My Five Favorite Songs About Killers

by Michael Channing

The bad guys are becoming good guys. Dracula and Hannibal Lecter are the heroes of their own television shows. Millions of viewers cheered Dexter on as he sliced through dozens of victims. Are we attracted to killers because they represent our own dark passengers? Do we vent our black desires vicariously through these fictional boogeymen? I'm the nicest guy in the world, but even I'm not immune to their shadowy magnetism. Here are my five favorite ditties about cold-blooded killers.

5. "Dead Skin Mask" by Slayer

Seasons in the Abyss by Slayer

This song takes place within the disturbed, ugly mind of a murderer. But not just any murder. The song puts us right behind the eyes of the infamous Ed Gein, who kidnapped and mutilated multiple victims on his farm. Gein was the inspiration for fictional monsters Leatherface, Norman Bates, and Jame Gumb from Silence of the Lambs. I'm looking at the lyrics right now, and I can't figure out what the imagery actually is, which only makes the song scarier. Gein seems to think that wearing the skin of his victims hides his insanity from view.

The darkest part of the song is at the end. Interspersed through the repeating chorus, we hear the voice of one of Gein's victims. She pleads with her captor to release her, her inflection becoming more and more panicked and desperate. But Gein can only hear his personal demons urging him to give in to grisly temptations.

I'm curious about the darkness on the other side of sanity. What voices do madmen hear? What drives them to bestial acts? A Slayer song is as close as I want get to actually knowing.

4. "My Name is Mud" by Primus

Pork Soda by Priums

I discovered this song when I was just starting to play bass, and that's why I love it. Because of the bass line. Is there any other reason to love a Primus song? Les Claypool manages to embody the hillbilly character of the song within the actual music itself. You hear it, and you see a trailer home with a sagging roof; a truck with over-sized tires parked on the lawn, dripping swamp water; an emaciated dog chained to a tree; sacks of garbage an arm's-throw from every window. Bad business. All of that in a bass line simple enough for me to learn. Which totally impressed the girls in my senior class. "Hey, come listen to me play just the bass part of a song about a redneck murderer from a band you've never heard of whose catchphrase literally tells you they suck." You can imagine how popular I was.

It helps to think of killers as a subclass of people. Brainless goons raised in filth, given no love and no education. That explains the Texas Chainsaw family, but what about the erudite Lecter or the royal Count Dracula? Any family can give birth to monsters.

3. "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash

At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

The train rattling past the prison walls, to the narrator alone in his cell, sounds like freedom. It's a passenger train carrying others toward lives of privilege, a train that rolls by everyday on schedule to torture the prisoners locked away for life. The narrator knows he deserves to be there, and for that I can sympathize with him. He knows he did wrong, and he regrets his cruelty.

On the version of this song from the At Folsom Prison album, just as Johnny sings, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," you hear one of the inmates in the audience cheer. It sends a chill down my spine because I know that's a man who hears freedom race past everyday and feels no remorse that he threw his away. There are real people like that in the world, and some of them like the same music as me.

2. "Postman" by Living Colour

Stain by Living Colour

He suffers silently under pressure, day in, day out. No one knows he's going mad, that he sees visions of avenging angels and hears whispering devils. We hear them, too, in this song, hushed tones from the right channel. "It'll be okay," the voices say. They have a plan. The narrator succumbs to their urgings, walks unnoticed into a crowd, and follows orders.

That's how it happens, isn't it? Someone who always kept to himself suddenly flares into violence. Those are weak, addle-minded people. Not hardy, sane folk like us. We live under the same pressure, and we don't explode like a hotdog on high in the microwave. Shh. Did you hear that? What was that, standing in the corner? Never mind. It'll be okay.

1. "The Anarchist" by Rush

Clockwork Angels by Rush

This is, by far, Rush's darkest song. The music is intense and heavy, the guitar solo made of pure evil. And of all the killers on this list, this is the one I would become, had circumstances been different. The Anarchist sings of loneliness, of exclusion, of silent envy: things I know firsthand. I've seen the success of others, and I wanted their happiness. I've endured countless nights pressed down by darkness, dreaming of... what? Revenge? No, I've sense enough to know my only enemy is me. The Anarchist comes close to that conclusion, but he mistakes his anger for power, his hatred for pride. I will not let my insecurities turn me sour. I will not give into the temptation to blame others for my faults.

But it is a powerful fantasy, isn't it? To shake a clenched, gloved fist at the world and proclaim, "I will show them all!" then laugh maniacally as they scatter in fear.

Hmm? Oh, sorry, I was daydreaming about, uh... kittens. Yeah, that's it. Cute, fluffy, laser-carrying kittens.

Honorable Mention: "Riders on the Storm" by The Doors

L.A. Woman by The Doors

Rather than being thrust into the role of murderer in this one, we play the part of the victim. Which makes it easier to identify with, but not as satisfying; we're potential victims everyday. But if you're gonna get murdered, why not listen to some smooth jazz as it happens?

Where Killers' Sons Say, "Son, Beware"

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