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

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.

Lyric Theory: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” U2 (1987)

Ethiopia, 1985

Ethiopia, 1985

Pop songwriters of the early 20th century aimed for universal topics within a narrow range of interests: finding love, having love, losing love, thinking abstractly about love. Any song that varied from the formula generally had a story about it. For instance, Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” (1945), with its theme of self-reliance, was originally commissioned for a never-made movie musical about a cowboy in Argentina. The song sold millions in a version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, but few followed its lead; most pop songs were not only love songs, but extremely general love songs about situations that could occur to anybody, and probably had occurred to everybody sometime.

This had not always been the case; folk songs from the nineteenth century and before generally narrated specific events in the lives (and often deaths) of specific people. Like CNN, US Weekly, and the radio blowhards of today, traveling troubadours offered infotainment, gossip cloaked in journalism, judged at least as much for style as content. Around 1910, musicologists John and Alan Lomax began publishing first sheet music and then recordings of those old folk songs. Interest in this older song tradition birthed a generation of folk singers, including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who sang not only the golden oldies but also their own originals in the same style. By the early 1960s, old folk songs like Goodnight Irene, Stagger Lee, and Delia’s Gone could become big hits, and the new generation including Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio were picking up the torch from Seeger and Guthrie.

Bob Dylan and Paul Simon performed plenty of folk standards as well as their own originals, but with a major twist: their lyrics simultaneously were more specific and more opaque. Take Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” (1964). On one level, anyone can relate at least a little to its frustrated tirade about a nagging lover who won’t accept the protagonist as he is, but also won’t just go away. But the details of the dirty laundry being aired belong to Dylan’s relationships with his politically active girlfriends Suzy Rotolo and Joan Baez. Dylan enjoyed the success of seeing his music co-opted by various Baby Boomer political movements – anti-segregation, anti-Cold War, anti-Vietnam, etc. – but resented being thrown into the fishbowl as the “voice of his generation.” Songs like this rebuke not just his girlfriends, but his audience. Dylan would similarly rebel against a different fishbowl when, upon his profession of Christian faith in the late 1970s, his new audience only wanted to hear his new songs, accompanied by a specific sort of affirmation that he had joined their team.

Really knowing Dylan’s music required knowing Dylan. So too with many other songwriters in his wake. One can glean a general theme of loneliness from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York,” but Simon’s lyrical details turn from black and white to Technicolor in the context of their disintegrating partnership, as Garfunkel went to film a movie in Mexico as part of a failed bid to carve a niche for himself apart from Simon, while Simon stayed home to recall the early days when the two of them performed as “Tom and Jerry.”

Examples could be multiplied endlessly as 1960s folk rock evolved into the 1970s singer-songwriter tradition: James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” and Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” while all good songs even in a contextual vacuum, make far more sense if you’ve read their respective biographies. Rock singers picked up the baton as well, from Bruce Springsteen’s and Billy Joel’s endless odes to the ruined lives and ruined townships of greater NYC, to the new wave of punk and post-punk  bands launched like missiles from the British Isles against various political targets circa 1980. Which brings us finally to U2, a child of those days. What is the place “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and why would someone want to be there?

By the mid 1980s, Paul “Bono” Hewson, raised on a musical diet of The Clash, Lou Reed, and similar 70s protest music, had honed his political/personal songwriting chops writing about the religious and political strife of his own country and family. The triple hit of Band Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid turned his attention to the even less tractable, more intertwined problems of political persecution and famine in Africa. He and his wife Alison saw the desolation firsthand on a trip to refugee camps in Ethiopia, where temporary tent cities stretched endlessly.

Struck by the desperate solidarity of poverty, he thought of the caste-bound Belfast neighborhoods of his childhood, in which someone’s street address defined one religiously, economically, politically. He thought of the Pentecostal Shalom Bible study fellowship of his youth and its teachings about the coming heavenly New Jerusalem. Would that eschatological city be segregated like Belfast? Surely not. In the perfect world, the streets will have no names, no divisions, like the tent cities.

So the song opens with a churchish pipe organ, joined by The Edge’s cascade of time-delayed guitar arpeggios, then by Adam and Larry’s rhythm section, until finally, a full 2:15 into the song, Bono begins explaining his desire to “tear down the walls” of social distinction. His case study is “a place high on desert plain where the streets have no name.” Granted, in that Ethiopian famine-born city, things are not so good: “beaten and blown by the wind, see our love turn to rust… still building, then burning down, love.” He won’t romanticize the Ethiopian situation, trivializing the human suffering there. Nor can he change it; turning to Ali he comments, “When I go there, I go there with you. It’s all I can do.” For the time being anyway. But over the following 25 years, Bono and Ali became more and more emphatic advocates for the plight of Africa, meeting with world leaders for debt forgiveness, promoting efforts to foster indigenous industries to mitigate the cycle of poverty that leads to the endless revolutions and famines. Even just this week, U2 published a “better than free” charity single, with the funds earmarked to reduce neonatal transmission of HIV in Africa. As with famine, it’s always better to treat the cause of the disease, not just the symptoms. The rest of the Joshua Tree album (1987) catalogues the list of other modern woes crying for remedy: addiction, unemployment, warmongering, American exceptionalism, suppression of dissidents, racism, narcissism. Bono has a vision for a better world, but he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

