Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Rock and Roll Lyrics

Rock and roll lyrics run the gambit, from positively poetic to brazenly banal.  A friend of mine once made the claim that song lyrics are never poetry, which is a pretty bold statement and a pretty dumb one, I think, but there’s no denying that often song lyrics are embarrassingly bad:

Time to find the right way
It seems to take so long
When I find the right way
I know I will be strong

- Head East, “Lovin’ Me Along”

But it in the hands of a gifted lyricist, meaning and imagery jump from the speaker and grab you by the gut:

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets

- Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

Sometimes lyrics can reach us on a very personal level and describe us more succinctly than we could ever hope to achieve on our own.  A woman once gave me a hand-written copy of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Code of Silence,” explaining that the words described her “to a T.”   I had already owned Joel’s album, The Bridge, but had never really studied the lyrics before, and upon reading the feminine script on a pink sheet of notepaper with no musical accompaniment, I was given insight into a human being who was clearly wrestling with a difficult past (I never found out what it was, but I can take a wild guess).

But you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say?

Many times lyrics – even good ones – are unimportant to me.  As a rule, as long as lyrics don’t overtly suck, then it’s the tune that matters.  So, for instance, the band Yes typical composes songs whose lyrics are so esoteric and so stream-of-conscious that they’re virtually meaningless.  Take the opening lyric for Yes’s “Going for the One”:

Get the idea cross around the track
Underneath the flank of thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as the river flows.
Would you like to go and shoot the mountain masses?

I don’t know exactly what goes on in Jon Anderson’s head, but I suspect it’s been aided by lots and lots of drugs.  But his lyrics lead to images that are malleable, subject to the listener’s own experience, so that as long as the words aren’t blatantly bad, to me it doesn’t really matter what they say.  But what if, for instance, the opening lines to “Going for the One” were the following:

Get the idea come and take me back
Underneath the sheets like thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as my love blood flows
I would like to go and shoot your mountain masses

Well, now, that would lead to a very different image, and it would suck!  There’d be nothing left to the imagination except an overwhelming desire for the song to finish as quickly as possible.  It doesn’t matter how good the tune is, the lyrics would make it completely unlistenable.  Ridiculous lyrics are the main reason why I could never get into the big-hair metal bands of the 80s; the words were so pitifully bad that I couldn’t possibly excuse them.

The lyrics to Prince’s “Darling Nikki” were no doubt titillating to me when I first heard them as a sixteen-year-old:

I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine

Hearing it today, it may turn you on, it may turn you off, but there’s no denying what the lyrics are about.  There’s nothing left to the imagination, and really, there’s nothing to be moved by.  It’s just…there.

But then I consider a pop song like “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” by ELO, and I realize that even the worst words in the world can sometimes be rescued by a great melody:

I was searchin’ on a one-way street
I was hopin’ for a chance to meet
I was waitin’ for the operator on the line
She’s gone so long
What can I do?
Where could she be?
Don’t know what I’m gonna do
I gotta get back to you

Pretty soul-grabbling stuff, huh?  And yet, it’s a fun song!  Why can I overlook terrible lyrics in some instances but not in others?   What’s the secret?

And then, why can I overlook great lyrics in some cases but not in others?  Take “Limelight” from Rush, a fantastic tune whose lyrics I never really thought too hard about until I saw the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.  Sure, I had known some of the words and I got the Shakespearean reference, but I never knew that the chorus had the word “seem” in it, as in:

Living in the limelight
The universal dream for those who wish to seem

Didn’t know it, never thought about it, didn’t care.  I just knew that Geddy Lee was singing Neil Peart’s lyrics, the music was unbelievable, and the message was something about fame or something.  It didn’t really matter to me.  And even now, the lyrics aren’t so important to me. I just know the song rocks and the lyrics don’t suck, and that’s enough for me in this case.

