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Archive for February, 2014

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my blog?/ It took me days to write, will you feed my dog?”  —“Paperback Writer,” the Beatles (slightly paraphrased)

Beatles

The recent hullabaloo about the Beatles’ 50th anniversary got me thinking: “How about a blog post about the Beatles songs which tell stories?”

It seemed like a great idea– and by “great,” I mean “easy to write.”  Not so, as it turns out.  The Fab Four don’t have as many “story-songs” as one might think.

Before I even started digging through their extensive discography, I determined that, in order to qualify as a “story,” a song needed to have three elements: characters, plot, and conflict.  (Obviously, other factors go into a story, but I settled on those three.)  With those criteria in mind, I was able to eliminate a whole bunch of songs. For example:

  • Songs That Don’t Have a Conflict: the happy love songs (“Love Me Do,” I Want to Hold Your Hand,” etc.); the “kiddie” songs (“Yellow Submarine,” “Octopus’ Garden”); the “life lesson” songs (“Let It Be,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Here Comes the Sun”)
  • Songs That Only Have Conflict: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Help!”
  • Songs That May Have Characters, Conflict, and Plot, But They Just Don’t Have Enough Information To Qualify as a “Story”: break-up songs (“Yesterday,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” etc.)
  • Songs That Are More Nostalgic Musings Than Stories: “Penny Lane,””Strawberry Fields Forever”
  • Songs That Are More Poems Than Stories: “In My Life,” “Blackbird”
  • Songs That Are More Character Sketches Than Stories: “Paperback Writer,” “Get Back,” “Lovely Rita Metermaid”
  • Songs That Are Just Weird Psychedelic Trips: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I Am the Walrus”
  • Songs That Lack Cohesion, Since They’re Actually Two Stories Mashed Together: “A Day in the Life”
  • Songs That, By John’s Own Admission, Are Just “Gobbledygook”: “Come Together”

You get the idea.  In the end, after much internal fussing and fighting, I unearthed five songs that fit my criteria of “story-songs.”  In no particular order:

“Rocky Raccoon”

  • Characters: cowboy Rocky Raccoon; his ex-girlfriend, Nancy “Lil” Magill; Nancy’s new boyfriend, Dan
  • Conflict: A jilted and jealous Rocky wants to shoot his romantic rival
  • Plot: A good ol’ gun-slingin’ Western, the song recounts how Rocky challenges Dan to a draw. Unfortunately, Dan’s not only better with the girls, he also has a quicker trigger-finger. Dan shoots Rocky first.  Rocky ends the song back in his room being treated by a seemingly less-than-competent doctor. (The doc is “stinking of gin.”)
  • Fun Fact: McCartney originally called the main character “Rocky Sassoon.”
  • My Take: Unlike many of the Beatles’ story-songs, this one is pretty straight-forward and easy to understand.  Yeah, no one will rank this as a favorite, but I do like the twist that the guy out for revenge is the one who got shot.

“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”

  • Characters: The narrator and his paramour du jour
  • Conflict: The narrator might be struggling internally with his infidelity (See “Fun Fact”)
  • Plot: An independent woman (with a job, an apartment, and clear sense of what/ who she wants) takes the narrator up to her room; they drink some wine and talk until two, and then… who knows?  After all, when she says, “It’s time for bed,” is that an invitation (“time for US to go to bed”) or a dismissal (“time for ME to go to bed”)? On the other hand, the song starts with the great line, “I once had a girl , or should I say, she once had me,” which is none too subtle.  Eventually, our narrator ends up sleeping in the bathtub. (Really?  I mean, you mentioned she didn’t have a chair, but… isn’t the tub a tad uncomfortable?)  When he awakes, she’s has left for work.
  • Fun Fact: Lennon allegedly wrote this song as a confession of sorts for all the affairs he had while he was married to his wife Cynthia (the mother of Julian).
  • My Take: Personally, I think it’s pretty straightforward: woman meets man; woman and man get to know each other biblically; in the morning, woman leaves for work, while man sits in front of the fireplace reflecting on the previous night’s escapades.  Some listeners, though, have a slightly different take: the girl has rebuked the narrator’s advances, and he resorts to arson as his way of getting back at her.  Yep: arson.  It all comes down to the “I lit a fire” line, which some interpret to mean he set her entire place ablaze, rather than he lit a fire, you know, in her fireplace.  An intriguing interpretation, sure, and one that’s not completely outside the realm of possibility… but I don’t buy it.  (After all, he says “I lit a fire” not “I lit the fire,” right?)

“Ticket to Ride”

  • Characters: Narrator and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend
  • Conflict: The girlfriend wants to break up, but he doesn’t want to. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much say in the matter.)
  • Plot: The girlfriend wants to end things, not necessarily because the narrator did anything wrong, but because she doesn’t want to be tied down to anyone. (“She could never be free while I was around,” he explains.)  The narrator’s bummed out, but he’s also mad that she’s NOT bummed out.  (“I don’t know why she’s riding so high…” he fumes).  The song ends without saying for sure what happens with these two; still, the fact that she has a ticket to move somewhere else can’t be a good sign.
  • Fun Fact: Apparently, McCartney said the title is a pun: she has a ticket to a British seaside town named Ryde. Meanwhile, Lennon says the song is about prostitutes in Hamburg, Germany.  So take your pick.
  • My Take: Music has given us plenty of break-up songs, but “Ticket to Ride” is unique in that it’s a pre-break-up song.  Our narrator has not yet been dumped, but he’s pretty sure it’s imminent– maybe even “today.”  Anyone who’s been in that situation knows that feeling.

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Life Goes On)”

  • Characters: Desmond, Molly, their kids
  • Conflict: Uh… gee… not sure there is one… things seem pretty swell for the Jones family, actually… sure, maybe Molly gets a little resentful sometimes that she’s out slaving away in the band while Desmond stays home putting on his pretty face, but other than that…
  • Plot: Desmond Jones, who has a cart in a marketplace, meets Molly, a singer in a band.  He proposes (with a twenty carat ring that seems considerably out of his price range); they marry, buy a house, and have a couple of kids.
  • Fun Fact: McCartney borrowed/ stole the chorus from his Jamaican friend Jimmy Scott, who used to say “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.”
  • My Take:  The lack of a conflict almost made me cut this from the list.  The song might be too “happy ever after”… which is weird, because isn’t “life goes on” a platitude you’d say after something unfortunate happens?  What does Desmond and Molly’s life have to go on from, exactly?  Come on, Paul: get some tension in there!  Maybe Molly buys a ticket to Ryde and ends up having an affair with the “Norwegian Wood” guy?

“Eleanor Rigby”

  • Characters: Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie, the narrator (who looks at all the lonely people)
  • Conflict: A sort of a “man’s inhumanity to man” kind of thing going on
  • Plot: In Act I, we meet Eleanor, a lonely spinster who wears a lot of cold cream to make herself appear younger.  Presumably an employee at a church, she is first seen picking up rice after a wedding; we get the sense she wasn’t at this wedding, nor at any wedding, ever– including her own. Act II introduces the equally lonely pastor, the sock-darning Father McKenzie, who is writing a sermon no one will hear.  (Why won’t they hear? Because no one comes to church?  Because no one actually listens to him? Because he won’t actually give these sermons, even though these are things he really wants to say?  All delicious possibilities.) Finally, in Act III, Eleanor has died and Father McKenizie presides over her funeral; in a Gatsby-esque sort of scene, no one else is at the funeral.
  • Fun Fact: McCartney had several names for the characters, including Miss Daisy Hawkins (for Eleanor) and Farther McCartney (for Father McKenzie).
  • My Take:  The best Beatles story-song– and one of the best Beatles songs, period.  The song has it all: great metaphors (“wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” and “buried along with her name”); a great mood, thanks to the string quartet;  and great (albeit pathetic and tragic) characters.  Plus, it leaves you wondering: How did Eleanor get so lonely?  Why didn’t anyone help her? Why doesn’t the narrator help her?  (Instead of just looking at all the lonely people, Mr. Narrator, why not say ‘Hi’ to her once in a while, so she wouldn’t be so damn lonely all the time?) And most importantly: who are the Eleanor Rigbys in our own lives?

Are there other Beatles songs that tell stories?  I’m sure.  But I need some assistance sussing them out.  So, to my audience: Won’t you please, please help me? Help me? Help meeeeeee?

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SuperbowlSince today is the Super Bowl, and since football is the only pro-sports organization (to my knowledge)  that has a team named after a work of literature– i.e. the Baltimore Ravens, named after the Edgar Allan Poe poem– we thought we could re-post our “football in literature” quiz form last year… with a few additions. (We had fifteen questions last year, but now, we’ve added five more, plus a bonus.)

