1. Emmylou Harris, “Boulder To Birmingham” (1975)
When Gram Parsons died of an overdose in 1973, he’d only known Emmylou Harris for about a year. Still, in that time, they’d formed a magical personal and professional relationship, with Parsons getting most of the credit for introducing Harris to real country music. Still in mourning, Harris harnessed her country croon into a 1975 memorial track about Parsons, “Boulder To Birmingham.” The first of the songs she would sing about dealing with the Flying Burrito Brother’s death, “Boulder To Birmingham” finds Harris trying to reconcile the fact that Parsons died relatively young, saying that she would “walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham / If I thought I could see, I could see your face.”
2. Kiss, “God Gave Rock And Roll To You II” (1991)
“God Gave Rock and Roll To You“ was written by the British band Argent, but Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss updated the song in reaction to the illness and eventual death of their drummer Eric Carr. Carr had been diagnosed with heart cancer, and was too weak to get behind the kit by the time of the recording. He did contribute backing vocals to the track (specifically the lines, “To everyone, he gave his song to be sung”), making it both a moving tribute and a swan song for the drummer of Kiss’ “unmasked” era. By tweaking the song and dedicating it to Carr, Kiss turned a lesser-known hit from the ’70s into a testament to the people their band had touched, including their own members.
3. Puff Daddy, “I’ll Be Missing You” (1997)
Sean Combs and The Notorious B.I.G. were never bandmates in the strictest sense, but their close musical partnership lead to the rise of Combs’ Bad Boy Records and, eventually, his career as Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/etc. When Biggie was gunned down in 1997, Combs revamped his planned first album, No Way Out, transforming the Police hit “Every Breath You Take” into “I‘ll Be Missing You” as a farewell to his friend and partner. He’s assisted by Biggie’s widow, Faith Evans, who sings the hook, and R&B group 112. Unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, in the song’s intro Combs tells his departed friend, “It’s like I feel empty inside without you being here.” Although it’s pretty depressing, “I’ll Be Missing You” became one of the biggest selling singles of all time.
4. The Who, “Old Red Wine” (2004)
Although The Who’s John Entwistle died in embarrassing circumstances, the remaining members of the band managed to write a song about the end of his life without trampling his memory. “Old Red Wine,” honoring the bassist’s love of that particular drink, describes his last moments in typical Who fashion: “They say you turned in / While the sun still shined / That gorgeous girl with you / Was highly primed.” Instead of mourning his loss, Pete Townshend gives his old friend a pat on the back for having fun as he died, before going on to say that they’ll have to catch a drink sometime in the afterlife. Roger Daltrey echoes the sentiment in the final refrain, “Let it breathe,” which asks Entwistle to give the wine a moment to aerate while his bandmates come to join him.
5. Paul McCartney, “Here Today” (1982)
6. George Harrison, “All Those Years Ago” (1981)
7. Ringo Starr, “Never Without You” (2003)
Being a Beatle must have been a real trip. Only those four guys knew what it was like to be in the center of that pop earthquake for 10 years and to, even now, be considered some of rock’s biggest geniuses. When fellow Beatles died, the others have offered intense mourning, privately and publicly. When John Lennon was shot in 1980, both Paul McCartney and George Harrison quickly turned around remembrance songs, and when Harrison died of cancer in 2001, Ringo Starr penned a track in his honor.
Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” was originally recorded in November of 1980, right before Lennon’s death. Following the shooting, it was re-recorded with new lyrics. Not-so-subtly referencing tracks like “All You Need Is Love” and “Imagine,” “All Those Years Ago” details how the young Harrison had idolized the elder Lennon, noting that Lennon taught him “how to give” and “point[ed] the way to the truth.”
McCartney’s “Here Today” came in 1982 on Tug Of War. While the sparse acoustic ballad is far from his best material, the plaintive one-sided conversation with Lennon is nonetheless tear-jerking.
Fast-forward 21 years to 2003, when Starr’s “Never Without You” was released on the solo LP Ringo Rama. Featuring guitar work from fellow Harrison pal Eric Clapton, “Never Without You” is an ode to the late Beatle, mentioning tracks he wrote like “All Things Must Pass” and “Within You Without You.” It’s not a subtle cut, with the always heavy-handed Starr singing about “crazy days and reckless nights, limousines and bright spotlights,” but it’s sweet all the same when he sings, “Your song will play on without you / And this world won’t forget about you.”
