Booking Through Thursday on Monday: Behind the music (and lyrics)

Booking Through Thursday: Sing! Sing a Song…

But, enough about books … Other things have words, too, right? Like … songs!

If you’re anything like me, there are songs that you love because of their lyrics; writers you admire because their songs have depth, meaning, or just a sheer playfulness that has nothing to do with the tunes.

So, today’s question?

  • What songs … either specific songs, or songs in general by a specific group or writer … have words that you love?
  • Why?
  • And … do the tunes that go with the fantastic lyrics live up to them?
You don’t have to restrict yourself to modern songsters, either … anyone who wants to pick Gilbert & Sullivan, for example, is just fine with me. Lerner & Loewe? Steven Sondheim? Barenaked Ladies? Fountains of Wayne? The Beatles? Anyone at all…

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

OK, this question had me at “Fountains of Wayne.” But it’s a tough one for a couple of reasons, mostly having to do with my difficulty in making choices when I’m on the spot about things like this – and picking specific songs is just too hard, unless I use them as examples.

I love to sing along with my favorite songs, so I do pay attention to lyrics, and I tend to favor singers and groups who write their own material (although some of their material certainly sounds better sung by someone else – hello, Bob Dylan! Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a fantastic song, but I’d much rather hear Jeff Buckley sing it). I am fond of the art of songcraft – a tuneful melody with clever lyrics will catch my ear every time, and I’ve talked about my love of power pop here before.

Sincerity and the ability to tell a good story also go far with me, and it’s a bonus when the music rocks – Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” has stayed in my personal Top 10 for thirty years for those very reasons. If that “personal Top 10” is expanded to my Top 40 or Top 100, Mr. Springsteen’s work is very well-represented.

Getting back to Deb’s suggestions in the original question, The Beatles are still, after more than thirty years, my all-time favorite band, although I’d be lying if I said I love everything they ever did. For my money, their best work is on the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver, but it’s hard to pick just a few favorites, and it’s all part of our cultural wallpaper anyway. Still, the whole package is there, and much of the music I’ve loved clearly bears their influence.

Smart (and sometimes smart-ass) lyrics are a weakness of mine, which is at the root of my long-term affection for the late, great Warren Zevon and the very-much-alive Elvis Costello. If you only know Mr. Zevon for “Werewolves of London,” I suggest you expand your horizons, and I’ll offer a couple of samples:

I went home with a waitress the way I always do
How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?

I was gambling in Havana – I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns, and money
Dad, get me out of this

An innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck between a rock and a hard place
And I’m down on my luck…

Werewolves weren’t the only animals he wrote about, either:

Big gorilla at the L.A. Zoo
Snatched the glasses right off my face
Took the keys to my BMW
Left me here to take his place

I wish the ape a lot of success
I’m sorry my apartment’s a mess
Most of all I’m sorry if I made you blue
I’m betting the gorilla will, too

They say Jesus will find you wherever you go
But when He’ll come looking for you, they don’t know
In the meantime, keep your profile low
Gorilla, you’re a desperado

I should note that my favorite Elvis Costello song was not written by him – thank you, Nick Lowe, for “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” There are plenty of winners among the songs Mr.  has written, though, and this one seems just perfect for BTT:

Don’t tell me you don’t know what love is
When you’re old enough to know better
When you find strange hands in your sweater
When your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote
I’m a man with a mission in two or three editions

And I’m giving you a longing look
Everyday, everyday, everyday I write the book

Chapter One we didn’t really get along
Chapter Two I think I fell in love with you
You said you’d stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three
But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five and Six


The way you walk
The way you talk, and try to kiss me, and laugh
In four or five paragraphs
All your compliments and your cutting remarks
Are captured here in my quotation marks


Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference
Between a lover and a fighter
With my pen and my electric typewriter
Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal
I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel


One of my favorite “smart” singer/songwriters of more recent vintage is Rhett Miller (also one of writers/musicians in the Old 97’s). In “Our Love,” he sings about composers and writers:

Richard Wagner’s letters to his lover Mathilde were a mess

He should have quit before he had written the address

They made love on the mezzanine – her husband was his friend

Vienna in a fugue-state working on a thing

That when he finished it took almost seven hours to sing

He still found time to write to her – his heart-exploding words

Our love surpassed our love so fast

Our love’s all wrong our love goes on and on

Our love became our love by name when I wrote it to you in a song

Our love goes on and on…

Getting back to Fountains of Wayne, though…so many reasons why they’re the band I can’t forget (and they’re in town next week! LAist talked to band member and chief songwriter Adam Schlesinger before the shows.)

