The Air Disaster Aficionado’s Mix Tape for Aviation Travel

If you’re like me—and believe me you’re not—you’ve always wanted to die in a plane crash. I don’t know what accounts for this obsession of mine—I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to decide whether I’d rather ride the intact plane to impact, or be one of those people sucked through a hole in the fuselage into the stratosphere still strapped into their seat–but I do recognize that the odds of its actually happening are discouragingly infinitesimal.

So I try to up my chances any way I can. First, I always fly Moldavia’s DespAir, which not only boasts the highest fatality rate of any commercial airline, but (talk about your perks!) also regularly features both Alive and Fearless as in-flight movies. Second, I never fail to travel without my Amelia Earhart luggage—Amelia never reached her destination, why should it? Lastly, I always bring my homemade air disaster mix tape, whose every song reassures me that air crashes do in fact occur, and with any luck I could be one of those fortunate fliers who find themselves shrieking in terror as their jumbo jet goes down.

One thing you should know—I’m very picky about the songs that make it onto my mix tape. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a song whose title refers to an air disaster, but either fails—or makes only the most fleeting reference to—said disaster in the lyrics. That is why you won’t find Rilo Kiley’s “Plane Crash in C,” Fall Out Boy’s “Sending Postcards From a Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here),” or Pavement’s “Hit the Plane Down” on my mix tape. Ditto for Cocoon’s “Take Off” from 2007’s All My Friends Died in a Plane Crash, which quotes the album’s title but otherwise has nothing to do with crashing jetliners.

Nor do I include tunes—“American Pie” being the most famous—that were inspired by aviation fatalities, but make only passing reference to them in the actual song. Ditto for songs performed by musicians killed in plane crashes. Just because Patsy Cline hit the aviation disaster jackpot doesn’t mean I have to include “I Fall To Pieces” on my mix tape, as tempting as the title makes it. Finally, I have disqualified a few songs that do meet my criteria—such as Albert Hammond’s “I Don’t Wanna Die in an Air Disaster”—simply because they’re so god-awful annoying (quit your puling, Al, you should be so lucky) I can’t stomach listening to them.

Finally, I have arranged the tunes on my mix tape from best to worst, using a arcane formula of my own devising that includes such factors as vividness of detail, degree of focus on actual crash, singer’s point of view (if the singer is actually on the doomed plane, great!), and last but not least, the quality of the song itself. Finding the perfect order for my songs required months of arduous calculations, consultations with FAA plane crash experts, and the protracted use of a protractor. And I dare to venture that my air disaster mix tape is the best of its type in existence—provided, that is, anybody else owns one, which I seriously doubt.

Anyway, here goes:

1. “At the Bottom of Everything” by Bright Eyes. I’ve never been a big Conor Oberst fan, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t win the big air disaster lottery with this baby. A beautiful melody, some touching and wonderfully transcendent lyrics, and an impassioned vocal performance—who cares if most of the song has nothing to do with the actual crash, when it has everything to do with the mysteries of living and dying? Oberst narrates the song’s opening: a bored woman is seated next to a man when the plane suffers mechanical failure and starts falling and “She looks at the man and she says, “Where are we going?” And he tells her, “We’re going to a party/It’s a birthday party/It’s your birthday party/Happy birthday darling/We love you very, very, very, very, very, very, very much.” I give Bright Eyes bonus points for the wonderful way Oberst sings, “And then they splashed into the deep blue sea/It was a wonderful splash” and for the profundity of the lines, “And then we’ll get down there/Way down to the very bottom of everything/And then we’ll see it, oh we’ll see it, we’ll see it, we’ll see it.” This is the most profoundly spiritual song since Mountain Goats’ “Against Pollution,” and when the engines fail and my fellow passengers fall into a fright, this is the one I want to accompany me on my journey to the end of the flight.

2. “Angels and Fuselage” by Drive-By Truckers. Not only is DBT’s homage to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s final flight both beautiful and haunting, it’s rich in evocative detail and is told from the point of view of Ronnie Van Zant—a problem seeing as how Ronnie managed to sleep through his own death. But that’s a mere caveat; Patterson Hood ingeniously interweaves Van Zant’s recollections of better times (“Strapped to this projectile, just a blink ago I was back in school/Smoking by the gym door, practicing my rock-star attitude”) with his eerie vision of angels in the trees, “waiting for me.” I give the song bonus points for the lines, “Last call for alcohol/Sure wish I could have another round” and for never failing to give me shivers. And should the flight I’m on go belly up while I’m listening to it I’m going to growl, just like ole Ronnie does at the beginning of “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Turn it up!”