8. Bottomless Pit, “Human Out Of Me” (2007)
Michael Dahlquist’s Silkworm bandmates never commented publicly on his 2005 death in a car wreck, but it’s easy to assume that a song by their next band, Bottomless Pit, is a tribute. In the heartbreaking “Human Out Of Me,” Tim Midgett plaintively sings, “I can’t believe my heart is still beating / I can’t believe how terrible it felt / I can’t believe I did not see before that / You helped teach me how to talk / You showed me how to work a room / Helped a make a, you helped make a human out of me,” and it’s almost impossible to think of anyone else but Dahlquist.
9. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dosed” (2002)
Founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died from a heroin overdose in 1988, and the death loomed over the Red Hot Chili Peppers for more than a decade. On Mother’s Milk, “Knock Me Down” addressed the lingering guilt and difficulties of surviving heroin addiction and missing Slovak—though vocals from new guitarist John Frusciante are mixed higher than Anthony Kiedis’ on the album version. Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s “My Lovely Man” continued the high-octane, funk-driven tributes to Slovak with shout-lyrics—“No one can ever fill the hole you left my man / I’ll see you later my lovely man if I can”—matching one of Flea’s relentless basslines and a soaring Frusciante solo. But a decade later—after Frusciante’s first exit, an album with Dave Navarro, and Kiedis’ heroin relapse—the band finally found the right way to pay tribute to Slovak on By The Way’s “Dosed,” a more relaxed groove where Kiedis actually sings instead of scatting his way through an emotional recollection of drug use and a fallen bandmate.
10. Conor Oberst, “Breezy” (2008)
When Sabrina Duim died in 2007, from complications involving medication during her senior year at Stanford University, she was already an accomplished harpist. She toured as part of Conor Oberst’s band; recorded parts for several songs on Digital Ash In A Digital Urn; and played with Rilo Kiley, Feist, and Johnathan Rice, among others. Oberst dedicated his 2007 album, Cassadaga, to her memory, but in the run-up to his solo recordings in 2008, he wrote “Breezy,” titled after Sabrina’s nickname, that appeared both on the Gentleman’s Pact EP and attached to subsequent Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band releases. In the solo piano lament, the lyrics are full of haunting images of a young woman who achieved so much at a young age and betray that Oberst’s relationship to Duim may have been closer than that of just bandmates. The most striking image is of Duim, a math major, trying to teach Oberst about baseball through her love of statistics. Oberst sings, “My favorite was the part when they make it home / I like it when they steal, and when they make it home.”
11. Pennywise, “Bro Hymn (Tribute)” (1997)
Bassist Jason Thirsk of California punk band Pennywise originally wrote “Bro Hymn” in honor of three of his friends who had died in accidents—and that version of the song appears on Pennywise’s self-titled 1991 debut. Then, in 1996, as Pennywise was morphing into a million-selling phenomenon, Thirsk committed suicide. Pennywise soon re-recorded the song as “Bro Hymn (Tribute)” and reworked the lyrics of the scream-along anthem to say, “Jason Matthew Thirsk / This one’s for you.”
12. Mike Watt, “The Boilerman” (1997)
Watch any random documentary about ’80s American punk, and you’ll likely see Minutemen bassist-vocalist Mike Watt waxing nostalgic about D. Boon. The frontman of the Minutemen—as well as one of the greatest guitarists and poets to ever grace a punk stage—Boon died in a car accident in 1985, leaving the rest of the band to soldier on as Firehose. Watt went solo in the ’90s, and on his 1997 album Contemplating The Engine Room he crafted “The Boilerman,” a gruffly poignant paean to Boon that opens with the lines, “Remember you meeting me? / Jumped right out that tree / Had the Carlin wired / Boy, how that spiel inspired.” It’s a retelling of how the two future bandmates met each other as misfit teenagers in San Pedro, California, but the anecdote never gets old in Watt’s hands.
13. Queen, “No-One But You (Only The Good Die Young)” (1997)
Freddie Mercury is undisputed rock royalty, but sometimes in the rush to mythologize the Queen singer—who died of AIDS in 1991—it’s easy to forget that there are three other guys in Queen who loved him as a comrade, not an icon. Sadly, Queen’s 1997 song “No-One But You (Only The Good Die Young)” does a lousy job of conveying anything other than hollow bombast and canned sentimentality as it pays tribute to Mercury in the most overblown yet hackneyed terms imaginable: “One by one / Only the good die young / They’re only flying too close to the sun.” So much for humanizing him.
14. Styx, “Dear John” (1997)
Dear John letters have been turned into songs more times than anyone can probably count, but Styx’s “Dear John” is a different matter. Although written in epistolary form, it’s a missive to John Panozzo, the classic-rock band’s founding drummer who died of alcohol-related illnesses in 1996. Released the following year, “Dear John” is singer-guitarist Tommy Shaw’s tribute to his longtime friend. “I swear I saw you / On a crowded street today / I almost called your name,” Shaw sings softly over tender acoustic picking. “Thinking of all those yesterdays / Heaven help me / How I miss my friend.” Styx is well known for musical extravagance, but here Shaw strips his grief down to the nerve.
15. Paul Westerberg, “Good Day” (2006)
The legendary alt-rock band The Replacements was notorious for drunken escapades, onstage and offstage, during its rise in the ’80s. Still, guitarist Bob Stinson—whose ramshackle leads brought a signature raggedness to the band—was kicked out in 1986 when he got too drunk to manage. Stinson struggled with alcohol and drugs until his death by them in 1995—spurring Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg to eventually pen “Good Day,” a maudlin ballad in which he sings to his eternally estranged friend, “A good day is any day that you’re alive.” The Replacements recently announced a reunion—and though we’ll never know whether Stinson would have been included in that reunion had he lived to see it, it underscores just how sad it is that one of the great guitar partnerships in rock history will never come back.
16. The Rolling Stones, “Shine A Light” (1972)
Not all songs that address dead bandmates are downbeat. The swaggering, bittersweet “Shine A Light” by The Rolling Stones was originally written by Mick Jagger in 1968, when founding member Brian Jones was still alive—but the band didn’t release the substantially re-written version until 1972’s Exile On Main Street. By then Jones had been dead three years, and the chorus took on a ghostly melancholy: “May the good lord shine a light on you / Make every song your favorite tune.”
17. Charlie Louvin, “Ira” (2007)
It’s one thing for a bandmate to die. It’s another thing when that bandmate is your brother. The Louvin Brothers are one of the most lauded duos in country-music history, and during the group’s first rush of popularity in the late ’50s and early ’60s—highlighted by their haunting 1959 album, Satan Is Real—it must have been hard to imagine the singing siblings as anything other than inseparable. But fate pried the Louvins apart in 1965 when the eldest, Ira, was killed in a car accident. Charlie continued on, but it took him until 2007 to write “Ira.” “Alabama to the Opry was the second hardest road,” Charlie sings, four years before his own death in 2011. “The worst was me losing you and singing all alone.”
18. Strawbs, “Ringing Down The Years” (1991)
Following her death in 1978, Sandy Denny has become legendary for her gorgeous solo work as well as her time as the singer of English folk-rock group Fairport Convention. But for a brief time in the late ’60s, she fronted another up-and-coming band, The Strawbs—and in 1991, The Strawbs’ Dave Cousins wrote “Ringing Down The Years” in honor of his erstwhile bandmate. Sings Cousins, “We met when you were still a girl / In 1968 / You wore a white dress and a hat / I touched the hand of fate.” Vivid and mournfully sparse, the acoustic song evokes Denny’s own way with voice and verse.
19. Deep Purple, “Above And Beyond” (2013)
“You touch me in the darkness / I send you a sign,” sings Ian Gillan on Deep Purple’s “Above And Beyond.” The song from the band’s 2013 album is an homage to keyboardist Jon Lord, who led Deep Purple in the ’60s before becoming an integral part of the group’s ’70s hits like “Smoke On The Water.” Accordingly, Gillan and crew eschew delicacy and pensiveness for a dose of heavy, organ-driven mysticism.
20. Alice In Chains, “Black Gives Way To Blue” (2009)
It’s hard to view Alice In Chains’ post-comeback existence as anything other than an extended—and ghoulish—tribute to the grunge band’s late frontman, Layne Staley. After all, it’s partly the absence of Staley that fans are paying to witness when they buy a new AIC album or see an AIC show these days. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell fulfills that need with understated eloquence in the group’s 2009 song, “Black Gives Way To Blue.” Amid piercing piano (from guest player Elton John) and Cantrell’s drifting guitar lines, Staley is spoken to simply, directly, and unguardedly: “Lay down, black gives way to blue / Lay down, I’ll remember you.”