Little ditty

In the sentimental ‘70s, the appetite for tragic drama in pop culture was a lot more voracious than ever before or since; the genre of the after-school special and such movies as “Love Story,” “The Other Side of the Mountain,” “Ice Castles,” ”Brian’s Song,” “Something for Joey,” and of course, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” all dramatized tragic circumstances that most teens, at least, ate right up and asked for seconds. The pop songs of the day reflected this morbid hunger with tales of heartrending deaths after the fashion of 1964’s best model, “Leader of the Pack”: “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Emmaline,” “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Fire and Rain,” “Rocky,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and perhaps most maudlin of all, the narrator who knew he was going to die in “Seasons in the Sun” (“Goodbye, Papa, it’s hard to die when all the birds are singing in the sky now that the spring is in the air . . .”). During and after Vietnam, I guess, people took life really, really seriously and liked to invest even the most high-pitched teen-whine pop song with the gravitas of thanatos. (See in particular “Run, Joey, Run.”)

By the time the 1980s rolled around, everyone was sick of being all meaningful, and it was big biz, bright lights, big city, fat rails of coke, and lots of glitzy livin’ for those who had the money. But what was left for the trailer park kids to reach for? If they couldn’t hope to be immortalized by dying, either in Vietnam or at the hands of their own angry fathers, who no longer disapproved of their daughters’ relationships because they were too busy screwing their Patrick Nagelesque life coaches to impose hypocritical moral standards on their kids–how then could those kids break free, make an impact? Apparently, if they weren’t in the Wall Street intern pool, but the community rec center pool, they took to the streets to grab some of the good life for themselves, with nothing but their dreams and their hormones fueling their flight.

And, of course, the timeless genre of the pop song was there to immortalize their sagas. I’d like to dig a little deeper, do some close reading if you’ll indulge me, and explicate a few of these seminal narratives. The players: Brenda and Eddie in Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Jack and Diane from John Cougar’s song of the same name, Billy and Patty from Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks,”and Tommy and Gina from Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Four couples. Four sets of working-class dreams, four convictions (hypothesized, tested, proven and disproven to varying degrees) that you can live on love, youth, and abstract hopes. Each couple expresses at least a momentary spark of youthful optimism that they might escape their dead-end lives, whether that life is epitomized by Jack and Diane “suckin’ on a chili dog outside the Tastee-Freeze,” or unemployed Tommy who “used to work on the docks/ Union’s been on strike, He’s down on his luck…it’s tough, so tough.” They all start pretty bleak, but baby, some of them dream big. They soar.

Or at least, they try. Brenda and Eddie, not coincidentally the ones still riding out the end of the ‘70s, are the only couple here whose trajectory follows the parabola not only up through the crest but down the other side. As the song’s jealous-classmate narrator tells us in Faulkneresque detail that makes “A Rose for Emily”‘s collective narrative voice seem positively disinterested, Brenda and Eddie start at the top, ridin’ high as the school’s “popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom/ Riding around with the car top down and the radio on./ Nobody looked any finer or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner.” Now that’s celebrity, Jersey-style, so imagine the narrator’s (universalized as “our”) shock and–do I detect the slightest crumb of schadenfreude?–when “they started to fight when the money got tight and they just didn’t count on the tears,” leading them to have “had it already by the summer of ‘75.” Call the lawyers, ‘cause it’s time to divvy up the fondue forks.

But let’s take a break here for a little math. By the summer? If you recall the chronology, they were “still going steady” at the beginning of that same summer “when they decided their marriage would be at the end of July.” This means that, even if you allow for the equinoctial summer’s end of September 21 rather than the more scientifically accepted First Day of School, their marriage lasted at most seven weeks. Seven weeks!! Of course the money got tight within seven weeks–in that short time they had gotten “a big waterbed” and “a couple of paintings from Sears”! What were those paintings of? I can’t imagine, but I’ll wager they cost a pret-ty penny, more than that prom queen tiara they would have had to hock–but then again, they bought them with “the bread they had saved for a couple of years.” Again, doing the math, if they were freshly graduated when they got married that summer, this means they had been saving their money for that “apartment with deep pile carpet” since sophomore year. Perhaps they were serving up Jack and Diane at the Tastee-Freeze, but they must have had some crazy lucrative after-school jobs or some long-ass overtime hours to cough up that kind of corn. Don’t they know that workin’ too hard can give you a heart attackackackackackack? Was it worth it? As the resident Richard Corys of their high school, did they stay focused by seeing themselves rolling in that gleaming deep pile carpet at the end while everyone else waited for the light and cursed the bread?

