The Last to Die

Writer - Bruce Springsteen
First released - 2013
Original album - Electric
Producer - Stuart Price
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The Boys had alluded to covering a Bruce Springsteen song for about a year before they gave their rendition its world premiere at their March 22, 2013 concert in Veracruz, Mexico, at which time Neil said it was from their forthcoming album Electric. They're known to have been working on it as early as September 2011. The Springsteen original appeared on his 2007 album Magic. Although the official PSB website and, it would appear, Electric itself refer to the PSB version by the title "The Last to Die," the original title conferred on it by its composer lacks the article "the"; it's simply "Last to Die." Nevertheless, I'll follow here the "PSB usage," so to speak.

Neil and Chris decided to cover this song after Chris's sister, Victoria, brought it to their attention. (A mistaken May 2013 report in a Spanish newspaper that Stevie Wonder had suggested they should cover it was apparently the result of miscommunication or mistranslation somewhere along the line.) Springsteen's starkly poetic lyrics, given an epic rock treatment in his original rendition, invite multiple interpretations and provide various levels of meaning. (Whatever one may think of his music, which I generally like, and his style, which I generally dislike, he's a remarkable lyricist.) The repeated question from which the title is taken—"Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?"—was inspired by words spoken by U.S. Secretary of State (as well as former senator and presidential candidate) John Kerry. Back in 1971, then a 27-year-old decorated naval veteran of the Vietnam War, Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during hearings on that war:

Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be, and these are his words, "the first President to lose a war." We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? [my emphasis]

The fact that "The Boss" chose this reference for a song more than 35 years later is widely regarded as making a similar suggestion about the Iraq War being waged by the United States and its allies in the first decade of the new millennium. But the lyrics themselves, at least on first glance, don't seem to concern that or any other war, except perhaps as an extended metaphor. Instead they appear to be a narrative from the perspective of someone driving down a desolate highway in the Amercian southwest, his wife or lover next to him and "the kids asleep in the backseat." It sounds as though they're on the run, perhaps—if all the allusions to blood and death are any indication—from the law on account of having committed multiple murders. On the other hand, perhaps he himself is no murderer, at least in the usual sense, but instead a former solider now feeling guilt for his tour of duty. Or he may not even have been a soldier at all, but rather an ordinary, workaday American who's feeling a sense of collective national guilt over the war. As I said, multiple levels, multiple meanings.

The final lines of the song are both chilling and strangely uplifting, as the narrator asks whether "tyrants and kings [will] fall to the same fate, strung up at your city gates." He wonders whether they—probably the most guilty parties of all—will actually prove to be the last to die for a mistake, thereby providing at least some modicum of justice in an all-too-unjust world. But, then again, he's only asking. Pointedly, he leaves open the distinct possibility that they will escape retribution for their crimes.

It's worth noting that while Springsteen's original lyrics always say, "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" (singular), Neil sings it this way only the first time through the chorus. After that he always sings, "… for our mistakes?" (plural). This subtle adjustment takes the song to an even more personal level, specifically including both the singer/narrator and his listeners among those who had been "mistaken." As he subsequently told interviewer Jude Rogers of NewStatesman, "I changed 'a mistake' to 'our mistakes'…. So then the song casts more blame on us, as individuals in a democratic society, and the responsibility that we have for what happens in our name."

The Pet Shop Boys have come right out and said that there's not even a hint of "irony" in their version of this song. "It's a very genuine cover version," as Chris told interviewer Robbie Daw. They may have selected it for its implicit anti-war message, its underlying human drama, and/or just because it's a great song. (Chris: "It sounds like a Pet Shop Boys record.") But Neil and Chris may indeed have had other, more personal reasons for singing about "our mistakes." After all, their homeland, the United Kingdom, was America's staunchest ally and greatest co-combatant in the Iraq War. And, if I remember correctly, Neil himself had at one time—like so many others who later changed their minds—expressed his own support for the war. Then again, they may be utilizing Springsteen's anti-war song to comment on other personal and/or societal battles. One of my site visitors has even suggested that they may have had the AIDS epidemic in mind, an intriguing possibility considering the number of Pet Shop Boys songs that have been directly inspired by AIDS.

Whatever their motivations, Chris and Neil clearly recognized the song's potential as a synthpop track. Not surprisingly, the PSB keyboard-dominated rendition contrasts with the more conventionally hard-rocking Springsteen original, though the differences aren't as radical as one might have expected. Both versions are truly epic in feel, even if they feel somewhat different in their "epicness." Which you prefer boils down to tastes—though you can probably guess where my own tastes lie. wink

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