When I’m spinning my wheels and my Girls need a hit of inspiration but I don’t have time to read a book or watch a movie, I treat myself to a blast of music. Pop songs. Ones with brilliant, dazzling, word-candy lyrics. The kind I’d never include on a writing playlist because I’d get distracted trying to deconstruct how the writer created such a vivid mind-picture with just a few deft lines. I put the ipod on shuffle, fire up the coffee-maker, and take a trip into the song-writer’s story world. Ten minutes to half an hour later I’m refreshed and ready to get back to work.
In no particular order, here’s a selection of story-songs that never fail to fire my imagination:
Sweet Painted Lady / Ticking – Elton John
Bernie Taupin is my favorite lyricist of all time. I recently watched footage of him in a documentary about the making of the classic album Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road (love Youtube!). He said that he loved creating characters. Each song had its own specific identity. They were very visual and went far beyond what was usual for popular songs of the time. I could write a whole post just on Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, but I’ll limit myself to two examples – randy sailors heading ashore in search of a welcoming hooker: “I’m back on dry land once again. Opportunity awaits me like a rat in a drain.” (Sweet Painted Lady). And the tragic conclusion to a police siege: “You danced in death like a marionette/On the vengeance of the law.” (Ticking).
Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts/ Hurricane – Bob Dylan
It’s hardly news that Dylan is a genius song-writer. Dylan is a big favorite of my husband’s, so I hear him around the house all the time. The world-building in his songs is incredible, whether it’s a complex fantasy like Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (a bank robber, a diamond mine-owner, a wife, a mistress and a murder) or a protest song like Hurricane.
Piano Man / Big Shot – Billy Joel
Lots to choose from here, too. I love his semi-autobiographical Piano Man for the line “And the waitress is practicing politics/As the businessmen slowly get stoned,” but right now I’m thinking the most memorable is the vicious Big Shot: “Well you went uptown riding in your limousine/In your fine Park Avenue clothes./You had the Dom Perignon in your hand/And the spoon up your nose.” Ouch.
England 2, Colombia 0 – Kirsty MacColl
I love her album Tropical Brainstorm, especially a song called England 2, Colombia 0, about an almost-seduction in a North London pub during the soccer World Cup. The crushing lyrics (“You lied about your status / You lied about your life / You forgot you had three children / You forgot you had a wife”) are wonderfully juxtaposed with jaunty, uptempo music. I played this song for my brother, whose home is in the live-for-today Caribbean, and he laughed himself silly.
Paradise By The Dashboard Light – Meatloaf
Jim Steinman’s lyrics for Paradise By The Dashboard Light are brilliant, especially the making-out-as-baseball-commentary interlude in the middle (“Here he comes, squeeze play, it’s gonna be close/Here’s the throw, here’s the play at the plate/Holy Cow, I think he’s gonna make it”). Inspired.
And what about:
Don McLean’s famously never-explained but evocative American Pie;
Eminem’s grisly ballad about an obsessive fan, Stan;
Almost anything by Paul Simon;
Greg Lake’s knights-of-old style ballad Lucky Man.
Arlo Guthrie’s legendary and hilarious Alice’s Restaurant;
Ed Sheeran’s sad and beautifully observed The A Team;
Almost anything by Elvis Costello
Any and all suggestions most gratefully received. My writing is two-steps-forward-and-at-least-one-back right now, and I need to add some new tunes to my story-song inspiration playlist. Thank you!