But, as literature (and life) reveals to us time and time again, pride goeth before a fall, and the busybody classmates proved correct when they gossiped at the bridal shower, “Brenda, you know that you’re much too lazy—Eddie could never afford to live that kind of life.” And in truth, Brenda and Eddie are the only couple here who experience any real character arc. Their story, after the Joycean, epiphanic coming-of-age, has a concrete sad ending, though it does leave you with a little grain of hopeful grit as Billy Joel still believes in them even after the divorce, opining, “We always knew they would both find a way to get by.” Way to go, guys! The marriage didn’t work out, but you’re still pushing on, makin’ it, gettin’ by. Return that fancy artwork and maybe you can even each afford a hot plate and a gold-flecked mirror for your new singles apartments.

Jack and Diane, on the other hand, don’t really even try; the furthest they get in their dreams is for Jack to muse wistfully about runnin’ off to the city, but Diane, ever the buzzmaul, assures him proprietarily, “Baby, you ain’t missin’ a thang.” The Tastee-Freeze is the most distant horizon she can imagine, and she shuts him right down when he dares to reach beyond it; by the end of the song his furthest vista is “behind those shady trees,” his greatest hope that she’ll let him “dribble off those Bobbie Brooks and let me do what I please.” No wonder they anticipate bleakly, “Life goes on long after the thrill of livin’ is gone”—how many back-seat gropes can you muster up, even at 16 when there’s nothing you’d rather do, before the thrill is gone? Their story is more like a chronicle of not dreaming. You want sauerkraut with that?

The other couples’ stories we hear are a bit more open-ended, leaving us (after the valiant small-town escape to the big city) feeling a little uncertain about it all, but we never hear the final splat of the inevitable ending. In the Stewart bildungsroman, before their exodus (to “the coast,” of course), Billy and Patty only know that “somehow, somewhere, it’s gotta get better than this,” frustrated that “there ain’t no use in talkin’ when there’s nobody listenin’.” They rely on the dog-eared dictum that it’s now or never, “cause life is so brief, and time is a thief when you’re undecided; like a fistful of sand it can slip right through your hands.” Why, well said, young turks (say, by any chance was Steve Miller’s “Book of Dreams” the album spooling through the 8-track on your road trip?), and Rod encourages them, rasping from the wings like a haggard old angel who wasted his own shot: “Young hearts, be free tonight! Time is on your side!” (Later in the song, he really tries to drive it home: “Time, time, time, time, time is on your side is on your side is on your side.” Arrright arrready! And do ya think anyone else ever thought to put it like that?) Like Brenda and Eddie, Patty and Billy get an apartment; theirs may not feature deep pile carpet, but it’s “jumpin’ every night of the week.” Billy celebrates his newfound independence by “pierc[ing] his ears” and “driv[ing] a pickup like a lunatic.” (No word on whether he rocks a shag mullet like Rod the Mod’s, but I think it can be safely assumed.) However, Patty has a harder time breaking away, leaving “a note for her mother (she was just seventeen); there were tears in her eyes as she kissed her little sister goodbye.” That touching family tie is reconnected not by Patty herself but by conscientious Billy, who writes Patty’s mom later to tell her that “we’re both real sorry that it had to turn out this way . . . Patty gave birth to a ten-pound baby boy.” Oops, babies having babies!! Looks like the party’s over, kids.

And why can’t Patty write that second letter herself, one wonders, after she already busted out her Bic Banana to pen the first maternal missive? That original good-bye epistle, though perhaps her natural instinct, could also have been suggested by a tune Patty might have listened to growing up, the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” The protagonist of that song runs away as well, but her escape is blamed more directly on her parents, who realize that now that she’s gone, she’s doing the ghastliest thing they can imagine: “having fun (something inside that was always denied for so many years).” After all, they realize too late, though they had “never a thought for [them]selves, fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.” Patty must have listened hard to repeated spins of this cautionary tale on the family’s Magnavox console, and vowed to make her own escape someday.

