Write me a Song about Death

Published on February 1st, 2013

Writing Music

..said the director of “Watership Down”. Bloody hell, that’s a tough one. What do you write?  “Death Death, Glorious Death, Nothing quite like it for saving your breath” (To the tune of “The Hippopotamus Song” by Flanders and Swann?

I went home and pondered. The situation in the film is where they think their leader, Hazel, is dead. It’s a serious and very sad moment. And then I started thinking that the question “what happens when you die?” is one of the most serious questions we ever ask ourselves. Forget rabbits, I mean humans. I was struggling for a lyric, sitting at the piano. I often do that, because it enables me to try a lyric out to “any old music” that comes into my head – sometimes even the tune that I will eventually use. All at once, the idea of writing about LIFE came into my mind. Life, represented by bright eyes, and the contrasting question, – what happens afterwards? Is it (life) a kind of dream? I sang the words “Bright Eyes, burning like fire” straight out, and played the tune as I sang. It all fitted.   Then followed a two day period of gradually developing and crafting the song. It was important to me that the director, John Hubley, should like it – and it was an important break for me to write a song for such a potentially high profile movie.  A song can sometimes take just an hour, or less. The poignant oboe intro was written at the same time, not added as ”arrangement” later. To me it’s an integral part of the song, setting the listener up for an emotional experience.

Art Garfunkel’s voice was perfect for that curious, questioning pathos that I wanted. It helps, as a songwriter, if you get to produce the record: it enables you to transfer the song’s meaning directly to the singer, and ensure that the interpretation is in accordance with your intentions as a writer.
There is an even sadder ending to the story. John Hubley had known,  – but didn’t tell me when he had asked me to write a song” about death” that he was due to go in for open heart surgery soon afterwards. He came to the session, and really liked the song. In those days, (1976) heart surgery was nowhere near as safe as it is now. John died on the operating table some weeks after the session. A very talented and distinguished (ex Disney) animator, he had created “Mr McGoo” amongst other achievements too numerous to list. It was a hugely tragic loss for all of us. The movie’s director credit ultimately went to Martin Rosen, the producer.

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