Feel free to bring these questions to whatever party you’re attending this evening and quiz your friends during one of the game’s slower moments.  And yes, we recognize it will have to be a pretty lame party if you have to resort to asking literary questions.  (I know we made that same joke last year.)

  1. What American novel features a neighbor named Roberta (formerly Robert) Muldoon, a transsexual former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles?
  2. In William Faulkner’s The Hamlet, a young schoolteacher named Labove plays college football to pay for his education, even though he’s not crazy about the game.  (Labove sends home cleats to the members of his family who can’t afford shoes, which is very sweet; on the other hand, he also falls in love with an eleven-year-old girl named Eula– definitely not sweet.)  For what university does Labove play football?
  3. In Death of a Salesman, what is the name of Willy Loman’s oldest son, the star football player who never graduated from high school?
  4. And where was this character supposed to go to college?  (He threw into the furnace his sneakers imprinted with the name of the school.)
  5. What novel takes place during World War II at the Devon School, where students invent a game named blitzball, a combination of rugby and football?
  6. This young-adult novel which features a character named Darry, the captain of his high school’s football team who could have gone to college on a football scholarship; however, after the death of his parents,  he gave up on his dream to take care of his brothers, one of whom is named Ponyboy. What is this novel?
  7. Who is the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Native American ex-football player who now pretends to be a deaf-mute?
  8. Which Tennessee Williams play features a former professional football player named Brick, whose possible romantic feelings for his former teammate Skipper may be the source of his current alcoholism?
  9.  What is the name of the H.G. Bissinger non-fiction book about the Permian High School football team (from Odessa, Texas), which was the basis of a movie (2004) and a TV show (2006-2011)?
  10. In the 1986 novel and the 1994 film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest earns a scholarship to play football for what university?  (Big Hint: In 2002, Winston Groom– the author of the novel Forrest Gump— wrote a book about this school’s football program, entitled The Crimson Tide.)
  11. I am an American author who played high school football and, during World War I, drove an ambulance in Italy for the American Red Cross.   I later drew on these experiences when I created Nick Adams, a former football player and World War I soldier, who is the protagonist of more than twenty short stories.   Who am I?
  12.  “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.  When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football again were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury.” These two sentences begin which beloved American novel?
  13.  The film Stand By Me features John Cusack as Dennis, a star high school football player whose death haunts his younger brother Gordie.  On what Stephen King short story is Stand By Me based?
  14. What 1999 coming-of-age young adult novel features an introverted narrator named Charlie and a closeted gay football player named Patrick?
  15.  On the Road author Jack Kerouac had a scholarship to play football for an Ivy League university, but after cracking his tibia and squabbling constantly with the coach over his lack of playing time, he dropped out of college completely.  Which university was it—Brown, Columbia, or Princeton?
  16. In The Great Gatsby, what is the name of Daisy’s husband, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football” at Yale?
  17. I am the sixteen-year-old male narrator of a great American novel.  My story begins as I am standing all alone on Thomsen Hill, next to a Revolutionary War cannon, as my school Pencey Prep’s football team plays Saxon Hall.  I am just about the only one not at the game—except for the kid who lives next door to me, an acne-ridden senior named Ackley.  Who am I?
  18. What little-known (and rightly so) 1986 Robin Williams/ Kurt Russell film about a man who wants to replay an ill-fated football from high school takes its title from the first line of a Dickens novel?  (The question is asking for the name of the movie.)
  19. Which Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, famous for his “Rabbit” novels, has written a short story called “In Football Season”?
  20.  Which Robert Cormier young adult novel opens with high school freshman named Jerry Renault throwing up after trying out for the football team?Universoi
  21. BONUS:
    1. As a follow-up to Question #8, about the Tennessee Williams play:  what was the name of Brick and Skipper’s team? (Hint: it’s fictional.)

Answers

  1. John Irving’s The World According to Garp
  2. University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)
  3. Biff Loman
  4. University of Virginia
  5. A Separate Peace
  6. The Outsiders
  7. Chief Bromden
  8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  9. Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream
  10. University of Alabama
  11. Ernest Hemingway
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. “The Body”
  14. Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  15. Columbia
  16. Tom Buchanan
  17. Holden Caulfield
  18. The Best of Times
  19. John Updike
  20. The Chocolate War
  21. BONUS: Dixie Stars

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