Six Pack: Songs About Loss

The grim inevitability of death has long been a source of inspiration to songwriters. This week, we take a look at six bands who channelled their grief into one of their greatest songs…

Helena – My Chemical Romance

Neither Gerard or Mikey Way were with their grandmother, Elena, on the day she died. She had been an inspiration to the My Chemical Romance singer and bassist since they had been young boys. It was Elena who had first nurtured the creative talents she had seen in the pair, encouraging them to express themselves with music and art. She was a potter, and had encouraged the boys to draw and paint. But she was also a pianist, and would play for them when they asked, and bought Gerard his first guitar – a cheap Silvertone acoustic for his ninth birthday. But the pair did not get a chance to say goodbye when she died.

In late 2003, My Chemical Romance had just finished a tour at the fag end of the cycle for their debut album. They had written much of its follow-up – the record that would go on to become Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge – and were exhausted from gigging. Gerard figured he’d go see his grandmother as soon as he’d had a sleep and caught his breath at home for a night. He would never get the chance – she died as he slept.

“It took me a while to get over that,” said Gerard. “I was very angry with myself. She was in hospital and I had just got home from tour. I went to bed, woke up the next day and she was dead. She died the night I got home.

“I had the utmost respect for my grandmother. She was so instrumental in my life, I don’t think I’d be doing any of this if it wasn’t for her. She encouraged me to do all of this.”

Angry with himself and under pressure – the band had just signed to Warners and were set to make their major label debut – he went into a spiral of grief. The results were the song Helena and, on it, he is savagely remorseful at having missed her last moments.

“There’s a lot of self-hate,” he said. “Helena is a really angry open letter to myself. It’s about why I wasn’t around for this woman who was so special to me, why I wasn’t around for the last year of her life. Self-hate is always a big part of the lyrics.”

The grief would go on to fuel the subsequent sessions for the rest of the album too.

“The emotions I went through [when she died] and over the next six days were what completely fuelled Revenge,” he said. “All the fucking anger, the spite, the beef with God, the angst, aggression and the fucking venom all came from those six days. When you really break the record down, it’s about two little boys losing their grandmother.”

I Should Have Known – Foo Fighters

Dave Grohl always knew that onlookers would be probing his music for references to Kurt Cobain. It’s why, on Foo Fighter’s debut, he intentionally wrote nearly nonsensical lyrics – This Is A Call features a verse about fingernails, and another about an acne medication – so as to avoid writing about his real feelings about the death of Kurt Cobain.

“I didn’t want to say anything on that first album,” he said. “I was deliberately trying to say nothing in order to keep from saying something. I was afraid that people would read things into what I was trying to say.”

And since then, people have done exactly what he knew they would: they have investigated his songs for any references to Cobain. It’s why I Should Have Known, from the band’s 2011 Wasting Light has become considered the song on which he at last addressed his former bandmate.

Grohl writes about a friend, and says he should have realised the trouble he was in, he should have seen the shape he was in. He says he can’t forgive him for what he did but that he pines for his friend to return. He realises now that his friend didn’t want to fight.

That the track also features his former Nirvana colleague, Krist Novoselic, on bass and was produced by the same man who helmed Nevermind, Butch Vig, added further fuel to the rumour mill. But, in fact, Grohl was writing about someone else.

“With every album, if I ever sing a song about losing someone or death, most people really just sort of assume that it’s about Kurt,” Grohl told MTV. “And I have wonderful memories of Kurt. And it’s heartbreaking still, what happened. But unfortunately, it’s happened to me more than once in my life. So when I first started writing that song, I was writing it about someone else.”

Nightmare – Avenged Sevenfold

When Avenged Sevenfold went into the studio to record their fifth album, they did so without drummer The Rev for the first time in their life. They had largely written the album with him when, in December 2009, he was found dead. The band fell apart, writing work stopping immediately as they came to terms with their grief.

“None of us could really be alone for a long time,” said the band’s guitarist Synyster Gates. “We were camped out at each other’s places. When we were on our own, it felt really fucked up so, for those first three weeks, we were never alone. We’d tell stories and fucking laugh, cry and do everything together.”

But slowly they returned to the album they had half written and it took on a new meaning. It would become a tribute to their late drummer, his memory infusing every song – and none more so than the opener Nightmare.

“I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. I just wanted it to be perfect,” said the band’s singer M. Shadows. “Nothing seemed to satisfy what I wanted to get across. You just can’t find enough words or the right words. You don’t want to sound clichéd.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever gone through,” he added. “Hopefully, it’s the worst thing we’ll ever go through. It was hard to sing that stuff; it was hard to finish the record. In the beginning we got really focussed on finishing the record for Jimmy [The Rev]. it became really hard to get into the studio to listen to the songs because that felt like the end of a chapter.”

Opening the album – also called Nightmare – the song revealed all of the band’s bruises but also their defiance. The band can barely bring themselves to listen to it, let alone play it.

“When you’re listening to it with your friends and you realise he’s not there to be with you, it’s much harder to deal with than just recording it,” said Shadows days after leaving the studio. “It’s really hard to listen to. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Crack The Skye – Mastodon

Before The Hunter – a song inspired by the death of guitarist Brent Hinds’s brother – Mastodon used to be extremely coy about what their songs were about. They would talk about mythical beasts and characters in search of crystal skulls. While on press duties for their fourth studio album Crack The Skye, they said that they were inspired by wormholes, Tsarist Russia, Rasputin and a disabled boy flying through space. It was easy enough to believe them when they got going.

“It starts with a crippled young man experimenting with astral travel,” said drummer Brann Dailor of the theme of Crack The Skye. “He goes up to space and flies too close to the sun, like Icarus. He burns off the golden umbilical chord that supposedly ties you to the material world and gets sucked into a wormhole then goes into the spirit realm.”

So far, so nonsensical. Dailor would quite happily muddy the waters further with his admission that, yes, frankly he did “take an amazing amount of acid as a kid and had a blast.” Case closed – the band were crazy, they were entitled to write about what the hell they liked.

Except Crack The Skye wasn’t about what they said it was about at all. It was about something far more personal. Dailor’s sister, Skye, took her own life when the drummer was 15 and she was 14. Dailor would mention this cryptically in interviews but rarely explicitly at that time.

“Well [the song] is about ourselves – that’s stuff’s a metaphor,” he said of the album’s themes of space travel and mad monks. “That all comes from personal things. Nobody can write honestly about an experience they haven’t had some empathy to.”

As a teenager, Skye’s death affected Dailor so much he spent a period in a mental ward and the band’s debut Remission was riddled with references to that and his sister. But it was on Crack The Skye that he was most open as he talks about the “endless void” and “mountains of despair”. The song’s title is a reference to the moment he was first told of her death, when he felt as though the sky had fallen in. But it’s not something he’s willing to go into very much.

“There’s no amount of prodding and prying that anyone can do that will get that information out of me,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about it. We dealt with it on the song and that’s as much as people are going to get. It’s nobody’s business but ours.”

Folding Stars – Biffy Clyro

The death of Biffy Clyro singer Simon Neil’s mother inspired much of the band’s 2007 album Puzzle and he would later come to regret being so open about his inspirations. As the album became more and more successful – becoming, really, their mainstream breakthrough – he found himself having to go back over his emotions more and more publically in interviews. It’s hard to see how he could have any more to say than he did in the lyrics to Folding Stars, a nakedly emotional piece of songwriting, in which he pleads for just one more minute with his mother.

“This song is for no-one else but me and my mum,” he said. “It’s about her death and how much I miss her. I wanted to write something for her that she would have liked and listened to. Mum always liked the quiet songs.

“I played it once or twice at home and I got really upset. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to say anything as honest as this. But I decided that the best art should be brutally honest. It was horrible to record and it’s horrible to play live. I can’t even listen to it.”

It did, however, help him grieve. He had shut himself off, and refused to deal with his mother’s death in front of others. This was the song that helped him open up.

“I wasn’t letting anyone into that part of my life,” he said. “I’m actually quite a secretive person. I don’t share things like this with my close friends or even my wife. As much of a cliché as it is, music helps me process my mind in the same way other people might talk to their friends. This song, in particular, is me talking to myself and trying to sort things out. There are times I wonder, though, whether I exposed too much of myself. I thought honesty was the best policy – and this was pure honesty.”

Goodbye – Slipknot

After the death of Slipknot’s Paul Gray, the bewildered remaining bandmates met at singer Corey Taylor’s house. The bassist and band songwriter had died from an accidental overdose in a hotel room in the band’s hometown of Iowa in May 2010 and it has taken Slipknot four years to gather their feelings and emotions to pay tribute. They did so on much of the album .5 The Gray Chapter, but most explicitly on the song Goodbye. A ballad at the centre of the album, it slowly and broodingly details the feelings at Taylor’s house during that meeting.

“It’s about the day we lost him. We were all sitting in my house – me, Clown and Fehn has just come from the hotel where they found him. We got everyone to meet at my house; we were trying to keep them away from the hotel. The three of us, we didn’t listen – we went right down there.

“We got everyone configured at my place, and we just lost it,” he told MusikUniverse. “It was so heavy and so brutal, and I don’t wish that on anyone. It’s about all of us sitting in a circle, kind of staring at each other, not knowing what to say. We’d had our legs kicked out from under us. So that song is about him in a way, but it’s more about being in that situation, in that moment.”

Tom Bryant

Tom Bryant is The Guardian's deputy digital editor. The author of The True Lives Of My Chemical Romance: The Definitive Biography, he has written for Kerrang!, Q, MOJO, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, The Mirror, the BBC, Huck magazine, the londonpaper and Debrett's - during the course of which he has been attacked by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass player and accused of starting a riot with The Prodigy. Though not when writing for Debrett's.