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So, last week, I went out for a short jog, and I had an idea. (Yeah, I had the idea a week ago… it just took a while for me to write the darn thing…) Anyway, the idea Running Musicwas this: why not write a blog entry on the songs randomly playing on my iPod during my run? Hey, it’s just as inane as 91% of all the other stuff on the Web, right? So, in a very much particular order:

“Runaway,” Bon Jovi: Even though this song is their first hit (in fact, it essentially pre-dates the band, in that Bon Jovi the guy was performing it before he assembled Bon Jovi the band), I just figured out the lyrics recently– as in, like, today.

To me, the song was always about a girl who turned to prostitution because her daddy never showed her love when she was a kid. The lyric at the beginning about the gaudily made-up women lays the groundwork for this interpretation, and the “Now she works the night away” line at the end cliches it.  But then there’s that part in the second verse, that begins “Now you sit home alone ’cause there’s nothing left for you to do.”  What’s that all about?

Then I realized I was falling victim to that ol’ poetic pitfall: ambiguous pronouns.  See, the song makes reference to a “you,” only sometimes the “you” is the girl, and sometimes, the “you” is the dad.  So in the second verse, the “you” is the dad sitting home, looking at pictures of his daughter, beating himself up for not being there for her when she was younger and thus sending her down this path of self-destruction. So, really, this song is about the importance of paternal love in shaping a child’s fate.

And thus, I have spent more time thinking about this song than perhaps anyone else in the world (with the possible exception of Bon Jovi himself).

“You Give Love a Bad Name,” Bon Jovi: Hey, whaddaya know?  Two Bon Jovi songs in a row, even though I had the iPod on shuffle!  What are the odds?  (Actually, I guess I could figure out the odds quite easily: 529 songs on the iPod, 10 of which are Bon Jovi. Of course, the same song is not going to play twice in a row, so that means… Ahh, screw it.  I lost interest.)

When I was out running, I almost skipped this one, not only because it came on the heels of another JBJ song, but because, after nearly twenty-eight years, I have perhaps grown a little weary of it. Heck, after twenty-eight years, even Bon Jovi himself is probably sick of it.

This got me thinking: Is “You Give Love a Bad Name” Bon Jovi’s “signature song”?  I mean, it’s one of his signature songs… but is it THE signature song? I’d probably give the honors to “Livin’ on a Prayer”… but it’s close. (And where does “Wanted Dead or Alive” fit in?  Is it a dark horse?)

“Doctor My Eyes,” Jackson Browne:  Juxtaposin’ Jackson gives us a great contrast here, with the upbeat piano coupled with sort of depressing lyrics.  And apparently, the first incarnation of the song was even grimmer. The central metaphor of the song has always been the same: a guy goes to see a doctor because he believes he’s having problems with his eyes– particularly, his tear ducts don’t seem to be working.  But the doctor can’t help him because the guy’s problem is not physical but metaphysical: the guy has soured on everything he’s seen in life and has “learned how not to cry.”

At the urging of some record company folks, Jackson removed some of the more pessimistic lyrics (e.g. a reference to an “Angel of Darkness”), sped up the piano, and added bongos. The result is Jackson Browne’s first big hit and a surprisingly great running song– yes, even better than “Running on Empty.”

“Bad,” U2: Another surprisingly great running song– and I say “surprising,” because it’s allegedly about heroin abuse. Even though never released as a single, this is the song that made U2 the Best! Band! in the World! back in 1985, thanks to Bono’s antics at Live Aid.  If you haven’t seen the Live Aid performance, check it out, especially the part where Bono jumps into the crowd and embraces two female fans, after the security plucks them out of the packed-like-sardines crowd.

The name “Bad” is actually fitting, since the Live Aid performance has a “Bad” news/ “Good” news thing going on:

“Bad” News:  the crowd interaction (plus some snippets from Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones, which Bono threw in) stretched “Bad” out to twelve minutes, which meant they didn’t have time for their third song (“Pride”).  As a result, the band was initially disappointed with their set; in a 1987 interview, guitarist Edge admitted, “We came offstage after Live Aid, and we thought we had really blown it.”

“Good” News: fans really appreciated Bono’s spontaneous persistence in getting to those fans, the song sounded great, and the whole thing put U2 on the mainstream map.

“Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon Not necessarily a great running song (with that funky, South African piano accordion), but a fascinating song nonetheless.   To me, the song is about advances in technology, both good and bad:  the “boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” (good) juxtaposed with the “lasers in the jungle somewhere” (bad).  Allegedly, Paul Simon once said the song is about “hope and dread… but coming down on the side of hope,” and I guess the repetition of “these are the days of miracle and wonder” in the chorus underscores that sense of hope. (For a way more advanced analysis of this and apparently every other Paul Simon song, click here.)

By the way, is  “boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart” just about the best alliteration in pop music? At the very least, it’s tied with Warren Zevon’s “little old lady got mutilated late last night” from “Werewolves of London”…

“Here’s Where the Story Ends,” The SundaysAnd here is where the run ends, as it turns out. Great song, and I love the poetry of the line “a little souvenir of a terrible year.”  As for the rest of the lyrics?  In truth, I couldn’t understand all of them; even when I went back and finally read the lyrics, I didn’t understand them. (Who knew she was talking about a “shed” in the chorus?  What happened there?)  But I love the sound nonetheless, and I always thought it should have been more popular.

And there it is– the musical score for that day’s run.  I’ve heard some folks say that they don’t like to listen to music as they jog, but personally, I don’t know how you could run without music.  A good song can get your feet moving as well as your mind– and even give you the material for a blog post.

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“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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This December, I gave my Composition students an early Christmas gift: I played “Rosalita” for them.

Image

They needed it. Desperately. About a month prior, I name-dropped Springsteen on a quiz. (“Combine these two sentences into one using an appositive: A: ‘Bruce Springsteen is a living legend and one of America’s greatest performers.’ B: ‘He has never had a number one song.’”)

Then, for extra credit, I asked them to name three Springsteen songs. Maybe two kids, out of twenty, could do it.

Granted, they’re only sixteen.  During their lifetimes, the only Springsteen song that reached the Top 40 was 1997’s “Secret Garden,” when all of them were still in diapers.

Still… this is Springsteen!  How is it possible these kids only know one or two of his songs?  It’s not as if he hasn’t been recording music for four decades!  And counting: his 18th album, High Hopes, was released today.

I had to do something.  Yes, as a teacher, I am charged with educating my students about appositives and antecedents and words such as “aficionado” and “aegis.”  But I also have to help them become Functional, Culturally Literate Human Beings.  So at the end of class one day, after they handed in their vocab quizzes, I played “Rosalita”—in my mind, the quintessential “Introduction to Springsteen” song.

Not everyone may agree.  For example, Rolling Stone, in a 2013 commemorative magazine ranking the greatest 100 Springsteen songs of all time, not only put “Born to Run” at number one, it barred “Rosalita” from the top ten. (Poor Rosie languishes down at eleven.)  Also, “Rosalita” was never officially released as a single, which doesn’t help its notoriety.

And frankly it’s old, dating back to his second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, from 1973.  That means the “real” Rosalita (if such a woman ever existed) would be in her early- to mid-sixties by now. (I don’t know what’s harder to accept: that the Boss himself is 64, or that Rosalita is now a cougar.)

Still, for my purposes, “Rosalita” encapsulates everything great about a Springsteen song: it’s got sax, clever rhymes (e.g. “Lord have mercy” and “swamps of Jersey”), an eminently singable chorus, and lots and lots of lyrics, sung in Bruce’s inimitable “somewhere between a mumble and a barbaric yawp” style.  All stuffed into an anthemic seven minutes.

Most of all, like so many Springsteen classics, “Rosalita” tells a story—actually, two stories.  On one hand, it’s a love song, about a cash-poor/ braggadocio-rich young buck who wants to liberate (confiscate?) his senorita from the clutches of her overprotective parents.

But it’s also a “let’s-blow-this-clambake” song, preparing the way for songs like “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run”; in “Rosalita,” the narrator wants to use music as a way to leave his going-nowhere town and head out West. (And by the end, that dream starts to become a reality, when the record company gives him a “big advance.”)

