Murder is big business. Countless number of movies, books, and songs have capitalized on our morbid curiosity, and Los Angeles, with its killer track record of scandalous murders and gruesome bloodshed, is the capital of inspiration when it comes to producing death art.
"Murder Music: An Evening of Songs about Killing," happening this Saturday, March 31, 8 p.m. at The Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, will be a night of facing our horrors for art. Presented by singer/songwriter (and KCET's own) Dudley Saunders, 10 artists will reprise their sold-out January performance at the Center for Arts in Eagle Rock, as they "excavate the ancient horror with a modern eye" and provide a "compelling window into the modern American Heart of Darkness." To make the evening even darker, the performances will be accompanied by projections of actual Los Angeles crime scene photos to amplify the sinister message of the songs.
Traditionally murder ballads are rooted in local folkloric history, telling tales of jealous rage and scandals and the inevitable death that comes along with it. The songs were passed on by itinerant troubadours migrating from the Old World to the New World, from the East and South to the Appalachians, finally to the vast openness of the West. They mutated as they traveled, often personalizing the narrative with local history. Henry Lee, Stagger Lee, Frankie & Johnny, Pretty Polly -- all famous names whose evil doings in song have been adapted and twisted to fit the narrative of the narrator.
So where does Los Angeles fit in this grand tradition of murder music?
Not every murder ballad is ancient folklore. Since L.A. is relatively new town, it makes sense that its most famous bloody songs are relatively recent in origin. Let's take a look at some examples of murder music in Los Angeles:
If L.A. had a traditional murder ballad to call their own, it would be "Hey Joe." Recorded by The Leaves, Love, They Byrds, The Standells, The Surfaris, Music Machine, and countless other 60s Sunset Strip bands, the song portrays the titular character who shoots a woman who'd done him wrong, and escapes across the border to Mexico. Known most famously in the version by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the origin of the song can be a bit hazy, and it's unclear if "Joe" is based on a real-life character. Reportedly written in the early 60s by California songwriter Billy Roberts (though many claim to have written it), it was soon adopted by L.A. folkie David Crosby, who began playing the song around the Strip. It quickly spread around the incestuous scene until the Leaves became the first to have a minor hit with the song in 1965, igniting a morbid curiosity all around Los Angeles.
Evolved from the tradition of corridos and norteño music from Mexico, narcocorrido roughly translates to "drug ballad." These songs, often performed by balladeers paid by the drug cartels, tell glamorized tales of asesinos and beheadings in the deadly drug trafficking drama that plague many Mexican border towns. The style was popularized around Los Angeles in the 1980s-90s by Mexican immigrant Chalino Sánchez, who was shot on stage while performing in Coachella (he quickly shot back with his own gun), and later murdered in Sinaloa, forever preserving his outlaw image. Today artists like Alfredo Rios, the Rivera Family and Jessie Morales make Los Angeles the center of the narcocorrido industry.
Perhaps the most popular of all murder music, gangsta rap gained a stake in music history in the early 90s, with South Central-based artist like Ice-T, N.W.A., and Snoop Dogg pushing the image of the killer gangster onto the pop screens of MTV and into the modern lexicon. Much has been written about the controversies surrounding explicit lyrics and the East Coast-West Coast feuds, but what we can take away from it all is this: gangsta rap pushed murder music into the mainstream.
Images courtesy of Dudley Saunders