Little do the parents in “She’s Leaving Home” know, though, that their baby’s not running off alone, but “meeting a man from the motor trade.” Perhaps his career path puts him a tax bracket above the longshoreman and the diner waitress made famous by “Livin’ on a Prayer,” but the common denominator here is LOVE. Bon Jovi seems to wish them the same encouragement that Rod does his own proteges, though in this case it’s through the words of Tommy and Gina themselves, bucking each other up. Come on now, I know you know the words: “You gotta hold on to what we’ve got; it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not. We’ve got each other and that’s a lot for love. We’ll give it a shot.” This encouraging mantra comes in handy when, say, Gina “cries in the night.” But like Jack and Diane, these two never actually run away; they just dream of it, and Tommy promises “Someday.” Though their narrative has the smallest trajectory, it’s the most anthemic, reminding us: “You live for the fight when it’s all that you’ve got.” Billy and Patty got a baby and a pickup truck; Jack and Diane got a chili dog and also sixteen, which they’re holding onto, but not for long; Brenda and Eddie got a couple of paintings from Sears. And do they make it? No, no, and probably not, or at least not together. Gina and Tommy? They got nothin’ but the fight, but they live for it. Brenda and Eddie are so over. Billy’s in the welfare line spending his food stamps on Huggies instead of guitar strings. Jack and Diane, by now 16½ and way jaded, are probably at the point where life has gone on long after the thrill of living is gone–that dog is in the dirt, chili side down. Tommy and Gina, though, are halfway there, even though our erstwhile stevedore cum aspiring axman has got his six-string in hock.

And why? ‘Cause Gina brings home her coffee-cup tips for love, not for cable, QVC, or, but love, and that shows commitment. But to what? For what? The goals they live for are so abstract as to be indefinable. They “gotta hold on.” To what? “Ready or not.” For what? They’re halfway “there.” Where? They’ll make “it,” give “it” a shot. What, exactly? The more abstracted and vague the goals, the more excited the chanting, the more powerful the promise, the more tangible the dream—and ultimately, the more hopeful the ending of the song. It’s the concreteness of dreams like deep pile carpet and pickup trucks that seem to limit the possibilities, but you just know Tommy and Gina will come through, because all they want is to “make” that indefinable “it.”

The summer I was about to turn 17 (coincidentally, the summer “Jack and Diane” was every AM deejay’s go-to platter), my fellow day camp counselors, whom I idolized since they were all pushin’ 20, screamed at me in harmony on the field trip bus every day, “Hold onto sixteen as long as you can, Stephie!” And they were right–by first of September, that other ethereal “it,” sixteendom, had slipped from my grasp like a greased chili dog. The question is, does the singer of these songs, each one a slightly to significantly older man than his teen protagonists, tell his couple’s story as a cautionary tale about that same famous brevity of youth? With envy that he’s past the age where such hopeful escape still seems possible? (Keep in mind that each singer is also a quazillionaire and doesn’t have the same need for escape anymore by the time he’s cracking the Billboard Top 100, though most of them position themselves as having fought their way up from a more squalid place, and maybe they did.) Just how far removed were the troubadours themselves from the youthful passions they detail so painstakingly in these songs?

Well, glad you asked. Rod Stewart was 35 when he recorded “Young Turks” in 1980; the knell of that “middle-aged” birthday can be deafening, especially for a rock star, and perhaps it got him waxin’ nostalgic for the dreams he had half a lifetime ago, dreams maybe even just like Patty and Billy’s but with a little more glitter and shinier pants. Does he really believe time is on their side? Or is he speaking from experience that it ain’t, so you better live big now? Billy Joel was 32 when his album “The Stranger” gave us the inside scoop on Brendereneddie’s saga, but keep in mind that in 1977, 32 was like 50. He was probably feelin’ his metaphorical rheumatism himself, and maybe even consoling himself that they didn’t make it as big as he did in the end (though let’s face it, Billyenchristie were no fairytale romance either, mister). When “Jack and Diane” hit big in 1982, John Cougar wasn’t even Mellencamping yet, but he was a year over thirty. That could explain the a capella carpe diem in that haunting bridge, “Hold on to sixteen as long as you can.” But in 1986 when Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” pumped the nation’s fists in the air for Tommy and Gina, JBJ himself was only 24. Maybe this explains the sense of hope that permeates this song more than the others; Jon wasn’t yet a struggling cheesy actor with frosted tips and a one-off cameo as the commitment-phobe on “Sex and the City.” He had just attained hugeosity with “Runaway” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and was now ruling stadiums in his many-colored patchwork leather duster of a dreamcoat. Why wouldn’t he believe that Dreams Could Come True? God knows his did, so why couldn’t Tommy’s, with enough hope, hubris, and heart? Why couldn’t all of ours?