But I didn’t just play “Rosalita” so my students could learn about Springsteen’s music; I wanted them to learn about Springsteen the man.  Think about it: Springsteen has adopted countless personae over the years, from a veteran, to a firefighter, to a despicable—yet bizarrely celebrated—deadbeat dad from Baltimore (who went out for a ride and never went back).

But for “Rosalita,” the first-person narrator is a young, Jersey-born slacker with nothing but a guitar and a rock-and-roll dream.  In other words, Springsteen himself, circa 1973.

In his book Songs, Springsteen calls “Rosalita” his “musical autobiography,” and he’s right. It may not be historically accurate (Did Bruce really know a Rosalita? How about a Big Bones Billy?), but no matter: the narrator of “Rosalita” is who Bruce was back then.

And in some impossible, metaphysical kind of way, it’s who he is now. I’m reminded of that great E.B. White essay, “Once More to the Lake,” in which the author describes returning to a vacation spot from his youth.  “There had been no years,” White says… and the same applies to Springsteen.  We know he’s now an Elder Statesman of Rock; he just doesn’t let us believe it.

That sense of timelessness is on display in “Rosalita.” In the lyrics, Bruce muses about the passage of time, when he says, “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”  But you know what’s really funny? That in 2013, an Elder Statesman of Rock, worth $200 million, can sing lines such as “Your Papa says he knows that I don’t have any money”… and get away with it.

And honestly?  I think, by playing “Rosalita” for them, I was trying to get away with something, too.  Sure, I wanted my students to know a few things about Springsteen.  But I also wanted them to know a little bit about me—as both a fan and a forty-three-year-old high school teacher who still doesn’t feel all that removed from high school himself.   I guess, when I hear “Rosalita,” I can’t help but feel a little timeless as well—if only for those seven minutes.

Here’s the story—one I shared with my students after I played the song for them, about the two times I’ve seen Springsteen live.  The first was in February 1988, the opening night of the Tunnel of Love Express Tour.  I was a senior in high school (“Not much older than you,” I point out to my kids); I was with five of my best buddies; and I was experiencing The Boss playing “Rosalita” live. Glory days, indeed.

As I’m sharing this story to the students, I realize the period is almost over, so I zip to my second Bruce concert. It’s a little over twenty years later, in August 2008, and now I have a wife, two kids, a job, and much less hair.  And if I hadn’t already been thinking about how much time pad passed between the two shows, a chance encounter with a former student drove the point the home. “1988?” he marveled, when I revealed the last time I had seen Bruce live. “Wow. I wasn’t even born yet.”

At that moment, as if on cue, I heard a crack of thunder, as the skies unleashed a furious concert of its own.  Rain. Wind.  Cloud-splitting lightning.  They had to postpone the show for an hour, just to be safe.

But when Bruce and his E Streeters finally emerged onto the stage, none of that mattered.  They just played and played and played… and then, to reward us for sitting through the storm, they played some more. Finally, just shy of midnight, for the whopping seventh song of his encore, Bruce said he would play one final number—or as he called it, “one more fairy tale about New Jersey.”

“Rosalita.” Of course.  And with those opening chords, the crowd erupted, just as raucously as I remember it back in 1988, when I was seventeen.  There had been no years.

“And let me tell you,” I say to the kids, just as the bell rings, “it sounded great.” For a cougar, Rosie could still rock

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For me, music marks the time.

Maybe everyone does this, but I often find myself matching “eras” of my life to songs that were popular at the time.

Eurythmics

For example, twenty-five years ago this month, I started college. Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was popular at the time, and the college move-in crew used it as a “theme song” for the incoming freshmen. So I’ll always link that song to that chapter of my life.

Now then: this summer, on the occasion of my sons turning thirteen, I started thinking about the songs playing on the radio during summer I turned thirteen, thirty years ago, in 1983– the summer Darth Vader took off his mask, Sally Ride journeyed into space, and David Hasselhoff got upstaged by a talking car.

I started compiling my list, and the treasure trove of songs that started unfolding before me absolutely blew me away. What benevolent force, I wondered, brought these incredible, legendary songs together all at once?

But don’t take my word for it: check it out for yourself, as you undertake this flashback to the Age of Flashdance. Here, in no particular order, are thirty songs that the Solid Gold Dancers might have been grooving to, way back in the summer of 1983…

Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats: No, the Haberdashery-Challenged One-Hit-Wonders never actually explained what a “safety dance” is. And yes, they have strange criteria for friends. (“‘Cause your friends don’t dance/ And if they don’t dance,/ Well, then they’re no friends of mine.”) But for writing such a timeless song, I tip my hat to them.

