Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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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.

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Best Debut Songs

There’s nothing better than a new band hitting the airwaves and blowing you away.  It may happen far less frequently today than back in the 70s and 80s (though it does still happen), but I still have fond memories of hearing Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” for the first time and knowing it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.  It was a game changer, as was “Good Times Roll” by The Cars just a few months later.  The late 70s was an exciting time for rock and roll, and it just so happens that many of the standout tracks from that time were debut songs, the first track of the first side of an artist’s first album.

My old go-to station during my tenure in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s 88.5 WXPN, recently compiled a list of the best debut songs (they call them lead-off tracks).  These are the kind of lists my vinyl buddies and I thrive on, and over the years we’ve compiled and debated about our own favorite debuts.  A silly endeavor, to be sure, but a fun exercise and especially helpful when insomnia strikes.

The XPN list on-line includes many of the obvious choices most of my friends and I would have included (the aforementioned “Good Times Roll,” “Chuck E.’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “I Will Follow” by U2, “Girls on Film” by Duran Duran), but also includes a host of interesting tracks that I probably wouldn’t have thought of and excludes several that should be in the running.  (Note: the link says 150 tracks, but the playlist only includes 100.)

Here are some of the more inspired choices on the list:

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – What I Am
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
John Mayer – No Such Thing
Ben Folds Five – Jackson Cannery
Sheryl Crow – Run, Baby Run
Television – See No Evil
Aimee Mann – I Should’ve Known
The Shins – Caring is Creepy
Jeff Buckley – Mojo Pin
Elton John – Empty Sky (I love Elton but would never have thought to include this track.  It’s pretty damn good!)

Here are my choices of debut songs that were overlooked but should have been included:

Led Zeppelin – Good Times, Bad Times
Company of Thieves – Old Letters
Off Broadway – Stay in Time
The Knack – Let Me Out
INXS – On the Bus
Rush - Finding My Way
Joni Mitchell – I Had a King
Rufus Wainwright – Foolish Love
Van Halen – Running’ with the Devil
Tori Amos - Crucify
Joe Jackson – One More Time
Dido – Here With Me

That last track gets my vote for one of the best recordings ever made.  What about you?  Any songs you’d include that the XPN list and I both overlooked?  Send ‘em my way.  I’d love to hear them.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memoir

My favorite reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber is Elvis Costello’s lyrics from his 1989 song, “God’s Comic.”  He writes of God:

So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem

He said, before it had really begun
"I prefer the one about my son

I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk
And wondering if I should have given
The world to the monkeys"

For whatever reason, Webber is a composer that musicians love to hate.  Non-musicians, too.  I recall an episode of a short-lived 1990’s sitcom called The Single Guy, in which the lead character is mocked for having purchased tickets to Cats.  (Robert Russo has an excellent summary of Cats and why some people hate it.)

But love him or hate him, Webber has had the kind of success that warrants a memoir, in this case a 480-page book called Unmasked that puzzlingly only covers the author’s life up through the year 1986, when he was on the cusp of what some claim to be his crowning achievement, The Phantom of the Opera.  No details about Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have read less about Webber’s first forty years and more about his last thirty.  The author admits, “my verbosity got in the way,” and that is an understatement.  The details with which he describes the meetings, compositions, rehearsals, trials and tribulations of productions are sometimes interminable.  As a musician, I got some of the name-dropping references, but there were hundreds of other details that ended up muddling up the narrative.

Details aren’t Webbers only problem, unfortunately.  It’s good that he went into composing rather than writing, because as an author his prose is often cumbersome, filled with choppy sentences, unnecessarily convoluted similes and obscure references, not to mention questionable punctuation (he seems averse to the use of hyphens).  When I actively chose to read faster, I found myself having to slow down, as the narrative lacked flow.  Consider this sample from page 86: 

“EMI had such a postboy.  His name was martin Wilcox.  I don’t know if he ever blagged his way into the top honcho’s offices.  But he did get as far as Tim Rice.”  This choppiness makes reading 480 pages very laborious, indeed.

Which is too bad, because Webber has had a hell of a career.  Like many professionally successful people, he risked it all, leaving Oxford after only a year to pursue writing full-time with Tim Rice, the type of decision that often separates the wanna-bes from the real thing, and the accounts of Webber’s struggles to get productions like Evita and Cats off the ground are inspiring.  The former opened to terrible reviews in New York but still ran for over 1500 performances, and despite the jokes sometimes directed at Cats, it was the longest running musical on Broadway until another musical broke the record: The Phantom of the Opera.  So there you go

Webber wisely addresses his personal life sparingly, thankfully admitting to transgressions without dwelling on them, and referring to his past wives with respect.  He delves a bit deeper into various professional rifts he’s had over the years, but usually only slightly, often referring to a heated topic only to conclude, “It’s best left at that,” but on occasion he quotes unflattering letters he’s received from the likes of Tim Rice and Ken Russell, effectively settling old scores by using his wrong-doer’s own words against them.  Nevertheless, Webber’s decision not to write a tell-all book is refreshing, as is the modesty he portrays at various points, and I don’t get the sense that he’s feigning for the benefit of posterity, though I could be wrong.  He writes in detail about which sections of his Requiem are subpar, and he admits to being in over his head when composing Variations.

I’ve only seen two Webber musicals on-stage:  a traveling production of Aspects of Love in 1993; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when my girls were toddlers.  Other than that, I’m only familiar with a handful of tunes.  Go figure.  I do wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music will have the staying power of, say, Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers, but as a musician, it was interesting for me to gain a little insight into the creative process and how melodies composed for one purpose were resurrected for other stories, and Webber also does an admirable job of covering the business side of the industry, describing financial difficulties and concepts like grand rights in an accessible manner.

He also shares a few tidbits he’s learned over the years from people he admires.  After seeing Webber’s failed musical, Jeeves, Hal Prince wrote to Webber, “Remember, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.”  And a meeting with Richard Rodgers led his conclusion that no one can take in too many melodies in one listening, a fact that often leaves me scratching my head after a musical crams two hours of new material down patrons’ throats with no melodic reprises.

All in all, I’m glad I read Unmasked, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it except for the most ardent fan of musicals in general, or of Webber’s specifically.

My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved