In the middle market that is Minneapolis, the city that hosts the farm system for Boston’s professional sports franchises, our lame-ass commercial alternative station was recently replaced with a new format calling itself LOVE—“where all the good songs live.” As a mom to a child involved in sports, I spend way too much time in my car. While driving to a sporting goods megastore far outside the city limits to buy my son’s first “nut cup”—his words, not mine—I fell in love with LOVE.
LOVE is all about the Top 40 hits of yesteryear, and there’s something reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley and the standard American musical in the lyric writing of these old songs. Did you know Kenny Rogers’s gambler dies in the last verse, thus having his “die in his sleep” wish come true? I’ve never listened long enough to get the whole story. Or that Mr. Bojangles tells his story from a jail cell? I had a lump in my throat when the dog up and died, but it gets worse: Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson, the great song-and-dance man upon whom the song is based, used to dance with Shirley Temple on the big screen. But in the course of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s song, the elderly Bojangles is reduced to tap-dancing in a bar in exchange for a beer before getting hauled to the pokey to sleep it off. Or how about the crass insensitivity of the family of the bereft teen narrator in “Ode to Billy Joe?” They sit around the supper table gossiping about Billy Joe MacAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge, saying “pass the biscuits, please,” while a young woman’s heart is slowly breaking? Add to that Gilbert O’Sullivan’s misery in “Alone Again, Naturally” and Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones”—possibly be the finest single recording since Jackie Wilson interpreted “Danny Boy”—and I’ll have to pull over and compose myself before we’ve even reached the commercial break.
Several years after Judy Collins sang so lovingly about a child growing to adulthood, she lost her own child. During commercial breaks, my mind wanders: How did Joni Mitchell muster such wisdom and emotional maturity in her early twenties? Driving along, listening to the words to all of the songs I grew up with, it’s like I’m hearing them for the first time. In my youth, I wasn’t really listening and hearing them, especially if they weren’t performed by the Partridge Family. I had a lot of these songs memorized, but never had the attention span (much less the driving time) to analyze them like I do now. As a rock lyricist, I never wrote anything close to a hit, but I tried to tell some sort of thinly veiled yearning story in every song I wrote—except for maybe “shipwrecked in a bottle / with a poison pen,” which makes absolutely no sense, but sounded good as a new-wavy spoken proclamation in one of my jaunty, early tunes of my old band, Zuzu’s Petals. Because I’d never be considered a success in the lyric-writing department, I hesitate to take a crack at explaining exactly how it’s done. Everyone’s different. Perhaps my problem was that I rarely tried to tell someone else’s story; I was a non-fiction lyricist. I would steal a line from a long-forgotten movie or book, and fill it with the confusion of my young adulthood. I had scraps of paper everywhere filled with good lines, and eventually they were entered onto a standard-size sheet of paper or into a notebook, and I’d add in some words that sounded good, either rhythmically or thematically, around the killer line that I was so in love with, so sure it would slay the listener. Because a song doesn’t need to be labeled fiction or non-fiction, a song can be about a lot of different people all at once, and it can be true or false. The American gothic “Ode to Billy Joe” sounds like Appalachian bluegrass. “Me and Mrs. Jones” sounds like a true story of unrequited love. They both sound like intentional songs about one concrete idea. Because I never wrote an intentional song, it’s safe to say I was more an impressionist than a portraitist.
Rarely did I feel the need to write about happy, lovely, beautiful things like the young Joni Mitchell did in “Clouds,” “Circle Game,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” In fact I became aware that I found it impossible to write a happy song. Instead, I was compelled to lyrically observe the things that bugged me: “Do not leave your Christmas wreaths out ‘til May,” or, “Why’d you ask me when no one’s looking?” or, “Happy birthday, you’re one year older, and closer to death.” But that might be a gender thing, too; Joni Mitchell wasn’t making up a lot of stories in her best songs, but Bob Dylan was. Or was he? I know a male songwriter who always writes about “her” or “she” to hide the fact that he’s writing about himself. Oftentimes, fiction-writing lyricists, like their novelist counterparts, have better luck capturing the imagination of the masses.
