Knowing the stories behind these sad songs makes these tearjerkers even better.
We’ve all been brought to tears from hearing a song chronicling heartbreak, but the lyrics for a majority of these are vague enough to avoid touching on one specific moment. That isn’t always the case, however, as brave musical artists have used their platform to express sadness over real-life events. Some happened to them personally, while others were the experiences of others that the artists put into lyrics. Here are six sad songs based on true stories.
1. “Brick” – Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” can make most listeners emotional within the first few seconds, as its melancholy piano melody sets the stage for one of Folds’ darkest moments. The song details a trip Folds and his high school girlfriend took to an abortion clinic just one day after Christmas, and the feeling of sorrow he faced over the decision — as well as the sadness he felt for his girlfriend, who became suicidal.
“I’m feeling more alone than I ever have before,” Folds sings, the memories seeming to boil over as it approaches the chorus.
Pro-life groups have claimed the sad song supports their viewpoint in the decade since its release, but Folds’ lyrics are far too personal to make that inference without talking to the man himself. His sadness stems both from the pain his girlfriend had to go through, as well as the pressure he felt to hide it from their parents, but the dread we hear in nearly every line seems to come from Folds’ realization that the relationship was doomed to fail.
2. “I’m So Sorry, Tony” – NOFX
In 2012, No Use for a Name front man Tony Sly was found dead at just 41 years old. No cause of death was made public, but statements from close friends have alluded to substance abuse as a contributing factor.
NOFX vocalist and bassist Mike Burkett — better known as “Fat Mike” — put his feelings on the loss of Sly into words four years later with “I’m So Sorry, Tony,” a musical eulogy that expresses his disappointment in not making better use of the time he had with his friend.
Burkett details the visits Sly’s daughter has with his own, and how she opines that her dad’s songs are better than anything Burkett has ever written, himself. In one of the song’s most heart-wrenching moments, he expresses the significance of losing Sly when compared to both of his parents, who passed in 2006.
“I’ve lost my parents and so many friends. I chalk it ‘C’est la vie.’ It’s nothing like losing my friend Tony.”
3. “Steve’s Boy” – The Lemonheads
It’s difficult to lose someone who loved you, but it can be even more difficult to lose someone who never did. On the Lemonheads’ sad song “Steve’s Boy,” then-drummer Bill Stevenson speaks directly to his dying father, whom several years earlier Stevenson cared for at the end of his life.
Stevenson had previously written the song “One More Day” about his relationship with his father for his band the Descendents, on which he expresses the good times he can remember with the man, but “Steve’s Boy” is a raw, bitter, and determined love letter. Realizing that his father will never show him the affection he’s desired since childhood, Stevenson’s song is a form of self-healing. Speaking directly to his father, he gives the man who raised him no choice but to let him ease his pain, no matter how much he resists.
“I can’t make you well. I can’t make you love me. But I’m not leaving here without you,” Lemonheads vocalist Evan Dando sings.
At a certain point, the words are no longer being spoken to Bill’s father but to Bill himself. They reflect his own desire to raise his children in a loving environment so they never have to go through what he did, but even those of us with happy families can find ourselves tearing up.
4. “Malachi Richter’s Liquor’s Quicker” – Less Than Jake
On November 3, 2006, musician and anti-war activist Malachi Ritscher died in Chicago by self-immolation in a protest of the United States’ continued war in Iraq. In a suicide note, Ritscher expressed his regret at not taking more violent actions to stop his country from killing innocent people and its own soldiers in a needless conflict.
His act was detailed in Less Than Jake’s “Malachi Richter’s Liquor’s Quicker,” a 2008 song that intentionally misspelled his name in reference to an album he had appeared on in the ’80s. Beginning with a spoken-word recitation of the opening lines from his note, the track explodes into fast-paced drums and blaring guitars that emphasize the fear one feels in their final moments. The lyrics are written from Ritscher’s perspective, and appear to express uncertainty at whether or not his act will lead to change.
“Give me some breathing room. Because I’m breathing fumes, I’ll light the fuse, and I’m gonna make the evening news,” vocalist Chris DeMakes sings.
A decade after the sad song’s release and even longer since Ritscher’s death, we’re left ashamed of the path we’ve taken, and the song gives us a renewed desire to stop the bloodshed.
5. “For What It’s Worth” – Buffalo Springfield
There are a few misconceptions about Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” that have become prevalent over the years, the first of which is that the sad song is by Steven Stills’ later band, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Perhaps this influenced the other misconception about the song — that it’s an account of the 1970 Kent State massacre.
In actuality, “For What It’s Worth” released several years before that incident and documents the curfew riots on Sunset Strip in 1966. In an event we can imagine hearing in today’s newspapers, teenagers clashed with police deputies over a 10 p.m. curfew, with local business owners taking issue with the young people’s mere presence. It was perhaps the best representation of the counterculture so influential in the 1960s, and the song details locals’ confusion over how to react.
“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” Stills sings in a somber tone. “Young people speaking their minds. Getting so much resistance from behind.”
The lyrics still ring true when referring to the Kent State massacre, however, with lines like this one: “There’s a man with a gun over there telling me I got to beware.” Perhaps the true story is less important than the one we think is true.
6. “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” – Ramones
The Ramones’ harmonies may have always sounded lovely, but the band members’ relationships weren’t always so pleasant. Liberal vocalist Joey and conservative guitarist Johnny clashed repeatedly and were largely estranged by the time of Joey’s death in 2001, and this clash was evident in the mere title of “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down.”
Known in some regions as “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” — in reference to the Ronald Reagan film Bedtime for Bonzo — the anthemic track details Joey’s frustration with seeing the president attend a wreath-laying ceremony at a cemetery that included multiple Nazi SS troops. Reagan’s apparent moral blind spot on this issue and disregard for Holocaust survivors’ feelings becomes the song’s chorus.
“Bonzo goes to Bitburg, then goes out for a cup of tea,” Joey sings in his famously imperfect tone. “And as I watched it on TV, somehow, it really bothered me. Drank in all the bars in town to understand your foreign policy. Pick up the pieces.”