Electric Avenue,” Eddy Grant: Impossibly catchy song that still rocks down Pop Culture Avenue, thanks to shout-outs in The Cleveland Show and Seth Rogan’s Pineapple Express.

Wanna Be Startin’ Something” AND Human Nature,” Michael Jackson:  The conquering juggernaut that was Thriller rolls on, spawning two singles in the summer of 1983.  It took a little while for “Human Nature” to grow on me (like, twenty-eight years), but I liked “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” right out the gate, despite the fact that I still don’t know what “Mama say mama sa mama ku sa” means. And speaking of gibberish…

“Too Shy,” Kajagoogoo: Even after thirty years, Kajagoogoo still retains the crown of Goofiest Band Name from the 80’s… Or Possibly of All Time. (And this is despite stiff competition from Oingo Boingo, Scritti Politti, and Bananarama.)

Our House,” Madness:   The house is in the middle of the street? In the middle of the street? That IS madness.

China Girl,” David Bowie: At the time, I didn’t “get” David Bowie, Unsophisticated and unschooled in musical history, the thirteen-year-old me thought, “Who is this guy, why is he writing such a creepy song, and did he just say ‘visions of swastikas’?” The forty-three-year-old me humbly apologizes for this error.

Big Log,” Robert Plant: So, let me get this straight: your love is “in league with the freeway”? Hmmmmmmm. At the very least, with this song, Plant proves that his penchant for writing ridiculous lyrics didn’t die with Led Zeppelin. (Oh, come on, you know it’s true. “Ramble On”? “The Lemon Song”?)

Come Dancing,” The Kinks: I thought I had this song figured out: a nostalgic look on a lost childhood, right? But recently, I learned something that made me look at the song in a new light: Ray Davies wrote this song about his older sister, Rene, who gave him his first guitar on his thirteenth birthday. Later that very night, Rene goes out dancing at a dance hall… where she collapsed and died! Who knew such a peppy song could have such a tragic context?

Faithfully,” Journey:  Technically, this is a spring song, but it was still on the charts in June 1983, so that seemed like a good excuse to include it. Astoundingly, this wasn’t even a Top Ten hit for Journey (it peaked at #12), but man, does it have staying power. Fitting, too, that it’s about unending devotion because that’s what fans have for this song.

“She Works Hard for the Money,” Donna Summer: A bona fide anthem from the late, great Disco Queen. And to think it only took thirty years for me to realize the first word off the first verse is someone’s name: Onetta– i.e. the over-worked bathroom attendant about whom Donna Summer (allegedly) wrote this song. (In related news, only a year or so ago did I figure out that the song “Maneater” includes the word “jaguar.” And speaking of Hall and Oates…)

Family Man,” Hall and Oates: Fun Fact: A musician named Mike Oldfield originally wrote this song, but in Daryl and John’s more cynical version, the so-called “family man” cracks and decides to go with the prostitute (only to find– to quote another Hall and Oates classic– she’s gone).

“Cuts Like a Knife,” Bryan Adams: And so begins America’s love affair with the raspy-voiced, ruddy-faced Canadian. (Say, you think Bryan Adams, Bill Murray, Edward James Olmos, and Seal ever hung out? Formed some sort of Pockmark Club or something?)

She’s a Beauty,” The Tubes: Sure, The Tubes are One-Hit Wonders… but when your one hit is a beauty like this one, maybe it’s OK. Just a great song. (Why would I lie?)

Overkill,” Men at Work:  Always a favorite of insomniacs, folks who like words ending in “-ation,” and fans of NBC’s criminally underrated Scrubs.

1999,” Prince: Yeah, the summer of 1984 was his true Purple Reign, but Prince didn’t do too shabbily in 1983 either: in May, “Little Red Corvette” peaked at #6 on the Billboard Chart, and “1999” reached #12 in July. Plus, he released a song in 1983 that was guaranteed to see a resurgence sixteen years later! How brilliant is that?

