My old friend Abe Chappelle once wrote a song, probably inspired by the bluegrass and country music we grew up with in Oklahoma, called "Pieces of You." The chorus goes, "Now you're dead, and I guess I miss you, but not as much when I'm with my new girlfriend." He explained to me then, "When you love someone so much and that person breaks up with you, you have to pretend she or he is dead just so you can go on living."
In the same vein, another close friend of mine in high school, a metal-loving skater boy who had been a victim of many violent crimes in his life, explained that he wrote poems about killing people, not because he wanted them dead as much as it helped him deal with his frustrations in a non-violent way. Instead of, say, punching his hand through a door.
The Starry Plough's annual Murder Ballad Bash, held for nine years now, explores that shadow that everyone has, but keeps hidden in polite company. In the ghoulish spirit of Halloween, songwriters of all stripes let their inner monsters out through "murder ballads and songs of misery and despair."
"Those songs come from thinking about that element of the human condition, where people have a very dark side," says Valerie Esway, the event's hostess. "Or thinking about a person who's so passionate about an unrequited love, they can't live without them. Sometimes it's inspired by some story you might have heard in passing on the news, or a movie."
For all the outrage over rock'n'roll and gangtsa rap, in the past 20 years, you'd think that violence in music is a new phenomenon. But long before Eminem wrote "Kim" or "Stan," long before Marilyn Manson became a scapegoat, long before Tipper Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, people were singing sordid tales of murder.
The tradition of the murder ballad -- a narrative song that recounts a true or mythic slaying in great detail -- goes all the way back to medieval England, when the tunes would usually include a bit of supernatural retribution. By the time this genre made it to the American West, the stories were just stark and bleak, with no divine intervention. Famously, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds put his trademark spin on the form with the 1996 album Murder Ballads.
"People have been writing murder ballads, for as long as people have been writing music," says Esway, a country singer who has written a number of murder ballads herself. "The part that appeals to me is the passion that's involved in these stories. I'm not saying I think it's at all appealing when people do these things in real life. But I certainly think a lot people can relate to the feeling of being desperate about someone, so desperate you're driven to do unthinkable things."
That said, Esway says the show, the brainchild of Ari Fellows-Mannion, who plays with Esway in Loretta Lynch, is a lot of good, creepy Halloween fun, with light-hearted and silly moments. For many years, the performers were asked to write a song specifically for the event. "People always expect there will be something unexpected," Esway says. That said, the show isn't intended to make light of the high murder rates around the Bay Area.
"I've certainly thought of how you would feel if you were somebody who had been affected by this sort of crime in your life, how offensive this kind of show could be," Esway says. "I want to make clear I don't make light of people doing these things in real life."
While Esway tends toward the rootsy origins of the song form, this is by no means an all-bluegrass show. Certainly acts like Misisipi Mike, Hang Jones, and The Mighty Lynch-Pins will bring the twang, and The Ukaladies Strumming Club and David L. Cooper of Eskimo and Dropsy will employ old-fashioned ukuleles for their creepy songs.
That said, the event, which features 12 acts back-to-back playing three songs a piece, will have some surprising takes, including the psychedelic rock of Doggie Doors featuring John Shiurba and Suki O'Kane, the trippy "metal sludge" of Goat Fluffer, and the raw garage rock of The Murder Brothers. As a special treat, Paul Pot will debut his band, which takes its name from its TV-music inspiration -- Wheel of Fortune Studio Orchestra.
"Every single year, I just get so excited about all the amazing people that play, and this year is really no exception," Esway says. "The theme for the show has always been murder ballads and songs of misery and despair. There's a lot of ground you can cover under that cloak, I think. A lot of the songs, they're not specifically about murder, they might just be about the really dark side of love -- or just the dark side of life. You never know what to expect, but it always ends up being a really great show."
Murder Ballads Bash takes place at 9pm, October 30, 2010 at the Starry Plough Pub in Berkeley. For more information, visit staggeringsiren.com.