But then I look at another Rush song, ”Subdivisions,” whose lyrics are so strong and whose message of suburban conformity is so relatable to me, that they elevate the song to new heights:

Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

When I consider lyrics that have reached me over the years – songs like like “The Logical Song,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Read Emotional Girl,” etc., – the words are simple, direct and heartfelt.  Take Elvis Costello, an undeniable wordsmith, but who often packs way too many words into a song, with too many syllables, too many metaphors, and stories that are too abstract to understand just what the hell he’s so pissed off about.  Ah, but then he offers us a respite in a song like “Painted from Memory,” co-written by Burt Bacharach, and you have – in my mind – lyric perfection: simple, meaningful, relatable:

Such a picture of loveliness
Didn’t you notice the resemblance?
Doesn’t it look like she could speak?
Those eyes I tried to capture
They are lost to me now forever
They smile for someone else

And that’s often what it takes: simplicity and directness, not only for the lyric, but for the tune.  Sometimes the simplest forms of human expression are the most pure and most effective.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to my favorite power pop album, On by Off Broadway, and sing along to the deeply moving “Full Moon Turn My Head Around”:

We got a beat, we got a good good beat, we got a good beat.
We got a band, we got a good good band, we got a good band.

Post-Playoff Hangover

It would be disingenuous to say that the Brewers loss in Game 7 of the NLCS on Saturday night wasn’t disappointing, but at the same time, it can hardly be categorized as heartbreaking.  As my friend said to me in the middle of September when the Brewers were embarking on a great run toward the playoffs, “We’re playing with house money.”  No one expected the Brewers to play as well as they did in September, and few thought that a division title and advancing to the World Series was within the Crew’s grasp.  It’s hard to be too upset when the team so overwhelmingly defied expectations.

And the playoffs led to such great times, too.  I got to see a game with my old buddy from way back in grade school, I flew to California to attend one game with my daughter, drove up to Milwaukee to attend another with my son, and my wife and I gathered at my friend’s house for an evening of drinks, snacks and baseball on glorious high def.  I got to hang out with my sister’s family several times, and I even got to see Christian Yelich hit for his second cycle in September with a couple of buddies.  Not too shabby.  

But all of this has led to a bit of a post-playoff hangover for me.  Baseball had become such a glorious time-suck, that now suddenly, after weeks of having every bit of free time filled, the onus is on me to fill my time productively.  No more evenings watching the game on TV, mornings reading about the same game on-line, and afternoons texting like-minded friends about strategy and predictions.  No more restless nights with visions of the first World Series appearance in thirty-six years.  No more games to look forward to.  Now, instead of relying on others to entertain me, I have to entertain myself, which means tackling a basement project that I started last spring just as the 2018 baseball season was budding.  It’s back to reality, and it’s not necessarily a reality I want to face.

Still, I have another baseball season to look forward to, when I’ll once again set aside my personal aspirations in favor of the aspirations of others, and go along for the ride.  As disheartening as the end of this year’s playoffs was for the Brewers – being literally one good bullpen outing and one hit away from actually sweeping the Dodgers in four games – less disheartening is the core of players that are sure to return next year, and how that core might evolve.  Brewers owner Mark Attanasio commented on Saturday that the end of 2018 feels different than in 2011, when the Brewers lost the NLCS in six games.  That year felt like the end of something, where this year feels like it’s just the beginning.

My unmotivated self can’t wait.

The Tale of Two Fan Bases

The tale of two fan bases: my daughter purchased tickets for Game 4 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium for $78 - for actual seats, not standing room only.  By contrast, tickets for Game 1 of the NLCS at Miller Park are going for $120 for standing room only.  The population of metropolitan Los Angeles is 13 million.  The population for metropolitan Milwaukee is 1.5 million.  And while total MLB attendance dropped by 4% this year, the Brewers attendance increased by just shy of 8%, drawing the tenth largest attendance in the league, at 2,850,875.  Not too shabby for the smallest market of thirty MLB teams.  To be fair, the Dodgers have the highest attendance in the entire league, but this is due not only to the size of the city, but to the size of Dodger Stadium (56,000 vs. 42,000 for Miller Park).

But regarding demand for playoff games, the larger issue is undoubtedly past success. 

It was fun last week listening to Cubs fans complain about losing the division tie-breaker and instead making the playoffs as a lowly wild card, when just four short years ago they would have been thrilled to have been in the hunt.  Now that Cubs fans have tasted success, nothing short of domination is deemed acceptable.  I’ve experienced similar feelings with the Packers.  After winning Super Bowl XLV, it was assumed that Green Bay would be back the next year and the year after that.  No such luck; the subsequent years ended in bitter disappointment.  Only Patriots fans know the boredom that comes with continuous success.

Brewer fans have no such worries.  In nearly fifty years as a franchise, 2018 is only the Brewers’ third league championship.  For many Brewer fans, no matter what happens in the NLCS, this year has been a success, a terrific run, unexpected and a total blast.

But you would think Dodger fans would have similar feelings.  Sure, they were in the World Series last year, but they haven’t won it all since 1988, and they came oh so achingly close to winning it all last year, falling just one game short, that you would think fans would be chomping at the bit, desperate to witness their first world championship in thirty years. 

No doubt, each playoff game from here on out will be a tough ticket, whether basking in the sun of Los Angeles or getting ready for winter in Milwaukee.  But as a Brewers fan, it’s hard not to be thrilled not only with the team’s performance, but with the fans who are making my attempts to buy tickets a royal pain in the ass (and a jolt to my bank account).

I couldn’t be prouder.

Looking Up (Literally)

Anyone who has children or owns a dog knows the monotony that can come with walking the same familiar streets for years on end.  When my kids attended grade school there were times when I walked the same four blocks back and forth four times a day.  The same houses.  The same trees.  The same cars.  Sure, sometimes these walks led to a little mind-wandering that was good for the soul, but often I viewed the strolls merely as chores to do, not unlike tackling another load of laundry.  If you live in the mountains you may be spared this plight, but residing in the Chicago suburbs doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting landscapes – people don’t call Illinoisans flatlanders for nothing. 

But there’s an old adage I once read somewhere that went something like this: if you want to discover something new, walk down a familiar path.  A year ago I took this tidbit to heart and decided to change my mindset by doing something very simple: looking up.  I began to notice the trees of the neighborhood, and I recognized that with a few exceptions I couldn’t name them beyond the most rudimentary level, like asking a three-year-old what those large green things are in the front yard.  “Those are trees.”  Aside from obvious maples and oaks, there’s little I could tell you. 

I purchased a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Trees, watched a few videos on YouTube, and began to challenge myself by learning how to identify the multitude of trees lining the parkways and front yards of Elmhurst, Illinois, attempting to add a few varieties every week or two.  I’m not very good at it – it’s incredible how many species of trees there are and how darn similar they can be to each other – but little by little I’m expanding my knowledge base, and my walks have been enriched greatly as a result.  Now when I walk familiar streets, my mind is focused on something other than whether my dog has peed or pooed.

Trees are varied enough and intricate enough that I could probably spend the next decade on this endeavor alone, but there are other ways to open up your world when taking walks if trees aren’t your thing.  A friend of mine who walks far more than I do has a background in architecture, and for her the suburban streets are the source of endless variations of home styles.  When engaged in conversation with her, she’ll sometimes say something like, “You know that red tudor on the corner of Grace Street?”

No.  No I don’t.

It reminds me of something my buddy Don said to me back in grad school when he purchased flowers for his girlfriend.  I asked him what kind, and he answered, “Purple ones.”

The point is that the world around you is much bigger and interesting than you might realize, and all it takes is a little initiative to tap into your surroundings in new, profound ways.  If trees ever lose their luster, you could start identifying house styles, or makes and models of cars, or types of flowers or birds or the names of colors.  I’m terrible at describing the color of objects, and I’d love to add shades like mauve, chartreuse, azure and fuchsia to my immediate lexicon.  There’s no shortage of ways to mentally challenge yourself as you do your daily strolls.

But for my next challenge, I’m focused on getting our dog to pee on command so that four walks a day aren’t a necessity come wintertime. Here’s hoping.

The Brewers' Home Stretch

When I last wrote about the Brewers on May 31, the Crew was in first place, and I wondered about the lack of starting pitching and whether the relief staff would be able to be effective throughout the long season.  The next three months were no picnic for Brewers fans, as they finished just one game over .500 from June 1 through August 31, slipping out of first place to the Cubs by the end of July and slipping out of second by the end of August. But unlike years past, the Brewers have managed to bend but not break.

