6 pop songs with heartbreaking back stories
1. “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam (1991): From the moment people saw the song’s harrowing music video, this track has been associated with gun violence and teen suicide. But after decades of rock radio play, the real Jeremy Wade Delle’s story has faded into the background. Delle was a 16-year-old student at Richardson High School near Dallas who left to get an admittance slip but returned with a gun. “Miss, I got what I really went for,” he is reported to have said before shooting and killing himself in front of a classroom of 30 students. Eddie Vedder read a paragraph in a newspaper and said he wrote “Jeremy” based on Delle’s story, but also of a student in his own high school in San Diego who shot up a classroom but did not injure anyone.
2. “Circus” by Eric Clapton (1998): Two Clapton songs address the tragic death of his 4-year-old son, Conor. While the better known “Tears in Heaven” addresses the bond between father and son, “Circus” finds Clapton reflecting on his last day with his son at an American circus. “I was paying tribute to this night with him and also seeing him as being the circus of my life,” Clapton said. “You know — that particular part of my life has now left town.”
3. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (1972): It might be a stoner anthem nowadays, but the lyrics are scarily literal. Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention were playing a gig at a Montreux casino in Switzerland when someone fired a flare gun that started a blaze. The late Claude Nobs, who organized the Montreux Jazz Festival, remembered pulling kids out of the water as described in the song.
4. “Oblivion” by Grimes (2012): This is a buoyant, dreamy synth pop anthem, but the lyrics paint a bleak picture of sexual assault: “Someone can break your neck/coming up behind you and you never have a clue.” Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, wrote the song based on her own harrowing attack. “I took one of the most shattering experiences of my life and turned it into something I can build a career on and that allows me to travel the world,” she told Spin in 2012. “I play it live every night.”
5. “The Magdalene Laundries” by Joni Mitchell (1994): “I’d just turned 27 when they sent me to the sisters for the way men looked at me,” Mitchell sings. The narrative folk song is based on a terrifying history of systematic abuse of women in Ireland at the Magdalene laundries, or Magdalene asylums. From the 18th century and until as late as the 1970s, an estimated 30,000 “fallen women” were housed under Roman Catholic orders. The terrors of these institutions came to light when, in the 1990s, a mass grave of 133 women was uncovered. Even a young Sinead O’Conner was held in one of the asylums.
6. “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse (2006): “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said no, no, no,” Winehouse sings on her hit single. Sadly, her manager said this was a very real conversation, with him driving Winehouse to the middle of nowhere until she admitted she had a problem. “The irony is she went off and wrote a song about that particular day, and it turned her into the biggest star in the world,” her manager wrote after her death.