I turned 17, and then 18 and 19 and everything else after that. Options opened up, but also narrowed as I made choices that closed certain doors. That’s part of aging. But in the teenage zeitgeist of infinite possibility, it’s all spread out in front of you for the plucking. Billy Joel reminds us that “you can never go back there again,” and Jack and Diane live with the burdensome knowledge that “changes comin’ round real soon make us women and men.” Hence Patty and Billy’s prescient resolve: “We got just one shot at life; let’s take it while we’re still not afraid.” The pop song gives us back this moment in a neat little package complete with riffs, rhymes, and romantic escape. For three and a half minutes, its beat strikes your pulse, the hope is tangible enough to taste, and the escape to that elusive “it” could really be yours. Take my hand–we’ll make it, I swear!

23 responses to “Little ditty”

  1. PB says:

    “As the resident Richard Corys of their high school, did they stay focused by seeing themselves rolling in that gleaming deep pile carpet at the end while everyone else waited for the light and cursed the bread?”

    This is a perfect harmony of pop psyche and literary analysis, with a coda of personal insight. I loved the songs you discuss, but they also sort of depressed me, even then. I longed for the songs of the 60’s and 70’s, at least you died at your apex. Life unreeling as an aging denoumoue (sp?), yikes.

    Really fun post!!

  2. Rachel says:

    Without any older siblings to blaze a trail through adolescence, I was left with my mom’s record collection to obsess over for the first few years of my musical awareness. Billy Joel’s “Glass Houses” (1980) played an embarrassingly large role in that primeval pop lexicon–and it gives us some hints about what Diane had to look forward to.

    As for JBJ, it’s worth remembering that his band’s earliest hit was “Runaway”, a tale of teenage prostitution that was a huge downer back in the hair-metal days of 1984, when every girl carried a full-sized can of Aqua Net in her Casual Corner purse.

  3. Ruben Mancillas says:

    That is some tasty explication.

    Can’t wait to see what you would make of some other titles. “Last Kiss”, for example.

    Maybe I’ll take a shot at unpacking “Detroit Rock City.” You know anyone around the house who could help me with that one?

    I’ve got this friend who grew up in a small town down South and he regales us with stories that sound just like some of these pop songs. I won’t give away too many of the particulars but hearing about trips to the big city to cruise for girls at the Rick Springfield concert/falling out of trees on Spring Break/illicit activities in the graveyard after dark make me think that we lost (yet another?) one of the potentialy great chroniclers of teen relationships to academia.

  4. Scott says:

    Ah yes, “Detroit Rock City,” (Perhaps it’s just because I’m in grad school, but the song’s title seems to be missing a colon.) a song of teenage angst ending in a violent death. My favorite part is how the protagonist explains: “first I drink, then I smoke,” just before hopping behind the wheel, and how later, he still wonders why he’s gonna’ die. Um, perhaps it’s the whole being shitfaced while rushing to make the midnight show.

    I’ve been thinking about “Papa Don’t Preach.” Where does this song fit? It’s both tragic and hopeful. Steph, your expertise please.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Yo Steph,

    Does Rob S. know you’re gunning for his job? I won’t be telling him myself, but it seems only fair that you let him know.

    Your analysis, of course, is extremely thorough, but I do want to add one other angle that illuminates these songs and their various positions in the 80s young-couples-growing-up pop song canon and the American psyche. Mr. Joel’s, arguably the most explicitly depressing of the songs in question, in that the couple actually break up, failed to chart. On the other hand, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the most hopeful, the one in which the protagonists are captured mid-struggle, a latter-day Keatsian couple frozen in a Grecian urn of a pop tune, always just about to “make it”, was number one with a bullet on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. “Young Turks” ends with the birth of a child, which kinda hinders the freedom of those young hearts as they run free tonight; it peaked at number 5 on the Pop Singles chart. “Jack & Diane,” tempered as it is by the mundane images of small-town America, still leaves its subjects tastee-frozen at 16. It topped out at numbers 1 on Pop Singles and 3 on Mainstream Rock, just below the success of JBJ’s tune. These numbers, I hope, help to amplify your close reading by quantifying the songs’ varying successes.

