Lyric Theory: “The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel (1970)

The poet reads his crooked rhyme…
Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street. (Paul Simon)

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

One endearing feature of music trends is their habit of hopping from one local scene to another. Picture 1960s Motown in Detroit, or Prince’s funky 1980s enclave in Minneapolis, or the early 1990s Seattle grunge scene, or the hippies in greater Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon circa 1970. Musicians cross-pollinate in communities that form, flourish for a few years, and then wither into legend. Greenwich Village, NYC hosted one such scene in the mid 1960s. Its cheap rents attracted impoverished artists who collaborated, conspired, and competed in coffeehouses and clubs such as Gerde’s Folk City and The Bitter End. The artsiness of the general Greenwich/SoHo area has been widely celebrated in song by its present, former, and would-be denizens: Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” Dar Williams’ “Spring Street,” Paul Simon’s “Bleecker Street,” and the like.

I could find a small apartment
Where a struggling artist died
And pretend, because I pay the rent,
I know that pain inside (Dar Williams)

Simon and his sixth-grade classmate Art Garfunkel had participated in a school play together and performed on and off as “Tom and Jerry” for years in high school and college while Simon studied English and Garfunkel, math and architecture. In 1964, they recorded an album for Columbia Records as “Simon and Garfunkel.” It went nowhere, and Simon decamped for England, where he wrote songs for other artists, including “Red Rubber Ball,” a #2 hit stateside for The Cyrkle. That song, like Simon’s later work with Garfunkel, featured acoustic rock stylings and close harmony singing reminiscent of late 50s country-pop teen idols The Everly Brothers.

Meanwhile, in Simon’s absence, S&G’s producer remixed their sparse folk ballad “The Sounds of Silence” with rock instrumentation. It went to #1, and Simon renewed his partnership with Garfunkel, releasing a string of four huge albums that helped define intelligent late ’60s pop.

Simon wrote all the lyrics, wrote all the melodies, sang, and played the guitar. Garfunkel … sang. He sang very prettily, but Bob Dylan’s nasal twang had rewritten the rules of pop listening expectations on that account. Garfunkel knew he was dispensable, and he attempted to build an acting career with the aid of director Mike Nichols, who had previously used S&G’s repertoire heavily in his film “The Graduate.” Simon, for his part, found the life of S&G so busy that all of his new songs were about their whirlwind pop star lifestyle, and the rising drama of their partnership. By the end of 1970, it was all over, save sporadic reunions for short-term projects.

I’m laying out my winter clothes
And wishing I was gone, going home
Where the New York City winters
Aren’t bleeding me (Paul Simon)

All these influences came together on their final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. The title track, a gospel piano-drenched hymn of brotherly comfort, became one of the most recorded songs besides “Happy Birthday.” “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” declared the narrator’s desire to escape the hubbub and quietly “sail away like a swan, here and gone.” “Cecilia,” referencing the Roman Catholic patron saint of musicians, lamented Simon’s bouts of writer’s block, depicting his muse of inspiration as a fickle lover who abandons him mid-coitus. “Keep the Customer Satisfied” re-imagined S&G as a duo of petty criminals, skipping from town to town but concluding, “I’m so tired.” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (nodding to Garfunkel’s interest in architecture) and “The Only Living Boy in New York” directly addressed the duo’s imminent dissolution. “Baby Driver” recalls Simon’s musical upbringing, including a bass-playing father. “Bye Bye Love” covered the Everly Brothers while reinforcing the theme of farewells.

I can’t believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune.
I remember, “Frank Lloyd Wright,”
All of the nights we harmonized ’til dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long, so long. (Paul Simon)

"That's OK, Paul. 'Just Like a Woman' is really about you."

“That’s OK, Paul. ‘Just Like a Woman’ is really about you.”

After the celebrated title track, the album’s other cornerstone was the five-plus-minute “The Boxer,” which although produced by Roy Hallee follows good Phil Spector production technique, building from a quiet country guitar lick to a howling banshee finale with choral harmonies, buzzing bass harmonica, fuzzed up bass guitar, and even massive chains slapped against the floor of a vacant warehouse. The lyrics describe a man who tried to make a career in New York City, is weighed down by failure, and leaves for pleasanter climes, insisting nonetheless that he’s not beaten. Simon apologists saw in the song a satire targeting his rival Bob Dylan, allegedly a “poor boy” prone to “lie lie lie lie lie lie” about the circumstances of his past, building a personal mythology to confound the press and his fans.