Science Fiction cinema and literature have often treated the theme of class struggle. H.G. Well’s novel “The Time Machine,” (1895) depicted a future earth populated by effete, wealthy Eloi on the surface and brutish blue collar Morlocks underground. Similar dramatizations of the split between the haves and have-nots were repeated in films like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), “Soylent Green” (1973),  Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy, and recent entries “In Time” (2011) and “Elysium” (2013). Most of these stories end with the status quo unchanged, though the latter two close the curtain after a supposedly purgative episode of Marxian violent revolution, like a romantic comedy that ends with the marriage of two characters clearly unsuited for each other or indeed for anyone. Bono offers a more hopeful path forward: Not taking up arms, and not giving up, and not just waiting for a solution from heaven, but working toward that ideal by building up what’s low, rather than tearing down what’s high.

Lyric Theory: “Butterfly,” Crazy Town (2000)

This may appear under the wrong heading, as the only “theory” behind what I’d like to examine is that Crazy Town lead Shifty Shellshock wrote these lyrics long before his attempts at sobriety.  The “best” part of this rock/rap ditty is actually the sample running throughout the whole song … which is the work of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, not Crazy Town at all.  At least they know a catchy riff when they hear it, and have the business sense to exploit it?  (Hashtag Sean Combs.)

This “song” — one that many critics love to hate — is a fairly stupid ode to love in the new millennium.  In the span of 3:34, we get references to nipple piercing, tongue rings, sex appeal, getting high (in a proverbial sense), parole, a painful slant rhyme of “message” with “precious,” and the ’60s-inspired phrase “sealed with a kiss.”  Buried within the song’s bridge (if one can call it that … the vocals stay relatively monotonous, but the backing music changes slightly), we have these words of wisdom:

Hey sugar momma, come and dance with me
The smartest thing you ever did was take a chance with me
Whatever tickles your fancy
Girl it’s me and you like Sid and Nancy


Weren’t “Sid and Nancy” violent, erratic, codependent, and addicted to all things illegal?  Isn’t it assumed that the former stabbed the latter, months before dying himself in a most unflattering (yet not surprising) way?  And having well-documented problems with substance abuse himself, should this really be a reference Shifty Shellshock (IF THAT IS HIS REAL NAME — and it’s not) should be throwing around so cavalierly?

Is this quite possibly the stupidest analogy in all of popular music, if not the stupidest lyric, period?

Here they are, in their “prime” — head for zee hills, oh butterfly of Shifty’s affections.

Sid and Nancy

Isn’t it romantic!

Lyric Theory: “Yakety Yak,” The Coasters (1958)

A 56-year-old mystery …

Thanks to my ole buddy Mark in Chains for inadvertently giving me a new subject idea! My friends and family and I have spent way too much time analyzing lyrics (often, the more inane the better), so why not regurgitate some of those debates here?

My Dad and I have a lot in common.  We both needed glasses at a young age, we both have bad luck with customer service, and we both misheard the lyrics of  “Up On the Housetop” as “reindeer paws” (not a thing) vs. “reindeer pause” for decades.

But we fundamentally disagree about the gender of the child being barked at in the 1950s hit “Yakety Yak.” To review, the narrator of the song is a dissatisfied parent, nagging his offspring about various neglected chores and character flaws. We don’t learn much about said child, but I believe it’s a son — Dad thinks it has to be a daughter.  Let’s break down the lyrics for evidence.  Forgive any stereotyping below; we’re time traveling back to 1958 here.

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Boys take out the paper.  Boys rock and roll.  Girls, however, do scrub the kitchen floor.  Still, the first-stanza advantage goes to the boys.
Just finish cleanin’ up your room
Let’s see that dust fly with that broom
Get all that garbage out of sight
Or you don’t go out Friday night

Presumably, both sons and daughters had to clean their rooms.  And since the father figure has already bitched about taking out the trash, I assume the “garbage” here is just filth in the kid’s bedroom.  I’d say this verse could go either way.

You just put on your coat and hat
And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin’ that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat

Hmmm.  One would think that, back in 1958, girls were on laundry duty.  Pet duty?  Could go either way. So perhaps this verse swings slightly toward the fairer sex.

Don’t you give me no dirty looks
Your father’s hip; he knows what cooks
Just tell your hoodlum friends outside
You ain’t got time to take a ride

Here’s where it becomes completely obvious that we are dealing with father-son tensions. Let’s leave aside the hepcat lingo and focus on those “hoodlum friends” wanting to joyride. Dads try to protect their daughters from one hoodlum boyfriend taking her to park. Joyriding with multiple friends? That’s the stuff of young men. At least in the 1950s.