    Thanks for your continued efforts and dedication to the cause of pop music!

  6. aw says:

    A very fun and thoughtful post.

    I recently saw “Moving Out,” a musical based on Billy Joel songs with terrific dancing. It uses Billy Joels later songs—“Uptown Girl,” but also “Goodnight Saigon” and “River of Dreams” to chronicle what happened to Brenda and Eddie.

  7. hey rachel — i found your #2 comment above in the spam filter. i don’t know why that little gadget doesn’t like you. it doesn’t even send them to moderation, just plops them into the spam folder.

    hey steph — awesome post.

  8. and i’ll admit that i didn’t even know “living on a prayer” had characters. we used to make fun of that song when it was new by saying they must have been saving ink on the lyrics sheet. all they had to do was print: “repeat chorus 17x.”


  9. Rachel says:

    Thanks, Bry–even if you did put the words “plops” and “spam” in the same sentence. Ew.

  10. PB says:

    Fried with ketchup, yum.

    (ps, this is not a legit comment on the brilliance of this work)

  11. Lisa Tremain says:

    In high school, my friends and I made up our own words to “Jack and Diane,” which had to do with how many guys tried to get us to touch them…there. How’s that for American psyche? Personally, I was always a fan of the high drama song, like Steve Miller’s Billy Joe and Bobby Sue out robbin’ castles, who “took the money and run…whoo whoo…”

    Beyond (or perhaps because of) its reader-response critical merits, this post makes me nostaligic for bike rides and hand holding….Steph, meet me later?

  12. Wendy West says:

    Great post, SWells, which is a little like saying, “Great magic trick, Ricky Jay.” I saw the musical “Rock of Ages” last year which I liked better than “Movin’ Out” because of the variety of songs — it was a show about a girl named Sherrie who moves to the big city and her boyfriend who listens to Sister Christian on the radio… really… I wonder how much music videos influenced narratives in songs — so many songs are easy to see. Though seeing songs may not be all that great — remember that TV show “Puttin on the Hits”? And that guy dressed as half-man/half-robot who lip synched Taco’s “Putting on the Ritz?” Prolly another post allllll together.

  13. Now that I’m at the end of a long day, I finally have the chance to make the comment that’s been in my head since 6:30 this morning:

    I really love songs with characters! I wish there were more of them. Is it just me, or have we had fewer of them in the last 15 years?

    Can anyone point me to good recent story-songs? The major requirement is that the characters (plural) must have names and they must be narrated in the third person.

  14. Lisa Tremain says:

    From Belle and Sebastian’s last album, The Life Pursuit:

    Sukie in the Graveyard

    Sukie was a kid, she liked to hangout in the graveyard
    She did brass rubbings, she learned you never had to press hard
    When she finished hanging out she was all alone
    She decided that she better check in at home
    There was an awful row between her mum and dad
    They said she hadn’t done this, she hadn’t done that
    If she wanted to remain inside the family home
    She’d have to toe the line, she’d have to give it a go
    It didn’t suit Sukie
    So she took her things and left

    Sukie was a kid, she liked to hang out at the art school
    She didn’t enrol, but she wiped the floor with all the arseholes
    She took a bijou flat with the fraternity cat
    She hid inside the attic of the sculpture building
    She had a slut slave and his name was Dave
    She said ‘Be my photo bitch and I’ll make you rich’
    He didn’t believe her but the boy revered her
    He got her meals and he got her a bed
    He watched behind the screen and she started to undress
    He never got far
    Just lookin’ and playing guitar

    Autumn hanging down all the trees are draped like chandeliers
    Sukie saw the beauty but she wasn’t wet behind the ears
    She had an A1 body and a face to match
    She didn’t have money, she didn’t have cash
    With the winter coming on, and the attic cold
    She had to press her nose on the refectory wall
    They served steamed puddings she went without
    She had to pose for life for all the scholars of art
    She didn’t feel funny, she didn’t feel bad
    Peeling away everything she had
    She had the grace of an eel, sleek and stark
    As the shadows played tricks on the girl in the dark

