A song about death that refuses to die.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 16 2005 8:29 AM

Goodbye, Papa, It's Hard To Die

The enduring appeal of an abominable pop song.

Kurt sings about death With its outtakes, rarities, and B sides, the long-awaited Nirvana boxed set turned out to be the table scraps of a once-bountiful buffet. There is one moment, however, that's well worth seeking out: a ghostly rendition of the infamous pop hit "Seasons in the Sun." Fittingly, it comes at the end. A video clip from 1993 shows the trio struggling grimly with the song in a studio in Rio de Janeiro. Having switched roles—Kurt Cobain on drums, Dave Grohl on bass, Krist Novoselic on guitar—they exhibit a funereal seriousness that might reflect their lack of skills on unfamiliar instruments. It's more tempting, though, to believe that impossibly maudlin tune is hitting them right in the gut.

For those of a certain age, Terry Jacks' 1974 chart-topper " Seasons in the Sun" remains an unsurpassed nadir of pop music. There was, to be sure, stiff competition at the time—Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' "Billy, Don't Be a Hero." During those mid-Watergate weeks and months, the whole country seemed eager to wallow in tuneful misery. "We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun/ But the hills that we climbed were just seasons out of time," sings Jacks, puckering up on every syllable. The singer addresses his friend, his father, and his lover as he prepares to die of unspecified causes—assuming, that is, that "too much wine and too much song" isn't a diagnosis. In his epic bad-song survey, Dave Barry put "Seasons in the Sun" in a class of its own, and voters emphatically agreed. Yet Nirvana is hardly the only band to cover the tune—there's been a recent revival of sorts. If it's so universally despised, then why does this song refuse to die?

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Part of the allure, at least for connoisseurs of Continental cool, is the song's source. The lyrics, written by the mass-market poet Rod McKuen, are a translation of the French tune "Le Moribond" ("The Dying Man") by Jacques Brel. Born in Brussels, Brel was a family man and cardboard-factory worker until his breakthrough in the 1950s. In the clubs of Paris, he became a hipster chansonnier, a cabaret hero with the dash of a nouvelle vague leading man. Routinely compared with Dylan despite his overt theatricality, Brel, with his storytelling style and his world-weary melodramatics, was an inspiration for David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and many others.

Brel's original 1961 delivery of "Le Moribond" is idiosyncratic, almost jazzy, despite being set to a rigid martial tempo. By contrast, Jacks sings it as if he's following the bouncing ball. As the story goes, Jacks discovered the song on an old Kingston Trio album and brought it to a Beach Boys session he was producing. The Boys cut a demo but declined to release it, leaving Jacks to record it himself. The production was poky and very AM-radio, but the power-chord pioneer Link Wray supposedly played the opening electric guitar riff. The resulting single sold millions.

The more elusive part of the song's appeal lies somewhere between the cradle and the grave. In Jacks' twee version, the melody is reduced to a hectoring nursery-school simplicity, yet the subject is the heaviest of them all—going off to ride the big teeter-totter in the sky. Kurt Cobain, quintessentially conflicted, clearly loved "Seasons in the Sun" despite his aversion to sentimentality. (The Terry Jacks 45 was the first record he ever bought.) He certainly wasn't alone.

On a new limited-edition single, the L.A. punk holdout John Doe covers the song straight, with no hint of a snicker and no fear of the schmaltz. A sneaky theremin tweaks the role of the angels' chorus, but it's almost as if Doe were auditioning as Jacks. England's Black Box Recorder, featuring former members of the Auteurs and the Jesus and Mary Chain, covered the song faithfully, too. Their version followed yet another reverent reading, turned in by the Dublin boy band Westlife, that went to No. 1 on the U.K. pop charts.

If some bands bring no irony to the song whatsoever, others have predictably played it for broad laughs. Blink-182 has been known to mangle it in their live shows. The Scarsdale knuckleheads Too Much Joy couldn't resist; neither could the campy Cali-punk cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The Brooklyn Francophiles Les Sans Culottes give the song a psychedelic-lounge spin that goes all frantic at the finish.

However we hear the song—as a heartbreaking suicide note or an unforgivably mawkish tug on our emotions—it remains lodged in the collective cranium. "Strange how potent cheap music is," Noel Coward once remarked. The secret of the enduring appeal of "Seasons in the Sun" is just that simple. How will we face our own final days—with grace, humility, a defensive sneer, or a loud guffaw? It's a sad song about death, and death gets us every time.

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