Never Gonna Let You Go,” Sergio Mendes: Or, as I like to call it, “Never Gonna Like This Song.” Still, it was a big hit at the time, so I felt I had to include it.

Always Something There to Remind Me,” Naked Eyes AND “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Taco: Why put these two together? Simple: they’re both remakes of older songs. Naked Eyes re-envisioned Dionne Warwick/ Burt Bacharach’s “Always Something,” originally released in 1963; and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was featured in a musical of the same name way, WAY back in 1930.  (I was going to call “Puttin’ on the Ritz” one of the oldest songs ever to make the charts… then I remembered The Byrds adapted the words for “Turn, Turn. Turn” from the Bible!  Can’t get much older than that…)

Is There Something I Should Know?,” Duran Duran: Darn right there was something we all needed to know back in 1983– namely, that the ragged tiger that was Duran Duran was going to be sinking its teeth into America and not let go for the next year.

Far from Over,” Frank Stallone: From the soundtrack to the much-maligned sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Stayin’ Alive (directed by Sly Stallone, who obviously decided to throw li’l brother a bone here). Yeah, Frank’s time in the spotlight was not, in fact, far from over (in fact, his career ended before it really got started), but at least this cheesily-overblown-yet-somehow-magnificent rouser got some love in Martin Short’s great Saturday Night Live “synchronized swimming” skit.

“She Blinded Me with Science,” Thomas Dolby: How can you make an awesome song even awesomer? Simple: Perform it with a man who walked on the moon! Which is what Dolby did in June 2013, at a conference at the Smithsonian, when Dolby sang his signature hit… with astronaut Buzz Aldrin!

Flashdance… What a Feeling,” Irene Cara AND “Maniac,” Michael Sembello: Fun fact: “Maniac” was originally written for a 1980 slasher flick, also called Maniac, about a serial killer. Of course, Sembello made some slight modifications to the lyrics for Flashdance. For example, the original chorus goes, “He’s a maniac, maniac, that’s for sure/ He’ll kill your cat and nail it to the door.” Like I said, slight modifications.

Tell Her About It,” Billy Joel: A great, snap-happy song which also gives some good advice about relationships, from a guy who’s been divorced three times.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” Eurythmics: Classic, career-defining song, just not the most complex, lyircally: by my count, the song only has forty-two different words. (And that’s counting “use”/”used” and “abuse”/ “abused” as separate words.)

I’m Still Standin’,” Elton John: They say there are five stages of grief, but Sir Elton hits on the very real sixth stage, the “Thank You for Dumping Me, Because Now I’ve Clawed My Way Back Up And Can See What a Worthless, Miserable Clown You Are” stage.  The “Far From Over” of break-up songs.

Time (Clock of the Heart)” AND “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” Culture Club: Has any group ever had a career trajectory resembling Culture Club’s? They won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1984. They released an impressive string of Top Ten hits in America in the span of two short years. in ’83, Boy George was the hottest act not named Michael Jackson.  Then it was all over.  And they didn’t just fall out of the mainstream: the entire nation implicitly seemed to agree to file them into the “Let’s Just Pretend That Whole Thing Never Happened” category.  Hey, I did the same thing, but I’m just saying: Kajagoogoo is remembered more fondly, for crying out loud…

Every Breath You Take,” The Police: The Grammy-winning Song of the Year… and quite possibly, the most romantic tribute to stalking ever written.

I prefaced this list by talking about music marking the time. Personally, I can’t hear these songs without also thinking about the beach we used to go to all the time in my youth, Brant Rock Beach in Marshfield, Massachusetts. These were the songs I heard in the car on our way to the beach, car, the songs coming out of people’s boomboxes when we got there.

I can’t conjure up specific memories or stories exactly from that summer– just snapshots: my grandmother’s daily dunk to her shoulders (she never went completely under); my aunt coating herself with sun tan oil (back then, you would never think of wearing sunscreen); my dad lugging the cooler, beach bag, inflatable raft, and four lounge chairs, all at once, from the car. (Heck, I can even remember the chairs!)

I haven’t gone to Brant Rock in years. Not that I could even if I wanted to: my dad says that storms have erased the entire shore. Only rocks remain now.

Well, that’s not all. I still have the memories. And the songs, too.  Even after thirty years, they’re still standin’.

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chainsYesterday, as part of my first day at summer school, I played the Police song “Message in a Bottle”– which I then heard on the radio on my way home.  Got me thinking about something I had written a few months ago but never posted, a piece about “synchronicity”– the phenomenon, not the Police album!  

One morning, several months ago, I woke up with “Dreams” on my mind.

I’m not talking about the remnants of the Sandman.  I mean the song “Dreams,” by Fleetwood Mac.  For some reason, I woke up earlier than usual that day— without the aid of my alarm, I should add—with the chorus of that song (“Thunder only happens when it’s raining”) in my head.

Now, I’m not the biggest Fleetwood Mac guy out there.  I like them, sure, but in the way that everyone likes Fleetwood Mac.  (I don’t even own a copy of Rumours!)  I’m such a casual fan, I didn’t even know for sure that the song was called “Dreams.”  In fact, I first thought the lyrics floating through my freshly-awakened noggin were from another Fleetwood Mac song, “The Chain.”

About a half-hour later, I’m driving to work, flipping the channels on the radio, stopping on the “classic hits” station.  And what’s playing? Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”

Now, would this be at all noteworthy if I had, say, Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” on the brain and then heard it on the radio?  No, because that song is still played quite often; I’d wager some stations exclusively play it.  But “Dreams” is no “Call Me Maybe.”

“You should look at the lyrics,” people said when I told them about this curious incident. “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.”  And it is: I think the Universe is reminding me about synchronicity—the phenomenon of two or more unrelated events occurring at the same time, seemingly by chance, what Carl Jung described as an “acausal connecting principal.”

Synchronicity isn’t scientific, but it’s real.  Jung (who actually coined the term, in the 1920s) wrote extensively about it.  His most famous example involves one of his patients, who was describing a dream in which someone gave her a piece of beetle-shaped jewelry.  At that very moment, Jung heard knocking on the window; when he went over, he found an actual beetle, trying to get in.

(Interesting aside: Jung described this patient as “psychologically inaccessible”—a tough nut to crack.  But after the incident with the beetle, she opened up, and their sessions become more productive.)

The truly unusual thing about synchronous events is that they are not that unusual; they happen all the time.  I personally can think of two more incidents from the past year, both of which also involve songs, that attest to the legitimacy of synchronicity.

Exhibit A:  Last summer, on my birthday, I wake up to music coming from my sons’ room. They’re tinkering with the clock radio we just bought for them, and they land on a “Back to the 80s” show; one of the songs I hear is Ratt’s “Round and Round” from 1984.

So I get up to go for a run, set my iPod to “shuffle,” and listen in confused wonder at the very first song that randomly comes up, out of 800-plus songs: “Round and Round.”

Exhibit B is even freakier, because it’s a three-parter:  a few months after the Ratt episode, I’m in my car, heading to the mall, and from out of nowhere, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” pops into my head.

I’m sure you see where this is going: I get to the store, and “Human Nature” is playing on the PA system.  And when I get back in the car, what do you think I hear on the radio?

Now, some may dismiss these examples as insignificant coincidences. And I’ll agree with the half of that; there’s nothing particularly significant—nothing earth-shattering or serendipitous—about hearing a song on the radio.  But coincidental?

Just the opposite, in fact: synchronicity hints at the Grand Design just beneath the surface of everything.

Jung said that synchronous events give us a glimpse into the “peculiar interdependence” that exists between the world and all those who inhabit it—and I agree.  Think about it:  in 1976, Stevie Nicks wrote “Dreams” in California; more than thirty-five years later, on a random Thursday, some Connecticut DJ decides to play that song, on the same morning I inexplicably woke up thinking about it. Now, I don’t know Stevie Nicks or that DJ, but in that moment, through that song, we’re connected.  Linked.

Speaking of links: I have a fitting coda to “Dreams” story.  Later that same afternoon, I was again in my car, listening to that same classic hits station, when another Fleetwood Mac song comes over the airwaves: “The Chain.”

Nicely played, Universe.

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Wizard of OzMake no mistake: he—or she—had a brain, all right.

Unlike a certain singing scarecrow, whoever initially found the parallels between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the film The Wizard of Oz definitely did not have a head full o’ stuffing.  Only an intellectual wizard, after all, could notice that “The Great Gig in the Sky” plays when Dorothy’s house flies in the tornado.  Or that the cash register sound at the start of “Money” is synchronized to the exact moment the movie turns from black-and-white to Technicolor.  Or that Dorothy’s listening for the Tin Man’s heart coincides with the sound of a heartbeat on the album.

It’s all very fascinating.  Provocative.  And completely impossible.  I mean, come on: are we really supposed to believe the guys from Pink Floyd were watching Wizard of Oz while recording the album? Not likely.

This isn’t a knock on the anonymous wizard (or wizards) who originally noticed the similarities.  Far from it: making these connections is a creative act in itself.  And does it matter whether or not Pink Floyd intended to connect its album to Wizard of Oz?  I don’t see why it should.  When an author puts something out into the world, he or she gives up a degree of control.   The audience takes it from there.

Of course, I can’t give props to the folks interpreting the text without acknowledging the greatness of the text itself.  If The Wizard of Oz wasn’t so rich, so paradoxical, so chock full of themes and iconic characters, could those anonymous folks have made so many connections?

That’s not to take anything away from Dark Side of the Moon, which is a trippily complicated text in itself.  I’m just saying that if you take a text as complex as Wizard of Oz and juxtapose it with an equally complex text (such as Dark Side of the Moon, or hundreds of other texts), you’re bound to find some connections.

I actually have an example of my own, regarding the similarities between The Wizard of Oz and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  In case you never read The Sound and the Fury (or, as in my case, you read it but had pretty much had no earthly idea what was going on), the novel focuses on a promiscuous Southern woman named Caddy Compson and her three brothers: Benjy, who is mentally handicapped; Quentin, whose incestuous obsession with Caddy contributes to his suicide; and Jason, who is… just mean.  (There is also a plot in there, apparently… but I don’t think I was ever smart enough to figure it out.)

I took a Faulkner seminar in college, and in one of my papers, I made the case (only half-jokingly) that Faulkner borrowed liberally from L. Frank Baum’s original Wizard of Oz novel (published in 1900) for The Sound and the Fury (published in 1929). Caddy, Faulkner’s centerpiece character, is obviously Dorothy; Benjy matches up the brainless Scarecrow; Quentin—or Quen-Tin—is Tin Man; and Jason, the gruff yet easily frightened “king” of the Compson household, is the Cowardly Lion.

I went on to talk about how both texts involve the idea of dreams vs. reality, with Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness narration being particularly dream-like, in that he tends to collapse past and present events into one.  Admiitedly, a bit of a stretch.

Years later, as a high school teacher, I came up with a better Oz-connection; this time, I didn’t connect Oz to a text but to American history.  On some level, I was inspired by Henry Littlefield’s “The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism,” which spelled out the allegorical aspects of Baum’s novel: The Scarecrow is the supposedly ignorant American farmer; the Tin-Man is the industrial worker who toils so hard for so long, he actually becomes a machine himself; the Cowardly Lion is (believe it or not) William Jennings Bryan; the Wizard is any president who doesn’t have the power to give the people what they need; and Dorothy is Everyman (or Everywoman), trying to muddle his/ her way through.

Now… did Baum intend any of this?  Henry Littlefield seems to think so, and he makes an extremely compelling case why. But again, does Baum’s intention even matter?  Littlefield’s reading is an interesting intellectual exercise, one that gives us a new way of looking at a classic text.  That’s enough for me. (I should note: Littlefield was also a high school teacher… just saying.)

My interpretation goes in a different direction than Littlefield’s.   Most significantly, I’m interpreting the 1939 film version, not the novel.  I start with the song “Over the Rainbow,” the lyrics of which were written by a gentleman named Yip Harberg.  A businessman who lost everything in the Great Depression, Harberg went to Hollywood and became a songwriter.   His work on Wizard of Oz won him an Academy Award.  Talk about an American success story (which is sort of curious to say, since he was a committed socialist).

Now, two things you need to know about “Over the Rainbow.”  First: the rainbow symbol does not appear in Baum’s novel; it was used in the film to help reinforce the innovative use of Technicolor.  (That’s why they changed Dorothy’s magic slippers, silver in the book, to ruby red.)  Secondly: Yip Harberg is the son of Russian immigrants, who emigrated to the United States before Harberg was born.