Well, she picked me up in a German car
And she took me out to an Irish bar
Where I drank some beer in a plastic cup
Till I had some trouble standing up
And then she drove downtown to a strobe-lit place
Where all wore the guys wore chains and the thumping bass
Was so intense I could barely feel my face
And I think I asked her back to my place
But that’s all I recall
And when I woke up in the hall
I was alone and softly groaning
And I’d lost my keys and lost my phone
And I wondered what I did or said
That I might soon regret
It was the night I can’t remember

(You really need to hear that one in its musical setting, though – an excellent 60’s-style pop arrangement.)

Coming in on the second verse of this song, which kind of sounds like Coney Island:

…I hear the man say you want to see the others
A mermaid and a heart that says mother
But I don’t know from maritime
And I never did hard time
I brought a .38 Special CD collection
Some Bactine to prevent infection
And in case I get queasy
A photo of Easy Rider

Red dragon tattoo
Is just about on me
I got it for you
So now do you want me?
With nothing to prove
Will you be my honey?
oh yeah
In you I confide
Red dragon tattoo
I’m fit to be dyed
Am I fit to have you?

On their most recent album, Traffic and Weather, they shifted into a storytelling vein:

Two men sit in the corner of a diner

Both of them look quite a bit like Carl Reiner

One of them is smoking even though the sign says not to

The waitress says to stop, he says sorry but I’ve got to

They tell each other jokes that they both know that they both know

They talk about real estate, prostates, Costco

And when they finish up they leave a twenty on the table

The waitress picks it up with their half-eaten bagels

And when her shift is over she goes back to Mineola

Sits on the couch, opens up a diet cola and says

I’m so, I’m so sick of this place – I’m so ready for a change of pace

I’m just looking for a new routine

So she spins her globe and the next thing you know

She’s living in Liechtenstein

However, the song lyric I quote the most – it probably comes up once every week or two – isn’t from any of the songs or artists I’ve mentioned already. From “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads:

“And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?”

Story of my life, y’all.

Sorry for not embedding music and video, but this post is supposed to be about the words, right? And once it’s done, and I make the rounds reading other posts, I’m sure I’ll think of at least half a dozen others I should have included.

What about you – care to share some of your favorite song lyrics and who’s written them?

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  1. I also like all of the artists you mentioned, but I had no idea Elvis didn’t write “Peace, Love, and Understanding” – go, Nick Lowe! He also wrote another song I really like, “Cruel to be Kind.” Maybe not the most smart (or smart-ass) lyrically, but I like to sing it at karaoke. 🙂

  2. Great post, Florinda! I enjoyed reading some of your favorite lyrics. I haven’t heard of all the songs you mentioned, but I’ve heard of most.

    Although I am not sure I favor singers who write their own songs, the fact that they do does raise my respect level for them immediately.

    Bruce Springsteen is a great storyteller. I love many of his songs. And I really like that Once in a Lifetime lyric. 🙂

  3. Jessi – You have excellent taste :-). “Cruel to be Kind” is another of my all-time-favorite song, ever since it originally came out when I was in high school (probably when you were a baby, or not born yet!). It was sort of a motto for one of my friends – “I wouldn’t pick on you if I didn’t like you.” I had strange friends :-).

    Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I love some CSN songs, not as much CSN&Y. Their vocal harmonies are still hard to match.

    Wendy (Literary Feline) – That Talking Heads lyric has been one of my personal mottos for years :-). I should have quoted more Springsteen, he’s better-known than some of the others I mentioned, and this post was already running late and long.

    And while I do love some singers who are great interpreters, I think that growing up in the singer-songwriter heyday of the ’60’s and ’70’s is why I tend to prefer those who write their own material, generally.

  4. Janssen – I like that one too. I’ve liked Jason Mraz since “The Remedy” and “You and I Both.” I enjoy the way he plays with words…because you know he’s

    “…all about them words
    Over numbers, unencumbered, numbered words
    Hundreds of pages, pages, pages
    More words
    Than I had ever heard, and I
    Feel so alive…”

    I love that :-).

  5. It’s as if you are reading my mind with those lyrics.

    Here’s one that just gets the description on the page/air:

    She was a long, cool woman in a black dress…- The Hollies

  6. I heard Everyday I Write the book in a restaurant today! I’ve head the Warren Zevon song before. If I remember correctly, the was a DJ here who used to play that song whenever he talked to a lawyer.

    I can’t come up with any good lyrics right now. If I think of anything I’ll let you know.