your soul is haunting me and telling me that everything is fine
But I wish I was dead (dead, like you)
Every time I close my eyes, it’s like a dark paradise
No one compares to you
The song poured out of my phone, over a Bluetooth connection into my speakers and spilling out my open windows into the warm Brooklyn night. I was older this time, hip to the way Lana styles herself like she’s from another era even though she got her breakout busking on YouTube. She’s less a mystery to me than Billy Joe McAllister; I think that kind of mystery might have passed out of the world somewhere between FM and Bluetooth.
What hasn’t changed is the way we keep yearning, the way we keep making art like chalk outlines, songs like necklaces made of hair, albums like a diamond pressed from a lover’s cremains. That dark paradise, the one where Billy Joe is waiting and your last kiss can go on forever, is always there when we close our eyes.