For me the season’s nadir was a 9-1 defeat against the Pirates on August 25.  I texted a fellow Brewer fan, “I think that’s the end of the road for the Crew.”  Here we are less than three weeks later, and the Brewers are on a seven-series winning streak, having won 16 of the last 22 games, including 4 of 6 against the division-leading Chicago Cubs, and culminating in an exciting 5-1 victory last night to pull to within one game of first place.  With fifteen games left to play, the Brewers, at 84-63, have matched the number of victories I predicted they would win at the beginning of the year.  I couldn’t be happier for having been wrong.

So what happened?  Why has this year’s team been able to hang in there?  I think there are a few reasons:

1)     Mid-season pickups:  general manager David Stearns didn’t find the solid starting pitcher he’d been hoping for, but he did manage to pick up three players before each trading deadline, finding just enough talent to help bolster a tired team.  Prior to August 1, he traded for relief pitcher Joakim Soria, and infielders Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop.  Soria helped bolster the bullpen just as the unit that had been so incredible for the first half of the season was starting to show signs of fatigue, and while Schoop has been a disappointment thus far, Moustakas has given the Crew a solid bat, allowing manager Craig Counsell to adjust the lineup based on matchups.  Then, prior to September 1, Stearns once again picked up three players: relief pitcher Xavier Cedeno, starter Gio Gonzales and outfielder Curtis Granderson, the hero of last night’s game.  Time will tell how these three contribute, but there’s no question that having Gonzalez as another starting option in lieu of the struggling Junior Guerra and Freddy Peralta is a plus, and Granderson gives the Brewers another option in the outfield where Eric Thames has been an absolute bust, both offensively and defensively. 

2)     September call-ups arrived just in time.  The relief staff had endured injuries and sub-par performances from Matt Albers, Corey Knebel and Dan Jennings, and even Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress showed signed of wear during the dog days of August.  With September call-ups, Counsell can now give relievers the time off they need and pull starters at the first sign of trouble.  Case in point: last night starting pitcher Chase Anderson left the game after four innings of shutout ball.  Why?  Well, he’d gotten hit pretty hard during those four innings, and the Brewers have an excellent relief staff with a day off today, so there was no reason not to throw everything at the Cubs.  Unlike so many of Counsell’s predecessors, he’s willing to treat today like there’s no tomorrow.  This bodes well for a team that still might end up making the playoffs as a wild card, a game that can and should be treated like the seventh game of the World Series.

3)     The return of Zach Davies.  The starting pitching has been just good enough this year, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that seven starters have spent time on the DL this year, including a total season loss of Jimmy Nelson, a first half loss of Wade Miley and a second half loss (and all of next year) of Brent Suter.  These are not run-of-the-mill DL stints, yet somehow the Brewers starters have kept it together.  Davies’s return came just in time, and if Gio Gonzalez manages to pitch well for his three remaining starts, the Brewers should be in good shape until playoff time.  After that, all bets are off.

4) Lorenzo Cain and Chistian Yelich. Enough said.

Winning a wild-card berth is cold comfort these days in the MLB; a one-game playoff is a cruel reward, and I love that the Brewers at least have a chance to win the division.  It’s important to note that National League parody has allowed teams like the Brewers to stay in the hunt this year – the Brewers’ .571 winning percentage would place them in a distant third place in two of the three American League divisions.  But unlike the AL, the NL doesn’t have any doormats in the league; there’s no Baltimore Orioles or Kansas City Royals to beat up on (even the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres have shown signs of life).  But the NL Central is eminently competitive.  Think the Cincinnati Reds blow?  Tell that to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finally beat the Reds last night to finish the season series 1-6.  The Boston Red Sox may have an incredible team, but 20 percent of their 100 wins have come against two teams: the Orioles and Royals.  It’s entirely possible that Boston isn’t as unstoppable as some claim. 

Then again, this year’s World Series might play second fiddle to the Main Event of the ALCS.  We shall see, but I’m hoping against hope that the Brewers will be a part of it somehow.  No matter what happens, it’s been a fun 2018.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved