While we’ll never know what drives a person to murder, some creative souls look to music to explore the emotions these true crimes stir up. From anger and rage, to digging deep into the culprit’s psyche, these musicians take on some of the most harrowing killings of our time.
1. Johnny Cash – Delia’s Gone
The most famous version of this murder ballad belongs to Johnny Cash, who recorded the tune four times throughout his career. Fourteen-year-old Delia Green was shot to death in a lovers’ quarrel on Christmas Eve in 1900 Savannah, Georgia by her 15-year-old boyfriend Moses Houston. In the song, Houston sits in jail lamenting the killing of his former lover. While numerous musicians have covered the haunting tune (including Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger), it’s the man in black’s 1994 version that truly kills it.
2. Sonic Youth – Death Valley ‘69
Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ‘69” is loosely based on the infamous Manson Family Murders and as singer Kim Gordon recently revealed, the “darkness shimmering beneath” pop culture at the time. In the video, band members act out macabre scenarios as both a cult-like family of killers and its victims.
3. Ramones – Love Kills
The New York City punk rockers expressed their frustration at the Romeo and Juliet-like fate of contemporaries Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols and Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen. The tumultuous, drug-addicted pair met a tragic end. “Love Kills” recounts the murder of Nancy Spungen in the Hotel Chelsea, allegedly stabbed to death by Vicious. He died of a heroin overdose shortly after.
4. The Killers – Jenny Was a Friend of Mine
Brandon Flowers and company put out a murder ballad trilogy chronicling the 1986 death of Jennifer Levin at the hands of “preppie murderer” Robert Chambers in Central Park. Sung from the perspective of Chambers, Flowers sings, “There ain’t no motive for this crime, Jenny was a friend of mine.”
5. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
No stranger to first-person narratives, Springsteen sings from the point of view of real-life murderer Charles Starkweather upon hearing his guilty verdict in “Nebraska.” The teenage serial killer claimed 11 lives across Nebraska and Wyoming between 1957 and 1958, accompanied by 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. A lonely harmonica joins Springsteen’s hushed vocals to convey the bleakness of the subject matter.
6. Sufjan Stevens – John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
Mellow indie rocker Sufjan Stevens takes a turn into darkness with this tune, as he digs into the psyche of the demented clown killer, . “His father was a drinker / His mother cried in bed.” Though Stevens doesn’t shy away from the horror (“Look underneath the house there / Find the few living things / Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead”), he concludes that we all hide secrets “beneath the floorboards.”
Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty