Monday, February 10, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 41):"O DEATH" (1988) Camper van Beethoven

Tonight local eclectic combo Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps take the stage at CafĂ© Nine in New Haven. So today’s song is in honor of them. “O Death” is one of those great American songs—dirge, actually—that “no one wrote” because, in a way, everyone did, or we all do, sooner or later. This song is a gripping confrontation with the Grim Reaper and as The Doors’ frontman used to say “No one here gets out alive.” Cheery as that thought might be, it’s a kickass song and Dr. CCCC has performed it live many times. Maybe they’ll even perform it dead, who can say.

The version they do, which can be found in greatly altered form on their CD Songs of Mirth and Sorrow derives from Doc Boggs’ version. The version I know best is the one Camper van Beethoven placed on their great, inspiring, never to be out-done classic from 1988, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.  Like Dr. CCCC, Camper van throw together a wide variety of musical influences, including bluegrass, punk, folk, klezmer and gypsy music.  Dr. CCCC hits all those and a bunch more. Which is why I like them so much. Going to one of their shows is like going to a great smorgasbord of various ethnic foods. It all tastes good, and you’re never sure what you’re eating.

Dr. Caterwaul's Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps

This song, as sung by David Lowery, reaches a kind of celebration of death, if only because the song is sung both from the point of view of death itself and from the point of view of death’s victim. “That chill you feel, it comes from me” is my favorite line as death sounds so pleased with himself there. But he also has some other choice comments such as “Cast aside the flesh of thee / Cast aside and set you free.” Damn nice of him, when you put it like that.

Of course the victim’s view is “O death, can’t you spare me over for another year.” That, I imagine, is the voice of just about everyone when faced with extinction. Hell, no matter how bad it is (and it can get pretty bad, I imagine) one more year ain’t gonna kill me—’less it does. So . . . as Fred Nietzsche used to say, in the voice of his man Zarathustra: “‘Was that life?’ I will say to death, ‘well then, once more!’”  Or if not once more then at least, one more year!

Camper van Beethoven
But in the C van B version it ends grimly: “Feel the sheet pulling over me.” And, no, that doesn’t mean he’s getting all cozy, that’s the sheet they pull over your head for the big finis. 

Anyway, maybe I picked this song too because of yesterday’s post on “The Needle and the Damage Done” because nothing says untimely death like a celebrity nipped in his prime, we might say, and nothing says “date with death” like the fact that, no matter who you are, when the time comes it doth come. “I’ll come anon,” we say to death. And then anon is now. “Done too soon,” as the Neil Diamond songs says, and where was I?  Who knows because I’m not there any more.

I’ve always liked this song for having the kind of gallows’ humor I associate with Hamlet, that sense that the shock of death in one's elder is enough to make a man grow giddy, antic even. For when the parental generation goes, why then, guess who’s next in line?

And that’s a fair thought for a cold winter’s night, no?

Delacroix's Hamlet and the Gravediggers

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