The Farewell Song

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December 15, 2013 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

As I’ve recently indicated, I am very intrigued and possessed by a strong predilection towards closing tracks of albums.  What is even more interesting and symbolic is a band’s farewell song, which is the sound of the band ending, breaking up, being good, etc.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be their last song ever recorded, or the last song on their last album, it could be the last transcendent song in a catalogue, or the last great song recorded with the same band members, or the last time a band was in the studio together.  Regardless of when it was recorded, it’s the sound of a band saying their goodbyes to either their fans, careers, or to themselves.

There’s something powerful about goodbyes, about the last time you’ll ever see someone or have something or even the last time you’ll create something.  To know that nothing of this kind will ever happen again, or to that same degree induces a wide range of emotion from regret, hope, joy, and nostalgia to name but a few.  And it’s only from hindsight (obviously) that you can dictate a band’s farewell song because only time can tell when that point in their career came when a farewell song could be made possible.  Unless your Milli Vanilli, your farewell song isn’t going to be on your debut album.  It usually comes right before a band unexpectedly broke up (Led Zeppelin), or right before they got really shitty (Rolling Stones).  Regardless of the band’s eventual fate, this song ostensibly would serve as the encore, the coda, of their careers.

For some of my favorite bands like U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica it’s still too early to tell what their farewell song will be, if they’ve even recorded it yet.[1]  Other bands like Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Rolling Stones have all recorded their farewell songs already.  The songs that serve as farewell songs are ones that thematically or symbolically bid adieu to either the band themselves or mark the end of an era.  The farewell songs for both Led Zeppelin and the Who are ironically enough the last track on the last studio album with all the original members.  Shortly thereafter, both bands would lose their drummers to overdoses, but after the death of John Bonham, Led Zeppelin broke up, while the Who soldiered on to make a few more shitty albums without Keith Moon.  It’s eerie that “I’m Gonna Crawl”, the last track on Zeppelin’s last album In Through the Out Door, would wind up being their goodbye, and it’s even eerier that “Who Are You” the last track (on the eponymous album) to feature Keith Moon on drum was also the last time that all four members of the Who were in the studio at the same time.  There’s an added dimension of fate here that almost makes it seem like these two songs couldn’t not be farewell songs.

All circumstance aside, “I’m Gonna Crawl” and “Who Are You” are also redemptive endings to lackluster albums.  “Who Are You” displays Moon’s best drumwork on the entire album and because of that it sounds like a tradition Who song, one that’s rife with energy and anger, and with few exceptions that aspect of their music is largely absent from Who Are You.  Similarly, “I’m Gonna Crawl” leaves Led Zeppelin’s career as a cliffhanger because it’s a song about the uncertainty of love and has a very “Well what do I do from here?” feel, which precisely captures how the band felt musically and personally in 1979.  It has a very atmospheric rhythm and it ends rather calmly as if there was to be something that would inevitably follow it up with.  Because “I’m Gonna Crawl” doesn’t sound like an ending at all, especially one befitting the greatest rock band of all time, and that’s exactly why it serves as the perfect send off…because most endings are spontaneous and unexpected.

With the Rolling Stones, their farewell song is “Waiting on a Friend”, the last track on Tattoo You.  What makes it so symbolic is that Tattoo You was the band’s last #1 album in the U.S. as well as their last good album in general.  Their subsequent albums rank somewhere between God awful and frivolously amusing.  Being the last good song on their last good album, “Waiting on a Friend” is a very real last hurrah for the band as it caps off what is essentially their golden age.

Furthermore, lyrically it foreshadows the rest of the band’s career and the ensuing pettiness that would overtake the band in the 80s.  Being about the friendship between Jagger and Richards, “Waiting on a Friend” is a sincere statement, but its sentiments would become somewhat marred over the next decade because of infighting between the two.  It’s reflective not only of being the punctuation mark of the band’s heyday, but also an unintentional and unknowingly ironic foreshadowing of the strife that would lead the band into their darkest years.  Not only does “Waiting on a Friend” announce the end of the good Rolling Stones, but it also juxtaposes itself with the impotent future of the band.  It’s a farewell song to themselves, because whether they intended to or not because after 1981, the Stones weren’t the same band; “Waiting on a Friend” gave us one last chance to see them at the height of their influence.

Finally we get to the farewell songs that represent the final magnum opus a band mired in tension and disagreements.  These songs were cultivated and recorded right before someone was kicked out, or right before the band started to actively hate each other.  They embody the dying relationships and the fading embers of productivity and cohesion.  For two such bands in Guns N’ Roses and Pink Floyd, this perfectly sums up their farewell songs.  “Estranged” and “Comfortably Numb”, respectively, are two of the most well executed and meticulously constructed songs in their catalogue.  They’re also songs written during an incredibly volatile time in their band’s history.

Slash has often said that their cover of “Sympathy for the Devil” is the sound of the band breaking up; if that’s true, then the start of the break up begins with “Estranged”.  Everything from the video, to the music, to the linear notes suggest, to the trained, eye that this was the end of something for GNR, but now the song has come to symbolize the broken chemistry within the band, because it was written and released as really the last major contribution that the band had with that lineup.  What should have been the closer or at least penultimate track on Use Your Illusion II, “Estranged” is a watershed achievement for the band; it’s their “Stairway to Heaven”, it’s literally a musical composition that’s perfectly put together.  The lyrics deal with growing up and changing and moving on to a new phase of life and the video reflects this idea as well.  The final image of the video is of Axl with a hand written image across the screen stating “Lose Your Illusion” as if after two years, the “Illusion” era was coming to an end and, it was time for something new.  The fact that “Estranged” was chosen to be the final output from those albums can’t be understated.  Even on the linear notes right before the lyrics is a note from Axl saying “Slash, thanks for the killer guitar melodies” signifying that Slash’s compositions were in sync with Axl’s vision for the song.  It seems like from the get go there was intent for “Estranged” to be the ending of something, unfortunately turned out to mark the end of the band itself.

Similarly enough “Comfortably Numb” is the last song co-written by both Roger Waters and David Gilmour, whose falling out eventually lead to the former leaving the band.  But, “Comfortably Numb” is a number that, not only is it one of their signature songs, but it is very truly, the last time Waters and Gilmour were able to work together, and the results are masterful.  It combines Water’s theatric feel that he was going for with Gilmour’s bluesy rock feel.  Within the context of The Wall, “Comfortably Numb” is about saying goodbye to the last remnants of sanity and reality before the protagonist is thrust into a realm of imaginary violence.  Context notwithstanding, “Comfortably Numb” conveys the very last image of the quartet actually being a cohesive band.  It’s saying goodbye to the last vestiges of unity that would be dismantled on their subsequent album which was, for all intents and purposes, a Roger Waters solo album done by Pink Floyd.  From the fading embers of their ability to work together at least we were given such a memorable send off in “Comfortably Numb”.

The mother of all farewell songs, the be all end all, the alpha and omega, is no doubt “Let It Be” by the Beatles.  It acknowledges itself as being such because from the title it implies that things aren’t so good, but maybe then it’s not worth saving.  And that’s exactly how and why the Beatles broke up; it was working anymore and so they just let it be.  Anytime a song is a aware of itself, it automatically becomes more powerful and meaningful.  Compound on this the absolute nature of goodbyes and you have a song that somehow transcends the moment because of how it can become all encompassing and allegorical.  Goodbyes should provide closure, yes, but they should also leave you wanting more.  All of these songs, and farewell songs by nature, leave us with a lingering thought, wondering what could have been.  But as with all endings, we’ll never know.


[1] Given their current trajectory, it’s looking like the Chili Pepper’s farewell song is shaping up to be “Turn It Again” off of 2006’s Stadium Arcadium.   Just a thought.

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