Such a jab would not have been unprecedented; Simon had already poked fun at Dylan with the parody song “A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or, How I was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)” back in 1966. But with “The Boxer,” Dylan, who covered the song himself on his “Self Portrait” double album the year it was released, surely knew better. Carly Simon’s (no relation) “You’re So Vain” has been dissected similarly for 40 years. Is it about Warren Beatty? Jack Nicholson? Some other famous beau? Yes, to all. It’s about all the powerful, entitled litterati of the Manhattan publishing industry in which she grew up as part of the Simon & Schuster conglomerate, and all the privileged, preening glitterati she met in Hollywood before and during her marriage to James Taylor.

You’re where you should be, all the time,
And when you’re not, you’re with
Some underworld spy,
Or the wife of a close friend. (Carly Simon)

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

In the same way, “The Boxer” is about Dylan, but also about Paul Simon, and every street corner busker in Greenwich Village. They come to town seeking a music career but find only “a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue,” probably a reference to Columbia Records’ Studio C (701 Seventh Avenue) or Studio A (799 Seventh Avenue), or perhaps to Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968 at its new Pennsylvania Plaza location on the block contained by 7th and 8th Avenues, and 31st through 33rd Streets, or to Carnegie Hall (881 7th Avenue). The promises of concert promoters and music industry executives are eventually recognized as “a pocketful of mumbles… all lies and jest.”

Hustle's the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

Hustle’s the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

The “musician as prostitute” theme has been mined by other stars through the years. In 1975, Glen Cambell recorded Larry Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which depicts a man endlessly treading “the dirty sidewalks of Broadway” in hopes of gaudy glory (rhinestones, not real diamonds) with “the lights shining on me… and offers coming over the phone.” The cowboy image likely came from “Midnight Cowboy,” the 1965 book made into an Oscar-winning 1969 film starring Dustin Hoffman (post -“The Graduate”) as a pimp attempting to help Texan Jon Voight  make his way as a gigolo in NYC. Weiss, like Paul Simon, had grown up in New Jersey and Queens and knew the musician’s career frustration of “riding a train that’s taking the long way.” North Carolina-based singer-songwriter David Wilcox’s 1999 album track “Sex and Music,” in an extended metaphor, also ruminates on the uncomfortable parallels between his career and the oldest profession:

“At first you say you do it for love
But then you do it with friends
As soon as you do it for money
Right there’s where the innocence ends…
And it leads you to strange addictions
like image and marketing spin
You’re just trying to get them to like you,
and how could that be such a sin?” (David Wilcox)

Many’s the musician with misgivings about the intersection of art and commerce. As for Paul Simon, his fortunes undulated from peaks in 1976 (Grammies for Album of the Year and Best Male Pop Performance) and 1981 (rejoining Garfunkel for a Concert in Central Park before an awed hometown crowd of half a million New Yorkers)  to a subsequent nadir followed by a triumphant comeback on 1986’s “Graceland” album, which won Album and Record (i.e. recorded song) of the year awards. He has finally settled comfortably into the role of musical elder statesman in the thirty years since then, but still puts out new records. The fighter still remains.


Lyric Theory: “Life in a Northern Town,” The Dream Academy (1985)

Yorkshire, 1985: As the train rolled out of sight

Yorkshire, 1985: As the train rolled out of sight

Is it better to have hit only once than never to have hit at all? British one-hit wonders comprise a class all their own. You’ve got your Soft Cells (1981), who had several more hits in their homeland. Occasionally someone like Donna Lewis (1996) whose hit was even bigger “over here” than in Britain. But bands like the Dream Academy got their one-hitness just right everywhere, with broad acclaim for exactly one song, forever and ever, amen.