When a song by a singer whose history I know wafts over the airwaves on LOVE, I can get choked up as well. Songs by Carly Simon say to me that she knew it would never work with James Taylor but he was so hot back then that she couldn’t help herself, and I can’t blame her one bit. Thematically her lyrics changed so drastically between “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be” and “You Belong to Me.” “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” will forever mean the bottom of Lake Monona to me, having grown up near and swum in the body of water in which Otis Redding met his demise. The song was a posthumous hit—Otis never got to enjoy his only number-one, and he was one of the genuine good guys. And there are lots more of the dead: John Denver (a songwriting heavyweight and the butt of countless “Rocky Mountain High” jokes after his self-piloted plane went down), Karen Carpenter (possibly the most influential, silky throated, heartfelt singer of my childhood), one Mama and two Papas, and the list goes on and on.
There are enough lame songs played on LOVE to force a station change, except you never know when you might miss Judy Collins’s version of the emotionally exhausting “Circle Game” while punching the buttons and landing on Steve Miller instead. (Why does Steve Miller still get so much airtime? Billy Mack cannot possibly still be a detective down in Texas. Knowing exactly what the facts is, he must have at least been considered for Attorney General sometime in the past six years). Several years after Collins sang so lovingly about a child growing to adulthood, she lost her own child. During lengthy commercial breaks for the gentle mammogram clinic and On Star catastrophes, my mind wanders to the land of amazement: How did Joni Mitchell muster such wisdom and emotional maturity in her early twenties? Exiting off Highway 100, I recall how Joni suffered from a debilitating bout of polio as a young girl. She’d looked at clouds from both sides at a very young age. This form of speculation is why I love writers’ and artists’ biographies—I love the story behind the art.
It’s that fear of changing stations that’s caused me to suffer through the trailer-park section of LOVE’s repertoire: all the old, useless ‘70s Top 40: Andy Gibb’s “Thicker Than Water,” John Travolta’s “Let Her In,” Rupert Holmes’s “Piña Colada Song” and his lesser hit “Him” (favorite lyrics; “You’re gonna have to do without him, or do without me, me, ME, no one gets to get it for free….”). LOVE is the home to the Little River Band, Stephen Bishop, England Dan, John Ford Coley, and all the other artists who fertilized the egg that hatched punk rock. Schlock they may be, but I have a soft spot even for their lyrics. Tony Orlando and Dawn’s treacle-drenched “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” is the romantic tale of a guy returning to his only true love after serving time. I’ve noticed that jail cells come up a lot in these songs. Jail used to be sort of romantic, and everyone in these songs (who didn’t die) are completely reformed and rehabilitated when they come out. I drive myself to distraction wondering what kind of machinery was initially strong-arming these songs; was it record companies, music publishing companies, or radio stations? And why do these songs still get airplay when Tapes ‘n’ Tapes do not? I used to stand in a circle with eight other pajama-clad girls singing, “Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl” because it seemed mysterious, of another world, and romantic when it first came out. Now it seems merely ridiculous, sexist, and unlikely. Ditto for “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.”
Or maybe the reason I love LOVE is because I’m getting old. Nostalgia is built into some of us, in my case to a disturbing proportion. I am LOVE’s target audience; I peppered my tear ducts with all those ‘70s made-for-TV cancer movies like “Brian’s Song” and “Sunshine.” My hormones are probably changing; along with suffering a chronic state of outrage, I’m perpetually weepy. Very sexy. I wonder to myself if Indiana (from R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me”) ever recovered from the loss of her only true love after he was hauled off to jail. I sure hope so. And what about their little baby? The next song is “Vincent” by Don McLean. I can’t hack it. Excuse me—Mrs. Roper needs a good cry.