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Coffee Cup Reading: The Greatest Lyrics of All Time

15 May

What is it about a song that gets to you? Most often its the groove or the mood, the pace and the pitch. But songs also have a way of speaking to you in words, consoling and cajoling, speaking universal truths, or simply adding context and imagery to the rhythm. The below is a humble collection of favorites  – can you spot the song and has it spoken to you before?   (Prophets and preachers are abbreviated to last names. Who says poetry is dead?)

 “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. As a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays” – Springsteen

“God is a concept, by which we measure our pain” – Lennon

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” – Eric Burdon, The Animals

“Have you come here for forgiveness, have you come to raise the dead, have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?” – Bono

“Well those drifters days are past me now, I’ve got so much more to think about. Deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out” -Seger

“She was physically forgotten and then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys. She said, “you’ve taken me for granted because I please you, wearing these diamonds” – Simon

“All your dreams are made, when you’re chained to the mirror and the razor blade”
– N. Gallagher

“Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me, sometimes I can’t even see the reason why. I guess I’ll keep a-gamblin’, lots of booze and lots of ramblin’, it’s easier than just waitin’ around to die” – Van Zandt

“Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby’s head” – Bono

“The world is in your hands, or its at your throat” – Julian Casablancas, The Strokes

“So I’ll start a revolution from my bed, cuz you said the brains I had, went to my head”
– N. Gallagher

“The morning sun, when its in your face, really shows your age. But that don’t bother me none, in my eyes you’re everything.” – Stewart

“Some days are sulky, some days have a grin, some days have bouncers that won’t let you in” – Bono

“Straight outta Compton is a brotha that’ll smotha yo’ motha….and make ya sister think I love her” – Easy E

“She moved so easily all I could think of was sunlight…..She asked ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?’ I said ‘Who am I to blow against the wind?’ – Simon

In a world of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm,
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” – Dylan

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” – McCartney

“Now I work down at the carwash, where all it ever does is rain. Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train?” – Springsteen

“There’s beauty in the silver singing river, there’s beauty in the sunrise in the sky – but none of these and nothing else can match the beauty, that I remember in my true love’s eyes” – Dylan

“There ain’t nothing like regret, to know that you’re alive” – Sheryl Crow

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend. But I always thought that I’d see you again” – James Taylor

“Oh the snow fell without a break. Buffalo died in the frozen fields you know. Through the coldest winter, in almost fourteen years, I couldn’t believe you kept a smile” – Stewart

“You know I didn’t mean, what I just said, but my God woke up on the wrong side of his bed” – N.Gallagher

“I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take, and still somehow,
it’s life’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know love at all.” – Joni Mitchell

“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me” – Lennon

And if a ten-tonne truck kills the both of us, to die by your side, well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” – Morrissey

“Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul” – James

“You try and find a love that will see you through your darkest days… and her soft brown hair is as long as a Canadian highway…and there’s no road that ain’t a hard road to travel on” – Sam Roberts

“See I’m stuck in a city, but I belong in a field…oh the heart beats in its cage” – J. Casablancas, the Strokes

“I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin” – Dylan

“So don’t change the dizzle, turn it up a little, I got a living room full of fine dime brizzles
waiting on the Pizzle, the Dizzle and the Shizzle, G’s to the bizzack, now ladies here we gizzo.” – Snoop Dogg.

“I drink concentrated OJ. I think consolidated is ok. Its not the band i hate, its their fans….three cans of water perverts me” C. Murphy, Sloan

“If you’re having girl problems i feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” – Jay-Z

“Someone told me there’s a girl out there, with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” – R. Plant, Led Zeppelin

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch. He said to me, “Don’t ask for too much.”  And a young woman leaning in her darkened door. She cried out to me, “Why not ask for more?” – Cohen

“Our fiction feels real. Yours is a heart I could steal” – Samantha Savage Smith

“Maybe I will never be, all the things that I’d like to be. Now is not the time to cry, now’s the time to find out why – I think you’re the same as me, we see things they’ll never see. You and I are gonna live forever” – N. Gallagher

“She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the fifteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue”


“She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College,
that’s where I / caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded
I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coke-cola.