To a Yank like me, “life in a Northern town” (the concept, not the song) doesn’t conjure a specific image. British readers, feel free to chime in. Apparently the North of England, i.e. just south of Scotland, is somewhat like the South of America: less urbane (London is in southern Britain, my droogs), worse health, more poverty, less education, fatter, under-represented culturally. The writers of “Doctor Who” considered the distinction worth noting when Christopher Eccleston’s incarnation of the non-human title character had a Northern accent, leading him to quip to his companion, “Lots of planets have a North!” For a point of reference, Americanos, consider Darth Vader or Superman with a sudden deep Georgia accent.

Dream Theater surfaced in 1985, as the tides of culture were pulling the original MTV-fueled New Wave of British pop back out to sea. Stalwarts like Duran Duran, Eurythmics, and Culture Club had presented their career-defining hits. Minimalism was out around then; baroque density was back, in hits from The Moody Blues, Tears for Fears, and Mr. Mister. Also, early 1960s nostalgia was starting to overtake the late-1950s homages of Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. “Life in a Northern Town” presents an idyllic time when,

The Salvation Army band played
And the children drank lemonade
And the morning lasted all day
And through an open window came
Like Sinatra in a younger day
Pushing the clouds away:
“Ah hey ma ma mommy doo-din-nie-ya…”

The lyrics eulogize the glossolalia of the doo-wop tradition, found in the backing vocals of a zillion songs from The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” (1957) to The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” (1961). That scene had been fêted in its own latter days by Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp” (1961) and Johnny Cymbal’s “Mr. Bassman” (1963), among others. Even in 1973, The Carpenters were still pining to re-experience the “shing-a-ling” music of “Yesterday Once More.” Wordless vocalizing had long been part of the cowboy tradition, as practiced “way back when” by Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. “The Blue Yodeler,” and more recently by Dolly Parton and Jewel Kilcher. Scat singing predated commercially available recordings such as Louis Armstrong’s faux-trumpet solo on “Heebie Jeebies” (1926). Nonsense singing is silly and fun, often showing up in novelty hits like the Oak Ridge Boys’ cover of First Edition’s hit “Elvira” (1981 and 1970, respectively), or even the big pop hits from Crash Test Dummies (1993), Hanson (1997), and Kid Rock (1998).

Na Na Na

He said, “In winter 1963
It felt like the world would freeze
With John F. Kennedy and The Beatles”
Heya… Life in a Northern town
Heya… All the work shut down.

Dream Academy’s songwriter Nick Laird-Clowes (b. 1957) links three sad turning points of his childhood. First, the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963) was big news in Britain, getting nonstop news coverage for 24 hours. (Trivia: When the Kennedy news coverage ended, everyone turned off their TVs in shock, thereby missing the very first episode of Doctor Who. It was re-broadcast the following week as a result.) Even for those of us not around back then, it’s easy to imagine how upsetting the assassination was for Europeans, many of whom would have remembered the time that an assassination triggered a World War.

The second disaster hit closer to home and thus is even easier to understand: “All the work shut down.” North England was coal and industrial country, and the second half of the twentieth century was no kinder to it than to Rust Belt America. Many a pop song has chronicled these painful economic transitions: Billy Joel’s “Allentown” (1982) and “The Downeaster Alexa” (1989), U2’s “Red Hill Mining Town” (1987), Cowboy Junkies’ “The Last Spike” (1992) among others. Bruce Springsteen made a career out of songs like this.

Merseybeat killed the Doo Wop Star

Merseybeat killed the Doo Wop Star

But the real kicker is the third catastrophe: “The Beatles.” Woah! Talk about trampling on a national treasure! We can understand how a “lonely teenage broncin’ buck” American like Don Mclean might seethe with envy over the apparent ease with which the British Invasion of the mid-1960s supplanted homegrown rock-n-roll singers. But it would appear the John Lennon is not the only one who doesn’t believe in Beatles. Within the few lines of this song (three stanzas, virtually wordless chorus, no bridge), Laird-Clowes doesn’t elaborate on his disdain for the Fab Four, but he’s deeply attached to the songs of his early childhood, as opposed to later music. Musicians who love music itself, as opposed to the perquisites of fame and fortune that come with music stardom, write songs about music: Rush, Boston, U2, even Eric Carmen. One can imagine how a music-loving child might see a change in the musical climate as a threat on the order of massive unemployment or political unrest, and seek refuge in the old songs.

Not that he tries to emulate the sound of those songs; “Life in a Northern Town” sounds as mid-80s as a song could, and the tribal beat underlying the chorus chant has less in common with The Marcels and more with the world beat sounds being popularized by Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” (1979), Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (1986), and Paul Simon’s Grammy-riffic “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” (1986). Laird-Clowes was also shooting for the langurous mood of Nick Drake, a late 1960s British singer-songwriter who enjoyed posthumous success in the States after his songs began appearing in advertisements. Kate St. John adds an oboe line at least as pretty as the one in Madonna’s “Crazy for You” (1985), and producer David Gilmour washes the whole thing in echoes of his Pink Floyd days. “Mellow tribal” sums up the results; “dream pop” sounds more like one of those pseudo-genres dreamed up by a publicist.

These days, the Dream Academy themselves suffer from frequent confusion with the more enduring prog metal band Dream Theater, but “Life in a Northern Town” goes on, even getting a cover at the 2007 CMT Awards of all places, by Sugarland et al. That live performance, nominated for both a Grammy and a CMA award, doesn’t sound the same without the massive studio production on the original chorus, but still, not a bad way to commemorate great music of the past, which is what Dream Academy were shooting for themselves.

Lyric Theory: “Thriller” and more, Michael Jackson (1982)

They’re out to get you
There’s demons closing in on every side
They will possess you
(from “Thriller”)

A chance conversation can shape a career trajectory and a life. Nichelle Nichols almost jumped ship from struggling TV series Star Trek long before it ended its original three-year mission in the bottom half of the Nielsens, but Martin Luther King, Jr. advised her to stay on board, as an example of a black woman enjoying a successful career. Granted, she was basically a space receptionist whose jobs were answering the phone and sitting on a platform in a dangerously short miniskirt. Seriously, her costume is on display at the Science Fiction museum in Seattle, and if I tried to put it on, it wouldn’t cover my navel. Tiny person! But as Mad Men reminds us, “secretary/eye candy” passed for female professional advancement in the 1960s, so Nichols stuck with Star Trek not only through the failed TV show, but through its remarkable syndicated resurrection into a pop culture phenomenon.

MLK knew that when a group wants acceptance by the broader society, one can be seen as normal simply by doing normal stuff: having a job, raising a family, going shopping, brushing teeth, whatever. Though Star Trek addressed  racism memorably and explicitly,  it never raised the issue of Uhura’s race, and the show’s team of seasoned Sci-Fi authors protected her from the era’s stereotypically black character tropes, except perhaps her penchant to burst into song.

Tired of injustice
Tired of the schemes
The lies are disgusting
So what does it mean?
(from “Scream”)

Elsewhere in the popcultureverse, the Motown record label advanced civil rights not by marching or sitting in, but by singing. Berry Gordy’s studio crew offered a revolving door of fresh-faced, dapper young men and women with songs of love and optimism during a time of national stresses. Diana Ross broke out of the Supremes as the runaway favorite of the mid 1960s, but the end of the decade brought a family of twelve from Gary, Indiana to the fore. The Jackson 5 thrived as part of the bubblegum pop scene, charting four consecutive #1 singles in 1969 and 1970. They appeared on Saturday Morning cartoons, on lunchboxes, on board games.

Little brother Michael’s endearing and precocious renditions of R&B hits made him the media darling on both group and solo projects, and a wave of competing “family bands” fronted by kids sprung up: real ones like the Osmonds (six Top Twenty hits 1970-4, including one trip to #1), and fake ones like The Partridge Family (five Top Twenty hits in the same time period, one #1). Others like Keith Green tried to cash in on the kids’ music craze but would have to wait until adulthood to hit their professional strides.

The Osmonds and Jacksons both came from separatist religious sects, Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses, respectively. Both groups had begun generations before with sharp “us vs the world” rhetoric, but by the 1970s, the Osmonds formed the vanguard of a Mormon gambit to be accepted into the crazy quilt of American popular culture, so that by 2012, a Mormon running for president could garner 47% of the vote.

They’re out to get you
Better leave while you can
Don’t want to be a boy
You want to be a man
You want to stay alive
Better do what you can
So beat it
(from “Beat It”)

In case anyone was wondering.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in contrast remained aloof – no military service, no pledge of allegiance, no holidays, a creed so exclusive that only 144,000 of their own members hope for heaven. Michael Jackson’s pop stardom posed challenges for his JW obligations such as frequent door-to-door proselytizing, and his standing within the organization became even tenser when the centerpiece title track of his “Thriller” album extolled the escapist fun of 1950s sci-fi B-movies about aliens and monsters. The music video depicted Jackson transforming into a werewolf and running from, then becoming, a zombie. Under pressure from JW leadership, Jackson added a needless disclaimer to the front of the video, in case anybody thought that making a zombie movie meant one was a witch doctor.

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things.
It’s been my fate to compensate
For the childhood I’ve never known.
(from “Childhood”)

Amidst the whirlwind of the touring and recording, Jackson can’t have had much time to develop peer skills. He was a superstar on stage but just a little brother behind the curtain. A USA Today reporter embedded on Jackson’s “Bad” tour told me that when the entourage rented out two floors of a hotel in the city du jour, Jackson would wander the halls, looking for someone to talk to. Painfully shy, he preferred the company of animals and kids.

Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain
KGB was dogging me
Take my name and just let me be
(from “Stranger in Moscow”)

Jackson’s music began to reflect the pressures he felt from family, faith, paparazzi, music industry, fans. His musical persona changed from smiles to scowls. Instead of the torch songs, love songs, and life celebrations of his late ’70s disco days, the ’80s saw Jackson chased by Thriller’s monsters, conniving groupies (twice) , gangsters, gang-bangers (twice). Even when he did release a song of infatuation, the video derailed it into stalker territory, casting Jackson as the leader of a street gang blocking the path of a lone club-bound woman on dark streets.

She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige,
Who promise fortune and fame,
A life that’s so carefree
(from “Dirty Diana”)

In the ’90s, amidst murmurings about vitiligo therapy and collapsed nose jobs, his songs protested the inescapable gaze of the media, of racists, of life in general, and particularly of “Dom Sheldon,” a thinly veiled version of Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon, who twice investigated allegations of child sexual abuse among the young visitors to Jackson’s Neverland ranch/amusement park. Even the thrilling, morphalicious “Black and White” video undercut itself in the original extended ending in which a were-panther Jackson vandalizes racist cars while stroking his crotch. Jackson’s composite message came through clearly: “Leave Me Alone!”





Tell me, what has become of my life? I have a wife and two children who love me. I am the victim of police brutality, now. I’m tired of being the victim of hate. (from “They Don’t Care About Us”)

Life imitated art imitated life. Is it still paranoia if people really are out to get you because your paranoia makes you a target? The “Thriller” video also added ambiguity to the situation by casting Jackson as the victim in the middle section, but as the monster at its beginning and end. None of this fit well with the MLK/Berry Gordy strategy of success through normalcy, which Jackson seemed not to need after amassing enough power in his own right to become the first black artist heavily played on then-New Wave-centric MTV, which in turn ensured his further hegemony. But the stress of ultra-fame and its thrills proved too much, and the most famous man in the world joined the sad ranks of celebrities who over-medicated their pain first into a stupor, and then into a casket.

Though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller

Friday Lyric Quiz, No. 477 (The “Winter Blahs” Edition)

SNL MrazIt’s a potpourri quiz, it’s late February, and there isn’t much to say about that. Rock on!

Friday Lyric Quiz #477 [scroll down for last week’s answers]

1.  “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?” (early 2010s)

2. “It’s only in your head you feel left out … or looked down on” (early ’00s)

3. “I can be late for a date that’s fine, but he better be on time”  (mid-’90s)

4. “After my picture fades and darkness has turned to gray, watching through windows, you’re wondering if I’m okay”  (early ’80s)

5. “We were falling in and out with lovers, looking out for others, our sisters and our brothers” (late ’80s)

6. “Listen baby, can’t you see, baby, you would bury me”  (late ’70s)

7. “They were counting down the ways to stab the brother in the be right back after this”  (early ’00s)

8. “Soft lips are open, knuckles are pale. Feels like you’re dying … you’re dying”  (late ’00s)

9. “I’m not a mind reader, but I’m readin’ the signs”  (mid-’00s)

10. “You marry me, your father will disown you,  he’ll eat his hat now” (early ’90s)

Answers to Friday Lyric Quiz #476 [“Heart” songs]

1. “Love can touch us one time, and last for a lifetime” (late ’90s)
My Heart Will Go On, Celine Dion

2. “I’m here with my confession, got nothing to hide no more” (early ’00s)
Shape Of My Heart, Backstreet Boys

3. “If you gave me half a chance you’d see, my desire burning inside of me” (mid-’80s)
Open Your Heart, Madonna

4. “You are the move you make, take your chances win or lose her” (early ’80s)
Owner of a Lonely Heart, Yes

5. “We took what we had and we ripped it apart, now here I am down in Kingstown again” (early ’80s)
Hungry Heart, Bruce Springsteen

6. “You’re the right kind of sinner, to release my inner fantasy” (late ’70s)
Heartbreaker, Pat Benatar

7. “Never break a sweat for the other guys, when you come around, I get paralyzed” (early 2010s)
Heart Attack, Demi Lovato

8. “Walking on the water, walking on the air, that was the heart of the love we shared” (late ’80s)
Heart and Soul, T’Pau

9. “This prison has now become your home, a sentence you seem prepared to pay” (mid-’80s)
Fortress Around Your Heart, Sting

10. “I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap” (early ’90s)
Heart Shaped Box, Nirvana

Friday Lyric Quiz, No. 476 (The “Take Another Little Piece” Edition)

075eWell, it’s Valentine’s Day, everybody!  And it actually falls on a Friday this year, so restaurants are even MORE impossible to get into.  I was never one of those gals who got severely down in the dumps or angry at those in love when Feb. 14 rolled around and I was without a “special someone.” And quite frankly, I’m surprised by this, because any alumna from my (all girls’) high school should be saddled with a decades-long case of PTSD based on how Valentine’s Day was handled there.

Picture it: Chattanooga, Tennessee. The early ’90s.  

At the center of the school is an open, airy “rotunda.” For the occasion of Valentine’s Day, seemingly by magic,  it is filled with lengthy wooden tables. Those who receive flowers will have them displayed here. For the entire day. Those that don’t will keep checking — in vain — throughout the day to see if a secret admirer (or … sigh … one’s parents) came through with a bouquet.

Even those with boyfriends were set up for abject disappointment: “What did you get, Cindy?” I remember pathetically asking the most beautiful, popular girl in my class, who ALWAYS had an (older) boyfriend.  “Oh … just a dozen roses.”  Because, Bob-Vance (Vance Refrigeration) style, other guys would think above and beyond THAT traditional gesture.  In my four years of high school, I had a boyfriend on Feb. 14 exactly once, and yeah, it felt quite good to have something delivered to those tables.  But quite frankly, it seems a little shaming and antiquated, right?

Hashtag whatever.

Today’s lyric quiz fits with the theme of the day, as all song titles include the word “Heart.”  Good luck, and have a great day, whether you’re headed out, staying in, celebrating with the love of your life, or enjoying some quality time with yourself or your friends. And hell … Earth Day is right around the corner.

Friday Lyric Quiz #476 [scroll down for last week’s answers]

1. “Love can touch us one time, and last for a lifetime” (late ’90s)

2. “I’m here with my confession, got nothing to hide no more” (early ’00s)

3. “If you gave me half a chance you’d see, my desire burning inside of me” (mid-’80s)

4. “You are the move you make, take your chances win or lose her” (early ’80s)

5. “We took what we had and we ripped it apart, now here I am down in Kingstown again” (early ’80s)

6. “You’re the right kind of sinner, to release my inner fantasy” (late ’70s)

7. “Never break a sweat for the other guys, when you come around, I get paralyzed” (early 2010s)

8. “Walking on the water, walking on the air, that was the heart of the love we shared” (late ’80s)

9. “This prison has now become your home, a sentence you seem prepared to pay” (mid-’80s)