  15. why didn’t i think before typing? B&S have a whole host of those. My favorite:

    Anthony walked to his death because he thought he’d never feel this way again
    If he goes back to the house then things would go from bad to worse, what could he do?
    He wants to remember things exactly as he left them on that FUNNY DAY
    And if there is something else beyond, he isn’t scared because
    It’s bound to be less boring than today
    It’s bound to be less boring than tomorrow

    Hilary WENT to her death because she couldn’t think of anything to say
    Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway
    Nobody was really saying anything of interest, she fell asleep
    She was into S&M and bible studies
    Not everyone’s cup of tea she would admit to me
    Her cup of tea, she would admit to no one
    Her cup of tea, she would admit to me
    Her cup of tea, she would admit to no one

    Hilary went to the Catholic Church because she wanted information
    The vicar, or whatever, took her to one side and gave her confirmation
    Saint Theresa’s calling her, the church up on the hill is looking lovely
    But it DIDN’T interest, the only things she wants to know is
    How and why and WHEN and WHERE to go
    How and why and WHEN and WHERE to follow
    How and why and WHEN and WHERE to go
    How and why and WHEN and WHERE to follow

    But if you are feeling sinister
    Go off and see a minister
    He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever

    When she got back, her spirituality was thrown into confusion
    So she got a special deal on renting
    From the man at Rediffusion
    “Look at me! I’m on TV
    It makes up for the shortcomings of being poor
    Now I’m in a million pieces”, picked up for deliberation
    By the people listening at home
    By the people watching on the telly
    By the people listening at home
    By the people watching on the telly

    But if you are feeling sinister
    Go off and see a minister
    Chances are you’ll probably feel better
    If you stayed and played with yourself

  16. Beth W says:

    Speaking of morbid pop songs,
    #3: I was thinking of “Last Kiss” too, the old one though, not the Pearl Jam version. I remember the first time I heard the song, driving my Escort wagon, getting weepy.

    Yesterday’s Fresh Air had an interview with the singer of “Leader of the Pack” and they discussed how controversial the song was then.

    #13 I have found that contemporary country music is full of narrative, both tragic and comic. I’d have to do more research to provide specific examples. Just turn on the radio and you’ll be laughing and crying in no time.

  17. Stephanie Wells says:

    PB and WW, thanks for the kind words—coming from you ladies of letters they really mean a lot!

    Rachel: thank you for the pitch-perfect detail. The Aqua Net is a given, at least in that video, but to call Casual Corner—it’s exactly the kind of spot-on specificity that makes good writing great for me!

    Ruben, I have to confess that while I was writing I kept thinking of how Rubenish I was being by writing it at all . . . I thought you in particular would get my drift. And Scott, I would love to do an examination of teen-preggers sagas, and if so will include “Papa Don’t Preach” but perhaps not subject the TGWers to another round of this . . .

    Tim, perhaps one of my favorite comments ever. Interesting that what is to me by far the most well known song in the post, “Jack & Diane,” was not the chart topper. I have to tell you how mad I was not to have made the Keats connection, especially since I compare every single text I ever teach to the gosh darn Grecian Urn—I can’t believe I didn’t see it! Your analysis of the chart positions really belonged in my post (who’s gunnin’ for whose job now?) but since it was already about 20,000 words too long, perhaps it’s better in a comment . . .

    And for the record, everyone, I promised Jeremy today that my next post would be under 750 words, for those of you who take one scroll through my ramblings every time and say “no way.” I know I have a problem.

    And as far as songs with characters—I used to have a job on a website just like Pandora, and we all had different niches to break down songs to their elements so that the system could try to figure out what makes people’s tastes their taste. Some people broke down guitar tone, vocal quality, song structure, drum fills. My job, the most perfect job of all time, better than English professor, band booker or record store girl, was analyzing lyrics. I devised categories that were meant to cover most possible ways you could break down song lyrics—themes, imagery, language, tone, etc—and one of my categories was “Narratives.” I realized how much I love a song that follows its characters (LT, I was jealous that I didn’t think to include Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue, though Scott was relieved.) I like the trajectory, even though it can never be fully fleshed out in three short verses, and even though the story is given away the first time you hear the song and after that you always know what’s coming.

    Okay, speaking of too long, this comment is getting Wagerian/ Mancillesque, so time to stop, but thanks for all your comments . . .

  18. Tim Wager says:

    Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is a narrative about Red Molly and her criminal-minded boy James. His “From Galway to Graceland” is narrated in the 3rd person, but he doesn’t give the main character a name, so it doesn’t quite fit your requirements, Bryan. All the same it’s a Jim Dandy of a song, about a woman who leaves her home and husband in Ireland to spend her days by Elvis’ grave.

    Wagerian? Mancillesque I could see, but me? I’m not really that totally wordy and verbose, am I?

  19. Stephanie Wells says:

    In comments? Well . . .

    but they’re always great to read . . . !

  20. Geoffrey Spicoli says:

    This is genius, Stephanie. It is also madness. Mad genius!

    where does “Jessie’s Girl” fit in? Do you think Rick could have had a chance with that unnamed yet tantalizingly cute-talking woman of Jessie’s? Or was he just kidding himself?

    How many of these story-tellin’ songsters ever did sequels? I know Jon Bon Jovi kept singing about Tommy and Gina, like with his 2001 comeback hit “It’s My Life”–people keep buying his records, as long as he keeps us updated on how Tommy and Gina are doing. It’s kind of like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in “Before Sunrise”… I’m surprised Billy Joel never gave us a song where Brenda and Eddie get drunk at Mr. Cacciatore’s (down on Sullivan St.) and get a motel room for old times sake.

    Tell us Rod: how long did Billy stick around after Patty had that ten-pound baby? I vote two weeks, at the most. His young heart had to run free! Especially after he met that Maggie chick–she was a little old, maybe, and she wrecked his bed, then in the morning kicked him in the head, but mother, what a lover. She wore him out! And then he met Hot Legs, and that virgin child who let her inhibitions run wild, and that big-bosom lady with the Dutch accent… Later, Patty.

    Tim’s Grecian urn analogy is perfect. Oh Brenda, thou still unravish’d bride of Eddie! Thou foster child of Sears and Murray’s Water-Bed Hut!

  21. largo clergy says:

    I can’t resist adding a classic here in response to Bryan’s request:

    Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
    Hitch-hiked her way across the USA
    Plucked her eyebrows on the way
    Shaved her legs and then he was a she
    She says, Hey babe
    Take a walk on the wild side
    She said, Hey honey
    Take a walk on the wild side

    Candy came from out on the Island
    In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’
    But she never lost her head
    Even when she was giving head
    She says, Hey babe
    Take a walk on the wild side
    Said, Hey babe
    Take a walk on the wild side
    And the colored girls go
    doo do doo do doo do do doo

    Little Joe never once gave it away
    Everybody had to pay and pay
    A hustle here and a hustle there
    New York City’s the place where they said, Hey babe
    Take a walk on the wild side
    I said, Hey Joe
    Take a walk on the wild side

    Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets
    Lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat
    Went to the Apollo
    You should’ve seen ’em go go go
    They said, Hey sugar
    Take a walk on the wild side
    I Said, Hey babe
    Take a walk on the wild side
    All right, huh

    Jackie is just speeding away
    Thought she was James Dean for a day
    Then I guess she had to crash
    Valium would have helped that bash
    Said, Hey babe,
    Take a walk on the wild side
    I said, Hey honey,
    Take a walk on the wild side
    And the colored girls say,
    doo do doo do doo do do doo

  22. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I alway thought Rubenesque meant well fed Dutch women posing as Roman goddesses but what do I know?

    Wager, great call on RT’s motorcycle song-just happened to be listening to it this week and I had forgotten how detailed the narrative is.

    But your mention of Molly brings to mind the Lizzy’s all time classic character driven tune-Whiskey in the Jar.

  23. Marleyfan says:

    What an interesting post. Gotta admit, I didn’t know all the songs, so I seemed kinda lost at times, but got the point that you were making. I was facinated with your comment about the website you worked for. Does it still exist, and if so, will you put a link to it? Also, I’d love to see another post with the *results* of what you found. I think I’ve said this on TGW before, but the music I like best, usually is sung with a passion, that the singer(s), can feel what they are singing about. I thinks this is why I like singer/songwriter music the best… I also told BW that I recently saw the documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”, which was interesting because his singing sucked, but the lyrics were very memorable yet haunting.