She said fine / and in thirty seconds time /she said, I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do, I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people / like you. 
Well what else could I do ? I said I’ll see what I can do. 
I took her to a supermarket
I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there. 
I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said oh you’re so funny. 
I said yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here. 
Are you sure you want to live like common people
You want to see whatever common people see
You want to sleep with common people, 
you want to sleep with common people like me. 
But she didn’t understand, she just smiled and held my hand. 
Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job. 
Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school. 
But still you’ll never get it right 
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall 
If you call your Dad he could stop it all. 
You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw 
Because there’s nothing else to do.” 

J. Cocker, Pulp



Coffee Cup Reading: The Story Song

5 Aug

Last night, the city was quiet, streets left emptied for long weekend getaways. Gone was the typical commotion and congestion, the young drunks on the pavement. There seemed to space in the air, between the buildings and alleys. I flipped to an Irish music show on TV, and a strange short haired woman with pink tinted glasses and a southern drawl was giving an interview. The question came about whether she was finding life on the road to be difficult; she answered earnestly and without hesitation that she was happy to be playing under the roof rather than fixing it. Then, she stood up on the stage of a church and sang a song about a homeless man from another time, whose life was also on the road. It was mesmerizing.

And it got me thinking about the great story songs of modern music. What is a story song? Well, it can’t be a love song, at least not directly so. And it’s gotta have colourful characters, like Snoopy and the Red Baron, Hurricane, a boy name Sue, Lucille, and a good for nothing prince. And hey, if it says something about us or about society, even better. Crafted with seamless lyrics, the economy of word and prose, and the ability to fire the imagination.

Does anyone really do ‘em anymore? They’re tough to pull off, especially when the subject matter is a historical figure…it ain’t easy writing a chorus about someone long dead and gone. But story songs are always crowd pleasers and recalled fondly. As a kid, one of the earliest story songs I can remember was Big Bad John:

As we bombed around in the family’s tan coloured station wagon, bouncing along to the clink of the pick axes, I could almost see the men in the mine, struggling in the dust, saved by the otherworldly strength of their rescuer. It may have been the first time I encountered the concepts of death and tragedy, of true sacrifice and virtue.

Then as an 11 year old, my cousin introduced me to the man who made a career out of the story song: Stompin’ Tom Connors. Recently deceased (may he rest in peace), the man himself had a back story suitable for a TV movie. The songs were simple, the lyrics sometimes cringe inducing and clunky, but no one could belt ‘em out like Stompin’ Tom. He was the minstrel for a nation’s folk heroes, and he had us all singing along.

Story songs hit their hey day in the 50s and 60s, peaking in the 70s with perhaps the greatest story song of all, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’. Perhaps a song about a great lake tragedy shouldn’t be the high water mark of a Canadian legend who also sang of reading minds, and carefree highways and sundowns. But Lightfoot’s voice seems to roll endlessly like the waves of water that doom folklore’s famous ship; it  is never more commanding and pervasive – even if you know nothing about the ship and its men, the story pulls you in:

There are plenty of lesser known story songs that are tragic vignettes of characters, usually hopeless or cast out by society, sometimes mirroring the authors of their own creation. The great Townes Van Zandt was always on the brink of life, fame and success. Every time he looked to break into Nashville, he showed up drunk on country music tv. Even his biggest hit, ‘Poncho and Lefty’ was only a hit when Willie Nelson sang it (even though Townes’ version is better)

And there is the Divine Comedy….like the Edwardian playwright that is their namesake, a song as well crafted as ‘An English Woman of a Certain Age’ can only be described as appropro.

These are but a small sampling of our story songs. You may share in common memories, and have some of your own. So do yourself a favour. Sit down for 6 minutes. Or get in a car and drive into the summer, preferably across the Alberta plains or the Rocky Mountains. Tune out the city and the rest of your life and let a singer tell a story and fill the space in the air. Mary Gauthier was the woman who started my recent journey. Maybe she can start yours too: