Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Billy Joel

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.

Ben Folds in Los Angeles

When I first heard Ben Folds Five while driving in 1995 I nearly crashed my car in excitement. I’d never heard anything like it before. A funny, smart, musical piano-based trio sang “Underground” on the radio, a week later I overpaid for the album at CD World, a few years later I sang their songs to my twin daughters, and in 2012 the brainwashing culminated in a Ben Folds Five reunion performance with all three of my children in attendance.

At the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday night, my daughter and I took in a solo Ben Folds show of his “Paper Airplane Request Tour” and enjoyed an impressive and somewhat unpredictable performance, as Folds took audience recommendations for the last half of the evening (via paper airplanes thrown onto the stage). My other daughter had attended his Louisville performance last April and was somewhat disappointed with the song selection, as Folds leaned too heavily on familiar territory. The paper airplane tour has helped to alleviate this tendency, and a quick glance at the shows thus far confirms that the second halves of have been completely different, and the loose nature of the programs have also allowed Ben to improv songs on the spot for comedic effect. At Sunday’s concert he performed two ad-libbed songs – one for a man in the audience who was being a dick and another for the theater where he was performing – and both were hilarious.

Folds is an exceptional piano player, something I don’t think I fully realized until this performance. When I watched Folds and Rufus Wainwright perform back in 2004 at Ravinia in Chicago the latter’s piano skills stood out to me, but Folds is right up there, exhibiting not only his own unique style and sound (something very difficult to achieve on the piano) but also very technical runs and hand independence that far surpass anything Elton John or Billy Joel are capable of at the piano. Because of this, an entire evening of piano never got old; Folds has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the last song sound as engaging as the first.

Aside from skipping the repertoire of the last Ben Folds Five release and his collaboration with Nick Hornby, each of his albums were well represented on Sunday, including his most recent effort, So There, whose songs were much more vibrant and effective as a solo performance than on the album that highlighted an accompanying sextet.

Like James Taylor, Folds is able to introduce a song as if it’s the first time he’s ever done so, with an engagingly dry wit and timing. The most compelling may have been his prelude to “Not a Fan,” during which he recounted a moment after a Cincinnati concert when a boyfriend of a fan pulled a knife on him. Apparently some people can really get worked up over music.

The last song of the first set included a short drum duet and piano duet with singer Josh Groban (who knew?) and then the airplanes flew and littered the stage, resulting in some deep cuts that had Folds slightly stumped. “Redneck Past” required a cheat sheet and Folds stumbled in the middle section of “Kyle from Connecticut,” but the rest of set was more familiar.  A 17 year-old aspiring actress who sat in front of me went crazy when Folds began “Emaline,” and my daughter and I high-fived during “Cologne,” an example of one of the singer’s biggest talents – composing beautifully heart-wrenching songs. That fans actually threw airplanes onstage to request “The Luckiest” and “Gracie” was a disappointment (that’s what you wanted him to play out of his entire repertoire?) but “Narcolepsy” and “Where’s Summer B.” helped redeem that audience in my eyes.

Prior to this performance I admit that Folds had grown a little stale in my eyes. His past four albums haven’t excited me nearly as much as his past efforts (the last one to grab me was Way to Normal), but this performance convinced me that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. A more motivated version of me would spend the next year dissecting his songs and piano playing to really get a better handle on his craft. For now, I’ll have to settle for recording my own piano-based trio sometime this winter for my next album, hopefully with a unique result, but undoubtedly owing a great deal to the man that paved the way.

Leon Bridges in Milwaukee: Why Now?

It’s a question that must drive record executives crazy: why do some performers destined for greatness garner little more than a shrug of the shoulders while other performers who on paper should land with a thud receive accolades and notoriety? The question could easily be applied to the modern soul performer Leon Bridges. Why does a singer/songwriter whose repertoire would have felt right at home in 1965 reap the enthusiasm of music listeners in 2016? It’s a mystery to me, but a pleasant one at that, as I had the chance to see Bridges and his terrific band perform at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee last Saturday night to a full house.

Bridges, riding high since the release of his debut album, Coming Home, has had a hell of a year, receiving radio play, appearing on Saturday Night Live and participating in a Ray Charles tribute at the White House. Sporting a gray suit, red tie and black shoes, Bridges oozed class at the Riverside, from his silky voice to the smooth dance moves he employed throughout the show. Opening with his best-known number (to me, at least), “Smooth Sailing,” he kicked off a string of short, uninterrupted songs reminiscent of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding before briefly addressing the audience. In addition to playing all ten tracks from his only album, he scattered a few new compositions along the way, plus a few standards, including a short version of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a song that was surely unfamiliar to much of the largely 20-something audience, though there were several folks in the 40-70 age range. What was disappointingly absent from the audience was diversity in race. I thought the makeup would be a similar to the one who attended Stevie Wonder’s show last fall in Chicago, but at least for this particular show in Milwaukee, Bridges attracted a decidedly white crowd.

Bridges’s backing band was stellar, with all six musicians tasteful and selective in their approach. There were times when a song begged for a fuller horn section or larger group of backup singers, but in a way the sparser band has helped to define Bridges’s sound.  Brittni Jessie’s backup singing is extremely exposed, with no one to lean on but herself, but there she was, weaving seamlessly in and out of the lead vocal lines. Sure, she leaned a little flat at times, but I love that her performance and the entire band’s performance was live – no backing tracks, no auto-tune – so a few missed pitches was cool with me. And when was the last time you heard a modern band employ a solo saxophone? For me it might have been Supertramp in 1985. It was nice to hear again.

Upon receiving his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, Billy Joel said, “And I know I’ve been referred to as derivative. Well, I’m damn guilty. I’m derivative as hell!” So is Leon Bridges. But as with Billy Joel, I argue, “Who gives a shit, as long as it’s good?” What’s surprising to me is how young people have latched on to a modern singer that harkens back so strongly to an earlier time. I imagine a few record executives are scratching their heads, wondering if 60s soul is a trend or a fleeting blip on the charts. Time will tell, but I sure hope Bridges sticks around for a while.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved