Jilly: Listening to Song Lyrics

26194894_sDo you pay much attention to song lyrics?

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

What else?

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!

16 thoughts on “Jilly: Listening to Song Lyrics

  1. Oh, yes, I love a lot of these! Especially Paul Simon. He’s got a song about a man trying to write a novel so that he can win the respect of his kids and prove he’s not a goof-up. Pathos and hope, all mixed up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10YYBTD650s (“Rewrite”)

    I’m very fond of kd lang, especially her Invincible Summer album. “Summer Fling” is maybe my favorite, unless it’s “Suddenly” — oh, it’s hopeless. I love the whole album, and it’s a concept album — the songs work together to make something more than just the parts. (but the parts! oh!)

    And I’m probably showing my age, but there’s Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and B52s “Loveshack” and Naked Eyes “Always Something There to Remind Me.”

    There’s this incredible song in Japanese by Abe Mao called “Third Street” (aka, the Stalker Song) where this girl talks about how she’s stole a boy’s phone number from the faculty room, and knows about his little sister, and hangs out around “Third Street” just waiting for a glimpse of him. (Ah, high school romance! How incredibly painful unrequited love was! Yes, I liked The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” too.) http://www.jpopasia.com/celebrity/maoabe/lyrics/su/stalker-no-uta-san-choume-anata-no-ie::57191.html

    It’s very funny that you brought this topic up . . . just this morning, I found a song from The Belle of New York titled “Teach Me How to Kiss, Dear” (from 1897). Oh, my. What a hard economic lot women had to maintain in days gone past. The first line goes, “To be the toy of a bold, bad boy!” http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/61-teach-me-how-to-kiss-dear.htm That was definitely a story I wasn’t expecting to find!

    • Thanks for this, Michaeline, especially the links. I don’t know the Paul Simon song, and the Third Street song sounds amazing. I’m stuck in a place with slow internet right now but I’ll be listening as soon as I can get a sensible wi-if connection. The Belle of New York song makes me think of Gershwin’s Naughty Baby – genius word-smithery, sexy, funny, and politically incorrect:-) .

  2. I don’t usually play anything but classical when I work, but when I’m not working, I like a lot of people—pretty much everyone you’ve mentioned, plus The Pretenders; Annie Lennox; Grace Slick, so I guess that means the Jefferson Airplane or Starship, but really, it’s Grace Slick; Hazel Dickens, especially her work with Alice Gerrard; Johnny Cash; and about 10,000 other people. For me, in terms of musical inspiration, it’s not so much the lyrics, but the quality of the voice—the type of voice—that makes me sit up and notice, and then the beat they put it to. Although I like lyrics, too. 🙂

    On one of David Letterman’s last shows, he had Tom Waits on for the guest musician, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy Tom Waits.

    • I was going to add Johnny Cash to my list above – he’s another of my hubby’s big faves – particularly because of that line in Folsom Prison Blues: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Whaaat?

      I know what you mean about Grace Slick and gorgeous voices. That’s a whole ‘nother playlist. Janis Joplin? I don’t know Hazel Dickens – will have to remedy that. Karen Carpenter? Hmmm. You’ve got me thinking now…

      • Janis Joplin! Yes, totally. Hazel Dickens is a bluegrass singer, really backcountry, from West Virginia, I think, and Alice Gerrard is a classically trained musician from Oakland, CA. They collaborated on several albums, but the one I’m most fond of has a bunch of sort of proto-feminist type songs. There’s one where a woman walks into a bar by herself after a hard day at work, and she’s asking a guy to leave her alone, because she’s not looking for anything but some peace and quiet to enjoy her drink and he shouldn’t make assumptions about why she’s there. Dickens’s words are a lot better than mine, but I love the idea. I like bluegrass as a type of music fine, but I really like Hazel Dickens.

        And that line in that Johnny Cash song: that’s great, too. There’s a book in that line!

  3. Many of those on my favorites list, too, especially Billy Joel. For last millennium music also love Carly Simon “You’re So Vain,” and The Hollies “Bus Stop.”

    Songs with great characterizations on the current playlist, in no particular order:
    Sara Bareilles- Love Song
    Twenty One Pilots- House Of Gold
    Coldplay- Viva La Vida
    Natalie Imbruglia- Torn
    Passenger- Let Her Go
    Miranda Lambert- All Kinds of Kinds
    Phil Vassar- Just Another Day in Paradise
    Carrie Underwood- Before He Cheats
    Mumford & Sons- I Will Wait
    Jason Mraz- I’m Yours
    A Fine Frenzy- Almost Lover

    Gah. Sorry, I’ve edited that list down to the point where I can’t choose any more to whittle away and it’s still really long. 🙂

  4. I’d pick Tom Waits (in romantic mode rather than shouty mode), Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash for lyrics, so nothing new for you there. Did you know it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday today – I bring you this information courtesy of my partner who is a big Bob fan!

    • (-: I love this. There’s a TedTalk floating around somewhere (one of the Ladies mentioned it, maybe?) about how if you learn 20 percent of the skills, you can do 80 percent of the work. The guy who did it learned to play ukulele with this song — he only had the four chords, but suddenly could play a panoply of pop. (-: Now I want to learn to play ukulele. I bought a ukulele kit for my husband one Christmas — I’m thinking about taking back the gift and giving it a shot.

      And then I remember just how much copious spare time I actually have.

  5. So one of my favorite songs (which I listened to NONSTOP when I was preggo with baby #1) was “Everything” by Michael Bublé. Yes, I have to put the lyrics here. It’s such a feel-good, love-to-love you, you-complete-me song. (my comments in brackets)

    “You’re a falling star, you’re the get away car.
    You’re the line in the sand when I go too far.
    You’re the swimming pool, on an August day. [you complete me!]
    And you’re the perfect thing to say.

    And you play it coy but it’s kinda cute.
    Ah, when you smile at me you know exactly what you do.
    Baby don’t pretend that you don’t know it’s true.
    ’cause you can see it when I look at you. [love this line. I imagine what a man looks like when he’s gazing at his true love]

    And in this crazy life, and through these crazy times
    It’s you, it’s you, you make me sing.
    You’re every line, you’re every word, you’re everything. [for someone like Michael, who lives to sing, I imagine this is like breathing]

    You’re a carousel, you’re a wishing well,
    And you light me up, when you ring my bell.
    You’re a mystery, you’re from outer space,
    You’re every minute of my everyday.

    And I can’t believe, uh that I’m your man,
    And I get to kiss you baby just because I can.
    Whatever comes our way, ah we’ll see it through,
    And you know that’s what our love can do.

    And in this crazy life, and through these crazy times
    It’s you, it’s you, you make me sing.
    You’re every line, you’re every word, you’re everything.

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