3. “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear” by The Handsome Family. A tremendous melody, some crunchy guitar, and perfectly crafted lyrics rich in evocative detail, and presto: what you have is the very ideal of a plane crash song. Like DBT, The Handsome Family intersperse Earhart’s childhood memories with plane crash imagery (“Amelia, Amelia Earhart/After her plane was torn apart/And bursting through the trees/She remembered picking lemons with William Randolph Hearst/And how a spinning plane propeller turned liquid in the sun/And as the cockpit burned, her hair filled with sparks/But when the glass exploded in, everything went dark”) to add emotional depth. I give “Amelia” bonus points for its great guitar solo, final lines (“And as the cockpit burned/She couldn’t help but smile/Recalling a dancing bear she’d seen as a child”), and for being the perfect song to have playing as your doomed jet hits the tree line and you see your beloved childhood sled and mutter, “Rosebud.”

4. “A Hole in the Plane” by The Robot Ate Me. Exquisitely detailed, with a wonderfully hopeful chorus (“I’m holding on but not screaming/Not sure why but I know there’s something/Waiting for me on the other side”) and told from the first person—why, if it just had a catchier melody, “A Hole in the Plane” might be the finest air disaster song ever written. But it doesn’t, so you’ll just have to revel in one of the most loving depictions of explosive decompression leading to fuselage failure ever written: “There’s a hole in the plane/Sucking people out/I’m running and falling down/Trying to avoid the inevitable/The pilots are sitting so comfortably in the cabins/I’m watching/People get sucked out into the open sky.” Oh, and the song earns an additional demerit for its final stanza, which has nothing to do with the crash. Still, this is the baby you’ll want to have playing when a gaping hole appears in the fuselage, sucking everybody from rows 13A to 24E—including the stewardess serving a vegetarian meal to the guy in 19C—into the great wide open.

5. “Munich Air Disaster 1958” by Morrissey. Give the Pope of Mope bonus points for writing a touching song about a true incident: on February 6, 1958, a flight bearing the Manchester United football team crashed during takeoff from a slushy Munich runway, killing 23 people. And additional bonus points for one beautiful melody, sheer depth of emotion, and Morrissey’s positively suicidal empathy: “I wish I’d gone down/Gone down with them/To where Mother Nature makes their bed.” (It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who wants to die in an aviation disaster.) That said, the King of the Miserablists gets docked for his song’s woeful lack of vivid imagery and actual crash detail. Still, I can’t think of a better song to be playing when my plane ceases to fly and I become the first of the gang to die.

6. “747 (Strangers in the Night)” by Saxon. Great song, wonderful detail (“We’ve got a 747 coming down in the night/There’s no power, there’s no runway lights/Radio operator try to get a message through”), and a British heavy metal band to boot! I give “747” bonus points for never deviating from its theme, as so many air disaster songs seem to do. Unfortunately, “747” is all foreplay and no sex, as it never gets around to describing the actual crash. Still, it’s nice to have a good headbanger on board; it will provide the perfect accompaniment to the headbanging that takes place when the carry-on luggage falls from the overhead compartments.

7. “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” by Plainsong. This loving 1972 country-rock homage to aviation’s most famous missing person boasts a fetching melody, a touching and catchy chorus (“There’s a beautiful, beautiful field/Far away in a land that is fair/Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart/Farewell, first lady of the air”), as well as some very poetic crash detail (“Half an hour later her SOS was heard/Her signal’s weak, but still her voice was brave/In shark-infested waters/Her aeroplane went down that night/In the blue Pacific to a watery grave.”) In short it’s the perfect hopeless romantic’s plane crash song, and I probably should have ranked it higher.

8. “Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)” by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Rodriguez. Like “Angels and Fuselage” and “Munich Air Disaster 1958,” this lovely, Spanish-flavored cover of a Woody Guthrie song gets bonus points for being about a real event—namely, a 1948 plane crash that resulted in the deaths of 28 migrant workers being deported to Mexico. It gets mucho bonus points for being perhaps the world’s only air crash/protest song, its depth of compassion, and its poetic detail (“The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon/A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills/Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?/The radio says, ‘They are just deportees.’”) Unfortunately—and I really hate to quibble in the case of a tune this moving—most of the lyrics are given over to the plight of migrant workers, rather than the plane crash itself. Still, it’s the ideal tune to be listening to should your Mexico-bound jumbo jet plummet nose-first into America, crossing the California desert on a horse with no name.

9. “Fiery Crash” by Andrew Bird. A very fine and lovely song—I totally dig its shuffling groove—undone by its confusing lyrics, which make it hard to figure out what’s going on. “Fiery Crash” includes some nice detail (“You were hurling through space/G-forces twisting your face/Breeding superstition/A fatal premonition/You know you got to envision/The fiery crash”). But so far as I can tell it’s about a guy on his sofa envisioning an aviation disaster, rather than an actual plane crash. Hence the demerit, and its lower ranking. Still, the song’s pleasant humming and whistling should provide the perfect counterpoint to the caterwaul in the cabin as your plane slowly fills with choking smoke.

10. “Another Plane Went Down” by Shawn Colvin. This is one very pretty song, and it opens on a promising note (“Another plane went down today/In the Atlantic nine miles off shore”). But then it gets all personal, and besides a nice line about a friend’s death in a plane crash (“They found her on a hill in Columbia/Intact among the debris”) it has more to do with smoking in cars and hanging around in bars than it does burning airliners. That said, it includes the sexy lines, “SO MANY OTHER DREAMS/The one I had today/You and the Italian woman naked/Your fingers between her legs.” And there’s much to be said for dying with a hard-on that is airworthy, even if the plane you’re on is not.

11. “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash” by Joe Henry. I love this funky, VU-flavored tune, but it has problems. First of all, I infinitely prefer a song about a commercial air disaster—if I can’t imagine myself on the plane, what good is it? What’s more, it’s sparse on details (“And when it went into a dive/We all came off our feet/And just like he meant to nose into the lake/He did so, perfectly”) and the lyrics fatally meander into love song territory. That said, the song’s seductive drone reminds me of the sound of a jet’s engine just before it bursts into flames, and you could do worse than be listening to this when the in-flight movie ends and the real-life mayhem begins.

12. “Plane Crash” by Purple Hearts. This song by English mod revivalists Purple Hearts has no business being on my mix tape, as the plane crash referred to is purely a metaphor for doomed love (“Plane crash/Our love is like a plane crash… I don’t want to be around/To see the plane cra… aaa…asssh”). Unfortunately I can’t resist the damn thing, and give it bonus points for the lines, “Crawling from the wreckage/The wreckage of our love.” And additional bonus points for its ending, which includes some freak-out guitar, the sound of jet engine revving up, and a deafening explosion as the singer’s plane of love breaks up.

13. “Crash Landing” by Cameron Grey. A 31-second sound snippet (I can only assume it’s authentic) of a panicked pilot preparing to abandon his plane, “Crash Landing” also has no place on my mix tape, for the same reasons stated in “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash.” I want to be able to imagine myself on the plane, damn it, and short of clinging to the wing like a gremlin there’s not much chance of that in “Crash Landing.” Still, I enjoy listening to it—I suppose it’s what you might call keeping it real.

14. “Light Aircraft on Fire” by The Auteurs. I don’t much like the song’s melody, its lyrics are all over the place, and it’s not even about a commercial airliner of the type I hope be on as it hurtles to its flaming denouement. That said it does boast the lines, “Disintegrate at 2000 feet/Disappear into mercury/There’s a dark premonition/An accident will happen/There’s a pre-science preacher in the cabin,” so I suppose it’s not a complete loss. Still, I dearly hope it’s not what I’m listening to when my commercial airliner gives up the ghost. Because that would be a bummer, and I would never forgive Luke Haines or The Auteurs—or myself, for that matter—for including this bummer on my mix tape in the first place.

Well there you have it: my perfect air disaster mix tape. Feel free to make one of your own. But it won’t be as good as mine, because your heart simply isn’t in it. You’re one of those people who asks only that they arrive at their destination on time and in one piece, while I long to be discovered on a mountaintop in Montana, still strapped in my seat with my mix tape playing “Angels and Fuselage.” In the meantime I’m writing my own air disaster song, about Amelia Earhart of course, which begins, “Last seen over the Pacific/I love your luggage, it’s terrific/You disappeared in a Lockheed-Martin/Now your face is on milk cartons/Amelia, I’ll bet you’re up there still/Amelia, I love you.” Which will be on my next mix tape, just you wait and see.

Have a nice flight!

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