10. “I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap” (early ’90s)

Answers to Friday Lyric Quiz #475 [Potpourri]

1. “A willow deeply scarred, somebody’s broken heart, and a washed-out dream” (late ’80s)
Man in the Mirror, Michael Jackson

2. “My thoughts are with you, holding hands with your heart to see you” (late ’70s)
September, Earth Wind & Fire

3. “I will hold it back again, this passion inside. Can’t run from myself, there’s nowhere to hide” (early ’90s)
I Have Nothing, Whitney Houston

4. “Sweet 16, ain’t that peachy keen, now it ain’t so neat to admit defeat” (early ’80s)
I Don’t Like Mondays, The Boomtown Rats

5. “There’s no ice in your lover’s walk, you don’t look twice, ’cause you move so fast ” (early ’80s)
The One Thing, INXS

6. “Moon appears to shine and light the sky, with the help of some fireflies” (mid-’70s)
Baby I Love Your Way, Peter Frampton

7. “I’m trying keep my hands off, but you’re begging me for more” (early 2010s)
I Like It, Enrique Iglesias f/ Pitbull

8. ” Is it d-d-destiny, destiny. Or is it just a game in my mind” (late ’70s)
My Sharona, The Knack

9. “And after I’d wipe away the tears, just close your eyes, dear” (mid-’90s)
Possession, Sarah McLachlan

10. “I don’t ever want to play the part, of a statistic on a government chart” (early ’80s)
Invisible Sun, The Police

Lyric Theory: “Alone Again, Naturally,” Gilbert O’Sullivan (1972)

Today on Lyric Theory: A song that made history. Not in the VH1 documentary hype style like, “Sisqo’s bold gymnastics changed pop music… forever!” way, but for real.

Americans really only like about three movies total. One of them is about two strangers who meet and fall in love, but one of them has a secret that tears them temporarily apart, until they come to terms with it. You’ve probably seen this movie when it was called Aladdin, or While You Were Sleeping, or Never Been Kissed, or The Graduate. In that latter film, the girl makes it all the way to (and in fact past) the altar with another man, until the boy shows up and changes her mind. They run off together, happy ever after. Great story! Unless you’re the guy left standing at the altar, like this guy:

This cheery ditty ruled the pop charts in 1972, looking down from the #1 slot on both the pop and easy listening charts for six weeks each. Its chirpy, chipper musical appeal is clear, the most McCartneyesque piece of pop this side of “Baker Street.” It features the ascending I-Iaug-I6 chord progression also found in pop gems like “There’s a Kind of Hush” and “It’s All Been Done”. The lyrics are another matter altogether:

I promise myself to treat myself and visit a nearby tower
And, climbing to the top, will throw myself off
In an effort to make it clear to whoever
What it’s like when you’re shattered,
Left standing in the lurch at a church
Where people were saying: “My God, that’s tough!”
“She stood him up!”
“No point in us remaining.”
“We may as well go home.” —
As I did, on my own, alone again, naturally.

The second verse describes his feeling of estrangement from God, while the third covers the deaths of his parents. Peppy stuff, right? The “naturally” is the kicker. Getting jilted publicly is humiliation enough, but for this guy, it’s the natural state of affairs, the latest in a lifelong string of relational disasters. Movies have the luxury to make the jiltee a cad or shrew that we’re glad to see left alone (again, naturally), but that’s the convenience of fiction, not the messy reality in which every villain is part hero, and vice versa.

O’Sullivan’s performance took on historical significance beyond its intent when, almost twenty years later, it became the final straw in a decade-long debate about the fiscal relationship between rap music and pop music. Rap music in the 1970s usually consisted of live vocal performance over the top of pre-existing music, often the looped instrumental section of a pop hit. While technically illegal to do in any kind of public forum, matters first came to a head when the performances were captured in the studio, played on the radio, and topped the pop charts, as happened with “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang, which recreated the bassline of Chic’s disco hit “Good Times.” Queen had previously adapted that same bassline for their own disco foray, but the Sugarhillers, lacking Queen’s clout, were forced to settle a lawsuit, adding Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers to the authorial credits. (However, no one stood up for the authorial rights of the Depression-era standards “Happy Days are Here Again” and “About a Quarter to Nine,” which Chic had appropriated for the lyrics of “Good Times.”)

Since that case was settled out of court, it didn’t go to trial and thus didn’t create legal precedent. Rap stars throughout the 1980s sampled more and more songs, until in 1991 rapper/pianist Biz Markie used the instrumental intro and core hook of “Alone Again, Naturally” for his own song “Alone Again.” Markie had risen from humble indie rap beginnings but by that point in his career was signed to Warner Brothers, whose deep pockets made worthwhile a copyright lawsuit brought by the company which owned the rights to O’Sullivan’s old song. Not only did Biz Markie (and more to the point, Warner Brothers) lose the civil lawsuit, but they were referred for criminal prosecution on grounds they had known they were stealing. Precedent had been set, and all future rap songs had to pay if they wanted to use other people’s music. Predictably, sampling receded dramatically, and rap became less about recontextualizating of old bits of pop history, leaving the modern rapper and his drum machine alone again.

Friday Lyric Quiz, No. 475 (The “Well.” Edition)

Winona et al

Super Random Clue.

Sakes alive. Worst. Super Bowl. Ever? That was a rough one, and I was barely vested in the thing. Halftime was as weird as I figured it would be, though not wholly unpleasant.  Anyway, on, on, on to the next one.

This week is another potpourri of sorts, and I really have nothing to riff on.  All of the big pop-culture stories are depressing — Woody Allen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, the piss-poor conditions of the Olympic host city.  Last night was Jay Leno’s “last” broadcast (again), but I’ll believe it when I see it, chubby man.  NEVER FORGET.

So without further ado, let’s rock this thing up and down the coast. Picture is a clue to one of today’s songs.

Friday Lyric Quiz #475 [scroll down for last week’s answers]

1. “A willow deeply scarred, somebody’s broken heart, and a washed-out dream” (late ’80s)

2. “My thoughts are with you, holding hands with your heart to see you” (late ’70s)

3. “I will hold it back again, this passion inside. Can’t run from myself, there’s nowhere to hide” (early ’90s)

4. “Sweet 16, ain’t that peachy keen, now it ain’t so neat to admit defeat” (early ’80s)

5. “There’s no ice in your lover’s walk, you don’t look twice, ’cause you move so fast ” (early ’80s)

6. “Moon appears to shine and light the sky, with the help of some fireflies” (mid-’70s)

7. “I’m trying keep my hands off, but you’re begging me for more” (early 2010s)

8. ” Is it d-d-destiny, destiny. Or is it just a game in my mind” (late ’70s)

9. “And after I’d wipe away the tears, just close your eyes, dear” (mid-’90s)

10. “I don’t ever want to play the part, of a statistic on a government chart” (early ’80s)

Answers to Friday Lyric Quiz #474 [Football]

1. “And football teams are kissing queens and losing sight of having dreams” (early ’00s)
Calling All Angels, Train

2. “Jack Black, the clown, Brad Pitt, the quarterback. Seen it all before, I want my money back” (mid-’00s)
High School Never Ends, Bowling For Soup

3. “The rhyme is a football, y’all, and I went and threw it” (early ’90s)
Boom! Shake the Room, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince

4. “So I’m ready to attack, gonna lead the pack, gonna get a touchdown, gonna take you out” (mid-’00s)
Hollaback Girl, Gwen Stefani

5. “He wear no shoeshine, he got toe jam football” (late ’60s)
Come Together, The Beatles

6. “And I can see you years from now in a bar, talking over a football game” (late ’00s)
Mean, Taylor Swift

7. “Then there was the ever-present, football-player rapist” (mid-’90s)
Pepper, Butthole Surfers

8. “You must be a football coach, the way you got me playin’ the field” (early ’00s)
Ignition (Remix), R. Kelly

9. “You finally wake up, Doc’s gone to town, round his back, through the hoop, then you scream ‘touchdown!'” (mid-’80s)
You Be Illin’, Run D.M.C.

10. “I got a letterman’s sweater, with a letter in front, I got for football and track” (early ’60s)
Be True to Your School, The Beach Boys