Monday, August 12, 2013

Musical notes

Where the sidewalk ends?
My July 20th post made passing reference to that old song "Cover of the Rolling Stone." When I looked up the lyrics to make sure I remembered them right, I learned that it was written by Shel Silverstein, who of course is better known as an author of children's poems than as a composer of radio classics.

Because one of my favorite bars in Key West has a picture of Silverstein sharing its modest stage with Jimmy Buffet, I already had an inkling that he was musically inclined, but I did not realize how noteworthy an imprint he left on the American songbook before he died. It turns out it was Silverstein who penned "Boy Named Sue," the humorous ditty we all associate with Johnny Cash. He also wrote "25 Minutes To Go" -- an uptempo but exceedingly dark tune that Cash performed in his famous live recording at Folsom Prison. Other songs written by Silvertsein include "In the Hills of Shiloh," which has been recorded by several artists, most notably Judy Collins; and "Queen of the Silver Dollar," which Emmylou Harris fans instantly recognize from her albums Pieces of the Sky and Songs of the West

It seems to me that Shel Silverstein was a bigger force on the music scene than he was on the book scene. Who'da thunk?

The same day I made my Shel Silverstein discovery, I found myself on one of those Internet tangents -- the kind where you are reading something and click on a barely related link, then see another link that grabs your attention so you click on it, and eventually you wind up somewhere you never would have expected when you first logged on.

In this case, I wound up reading the Wikipedia entry about "Black Dog," the aggressively rhythmic rocker by Led Zeppelin that opens their fourth album. It's the song on which Robert Plant howls: "Hey hey, mama, said the way you move/Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove/Ah ah, child, way you shake that thing/Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting." Wikipedia actually states -- I swear I'm not making this up -- that these lyrics "are about desperate desire for a woman's love and the happiness it provides."

I like music as much as the next guy, but it often seems like people who spend their lives writing about music have a tendency to become not only superfluous, but laughably so. Please tell me you agree that the above passage proves that to be true.

An odd thing happened recently. After not hearing the song "Wildfire" in probably 15 years, I heard it on back to back days. I knew the title character was a horse who died, but apparently I never before paid close attention, for on the first of those back to back days it dawned on me that the song's narrator is voicing a premonition of his own death.

When I had the good fortune to hear it again the following day, I paid close attention from start to finish, and realized that both Wildfire and his nameless female rider are ghosts. Though I always knew the song told the tale of them dying, somehow I had never before caught on that it alludes to them coming to carry away the narrator in his present time. In my mind, this song has transformed from sad to haunting. From here on I will get goosebumps whenever I hear its line about "a hoot owl howling by my window now for six nights in a row."

Which brings me to... of my pet peeves; namely, the tendency of many people to have no idea what a song is about because they listen only to the chorus. Though I myself was guilty of this when it comes to "Wildfire," I still find public ignorance about the subject matter of certain songs to be truly astounding.

People think "Every Breath You Take" is a love song, but in reality it is an anthem for stalkers and envy-riddled men everywhere. It actually says "Every vow you break/every smile you fake/every claim you stake/I'll be watching you."

Many people think "Born in the U.S.A" is All-American optimism, but in reality it's the exact opposite: "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up...Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."

And, while people crank up the volume when U2's "Pride (in the Name of Love)" starts playing, a surprisingly small number of them know it's about Martin Luther King -- even though the lyrics leave a trail of clues that a blind mouse should be able to discern: "Early morning, April Four/A shot rings out in the Memphis sky/'Free at last,' they took your life..."

I'll stop myself before I start preaching. Otherwise I might start sounding laughably superfluous myself!

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