With the passing of Chuck Berry, one of the all-time legends of Rock’n’Roll, I thought we should reflect on all that he added to the genre. Whether Chuck Berry actually invented Rock’n’Roll could be debated (there are a couple of other pioneers, particularly Ray Charles and Little Richard, that could make a similar claim), but what is indisputable is that he was the first truly great Rock songwriter. The other pioneering Rock acts like Little Richard were almost entirely performance-oriented; for example, “Tutti Frutti” is a great vehicle for Little Richard’s performing style, but it doesn’t amount to much as an actual composition. Berry, who was both a master of indelible guitar riffs and a brilliant lyricist, wrote the first great Rock songs that retained their greatness no matter who was performing them, which was an incredibly key factor in making the genre sustainable. This song is one of his all-time masterpiece, a tender and touching piece about a man trying to get through to someone named Marie who called him from Memphis, Tennessee. For most of the song it seems like Marie is an ex-girlfriend, but in the last verse it is revealed that she was actually the narrator’s six-year-old daughter. This is a genuinely poetic and beautifully moving song that shows off what Berry was truly capable of as a lyricist. The landscape of modern music would be almost unrecognizable without this great artist’s contribution, and we should all be grateful for his accomplishments both in writing some of the greatest songs of all time and in making so many other great songwriters’ work possible by his influence.
Tim McGraw would eventually grow into arguably the greatest Country singer of his era, but his very first hit, the extremely tasteless “Indian Outlaw”, made him seem like little more than another photogenic purveyor of Pop-Country novelty songs. This was particularly bad for his image because Country music already had an artist on the scene that fit that description…Billy Ray Cyrus…and was in the process of getting rid of him because he was intolerably awful. But with this song, which was McGraw’s second hit, he showed what he was really capable of, what would eventually make him the reigning King of the Pop-Country era. The actual sound of this song was more Adult Contemporary than Country, but like all of McGraw’s greatest work, the sensibility and emotional content were rooted in the fundamentals of the Classic Country genre. It’s a beautifully written song, with an open appeal to emotion that could reduce almost anyone to tears and a circular structure that articulates a profound wisdom about the patterns of life. The music video for this song seems to have indicated that the ‘girl’ survives the events of the third verse and chorus, but the song is all the more powerful for not answering that question either way. Granted, McGraw still sings the song in the nasal whine of his early career (something he would grow out of by his peak), but that’s about the only thing that separates this from the greatest work of his peak period. It would be another three years before everything McGraw released would be on this level (indeed, he wouldn’t really equal this song until his 1997 album Everywhere), but this was an early sign that this young up-and-comer was more than just a second Billy Ray Cyrus, and indeed was something truly special.
Benny Bell’s name is almost forgotten today, and even his songs, with the exception of this immortal classic, have practically vanished, but he ranks with Tom Lehr, Weird Al Yankovich, Jonathan Coulton, and very few others as one of the all-time great writers of comedic novelties. He was significantly more risque than the others I just named, but in a clever, even subtle way. He specialized in what I once heard dubbed “Clean songs for dirty minds”, where the obscene element is suggested in the listener’s head, but never actually spoken or stated explicitly. And with this song, he created the definitive archetype of that kind of song, the song that people immediately think of when they contemplate the technique of the subverted rhyme. There are supposedly over a hundred alternate verses to this song, many of them presumably added by others years after Bell originally wrote it, because he created a brilliantly versatile template from which it’s easy to improvise your own verses. Novelty songs were, of course, extremely popular during the era when Bell was writing (indeed, most of our “classic” novelty hits hail from this era), but as a rule, they were generally far less funny than this. Even the best of the novelties that made the Pop charts at the time (such as “The Purple People Eater” or “Monster Mash”) couldn’t approach the level of laughs that this radio-unsuitable underground hit could get from its audience. Benny Bell actually wrote a lot of other interesting stuff too, but I do understand why this song wound up being his primary legacy…it just might be the greatest novelty song of all time.
Well, now that he isn’t around to see it, Leonard Cohen has finally gotten a charting song on the Hot 100. While this certainly serves as a reminder that we only really appreciate what we have after it’s gone, it still serves as a nicely respectful tribute to his memory. There have been plenty of successful cover versions of this legendary song (including a Pentatonix cover that made the charts at the same time this did), but most of them tend to overemphasize the big, sparkly chorus. Meanwhile, the real glories of this song are the lyrics on the verses, with their biblical illusions and tone of cosmic desperation, which are served better in Cohen’s original than any other version. On top of that, Cohen’s vocal performance is one of the greatest he ever gave…this was the point where his voice was just starting to deepen into the sound of real authority, and his commanding tone on these powerful words is as magnificent as the poetry itself. This is the definitive rendition of one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century, and the fact that it finally got some chart exposure in its original form is perhaps the best of all the recent positive developments on the charts.
Apparently the literary world has finally realized that Bob Dylan, so long written off as a mere ‘popular singer’, is actually the greatest poet of our age, since he was recently awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in literature. This provoked a small uproar among his lesser peers in the literary genre, and while I don’t usually say this, I suspect that this reaction had as much to do with jealousy as it did with conventional snobbery. I imagine that deep down, each of these dissenters knows that Dylan is truly a better writer than they are, and they are furious to be outdone in quality by a mere ‘Rock musician’, much as Virgil Thompson resented the fact that ‘Pop’ songwriter George Gershwin was writing better Classical music than him. And if there’s a song that better demonstrates Dylan’s worthiness as a truly great poet than this one, I can’t think of it. It doesn’t feature the cryptic complexity of a “Desolation Row” or a “Changing of the Guards”, but it is infinitely eloquent in its simple invocation of primal emotions. Taken from Dylan’s gut-wrenching collection of songs about lost love, Blood on the Tracks, this really is one of the most lyrical and moving songs ever written, and its beauty comes almost entirely from Dylan’s perfectly chosen words. The lyrics are full of the evocative quasi-religious imagery Dylan always loved, but they keep coming back to the repeated refrain of “Come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm”, creating a perfectly captured archetype of the refuge that is love which is both ecstatic and heartbreaking. Of course, I’m not nearly eloquent enough to do full justice to an analysis of a work this profound, so I will just state that this is that rarity of rarities, a truly perfect composition, and could hold its own with the works of such luminaries as Auden or Wordsworth any day. This song proves, as do countless others in Dylan’s oeuvre, that he is not only a great poet of our time, but probably the single greatest poet currently living, and deserves the recognition he is receiving far more than the envious naysayers who carp about it.
This song seems to be universally accepted as one of the most inspirational songs ever written…so am I the only one who think the worlds described in the lyrics sounds more like a dystopia than a paradise? I’m aware John Lennon’s martyr status probably has a lot to do with the way people feel about this song, but the lyrics still sound more like a Sixties hippie interpretation of Brave New World than anything I’d like to live in. Granted, Lennon wasn’t by any means a crazy revolutionary…he was very much against using violence to achieve this ‘perfect world’ he dreamed of, and apparently thought it would just happen when enough people agreed with him on it. Now, I’m not normally in the habit of criticizing canonized classics, and for the record, I understand that artistically, this song is as good as everyone says it is…breathtaking melody, moving lyrics that do an impressive job of making these questionable ideas sound convincing, and Lennon singing it like he believes every word. Of course, given that the entire point of Brave New World was that any real utopia would be a dystopia, perhaps the real problem was that Lennon was too honest about what his earthly paradise would require us to give up…there’s a reason most inspirational songs about the future are a lot vaguer than this. That said, it doesn’t seem to have hurt the song’s popularity, but at the same time, I’m not the first person I’ve encountered who’s observed that the song’s message comes across as just the tiniest bit creepy.
This was one of Dylan’s very first songs to make any kind of mainstream impact…indeed, it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s covers of this song and “Blowin’ in the Wind” that essentially introduced him to the world. Now, delicately written, poetic song whose ultimate message is essentially “fuck you” are a staple of Dylan’s work…one of his most famous albums, Blood on the Tracks, is built almost entirely around them…but I’m not sure he ever did it better than this. It’s especially remarkable given that Dylan was only 23 years old at the time of this song’s release…there’s a subtlety and maturity here, and a depth of anger and sadness, that seems vastly beyond his years. This is easily one of the greatest breakup songs in history, and it still ranks as one of Dylan’s all-time classics. And in spite of the exposure provided by the Peter, Paul and Mary cover, this is definitely one of those songs that works best when sung by Dylan himself…Peter, Paul and Mary are undoubtedly better singers, but they’re just too nice to give this song the degree of venom it really needs.
Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals, Me and Juliet was probably the greatest disappointment. It did throw off one enduring standard, “No Other Love”, but despite an ambitious concept (a sort of proto-A Chorus Line treatise on theater), it never really fulfilled its potential. The plot was little more than an Oklahoma retread set in a Broadway theater, and the score was mostly composed of tuneful-but-generic ballads and up-tunes. However, it did feature two brilliantly inspired numbers that show what the show might have been if it had followed through with its premise…the introspective “The Big Black Giant” and this one. This number, appropriately positioned as the second-act opening, starts out with a collection of random bits of slice-of-life dialogue one might hear in an actual theater lounge, and then segues into a debate between genuine theater lovers and naysayers who insist the theater is dead. It’s a lot of fun to point out this number to modern theater snobs, because it demonstrates that even in the Fifties (which today’s theater snobs tend to view as the peak of their imaginary ‘golden age’), enough people were espousing the same absurd argument they’re peddling today that Rodgers and Hammerstein, of all people, felt the need to write a song about it. The arguments they offer even sound eerily reminiscent of those made by later theater snobs, showing, I suppose, that little has really changed about that class of people (granted, the ‘shows are too serious’ argument was more common in the Eighties and Nineties than it is today, but the point still holds). Admittedly, this song doesn’t feature a top-drawer Rodgers melody, but the unique brilliance of Hammerstein’s lyric more than makes up for it. If everything in Me and Juliet achieved this level of inspiration, the show would be considered a top-level R&H masterpiece today.