Though not an immigrant himself, is it possible that Harberg was telling the story of his immigrant parents in the song “Over the Rainbow”?  Check out some of the lyrics:

* “There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby”…
* “Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”…
* “Where troubles melt like lemondrops”…

Aren’t those exactly—I mean, EXACTLY—the kinds of things that someone a hundred years ago, living in Eastern Europe, would say about America?

With that as a foundation, I suggest that the entire 1939 Wizard of Oz film can be seen as an allegory for the American immigrant experience of the early 20th century.   The black-and-white Kansas portion represents their life back home, where they wistfully think about this mythical new world, America—a place where the streets are literally paved with gold. (That’s the yellow brick road.)  Filled with this hope that their daring dreams really will come true, they arrive at the new country, draped in their new home’s colors. (Dorothy, remembers, wears a blue and white dress and ruby-red shoes.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for many of these immigrants to realize that this wonderful new place is not what it’s cracked up to be; like the Wizard itself, the new world is an illusion.  And soon, these same wide-eyed immigrants, who risked everything to come to America, face a hard truth: “There’s no place like home.”

Granted, the interpretation needs some work.  I admittedly have some holes to fill. (Who’s the Scarecrow?  What about the Flying Monkeys?)   But it does offer a new perspective, doesn’t it, on a century-old tale?

To me, it all comes back to the text, L. Frank Baum’s original vision.  What started in 1900 as merely America’s greatest fairy tale has had so many lives, so many incarnations—from the 1939 film to The Wiz in the 1970s to Wicked in the 2000s and now to the new film, Oz, The Great and Powerful.  Why has it had such a long shelf-life?

Answer: because Baum is not like his wizard.  He’s the real deal.  He had brains and heart and courage. His vision was rich and deep, great and powerful.  And the lesson all writers can learn from him, I think, is this: the more you put into a text, the more someone else can get out of it.

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John LennonTwenty-two years ago, on December 8, 1980, a married couple had their picture taken.

Now, that fact in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the picture itself was somewhat unusual.  It was taken by Annie Liebowitz, and her subjects were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And John wasn’t wearing any clothes.

You’ve probably seen the picture, which ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, many times, but maybe you’ve never really looked closely at it. What is the photo saying?

Let’s start with John—who’s not only naked, he’s in the fetal position.  Basically, he’s depicted as a child.  Then there’s Yoko, who appears cold, distant, and unfeeling. John’s kissing her, and she’s looking away. So, if he’s the innocent “child” in the picture, then she’s the jaded “adult.”

This “reading” of the picture is reinforced by several John Lennon songs.  Let’s take “Help,” a song Lennon and McCartney wrote in 1965, when the Beatles were at the height of their popularity. They were the biggest band in the history of music. (Remember the “more popular than Jesus” line?) And yet, at this moment of extraordinary success, Lennon writes this song asking, quite blatantly, for “help.” He’s feeling down, he’s not so self-assured.  To bring it back to the Liebowitz picture, you could say his call for help is almost child-like.

Next, there’s “Imagine,” which definitely reveals a child-like view of the world. He talks about how the “world can live as one,” in one global “brotherhood,” and how we need to get rid of the things that divide us (“no religion” and “no possessions.”)   You may say John’s a dreamer, sure, but he’s offering up an innocent and idealistic vision of the way the world could be.

Back to the Liebowitz picture.  So we have the innocent man-child John juxtaposed with the jaded adult Yoko.  So far, so good.  But how is your reading of the picture affected by the fact that this picture was taken the very day Lennon was assassinated?

It’s true: Annie Liebowitz took this picture after lunch on December 8, 1980. Later than night, at about 10:50, Lennon was shot in front of his apartment, the Dakota, by a pudgy, baby-faced, 25-year-old former security guard named Mark David Chapman.

Chapman actually got Lennon’s autograph earlier that day. Then he waited outside Lennon’s apartment for him to come home.

After he shot Lennon five times (twice in the back, twice in the shoulder, one bullet missed), Chapman allegedly sat down on the sidewalk, took out a book, and started reading a book. And that book was, of course, Catcher in the Rye.

Mark David Chapman, who first read Catcher when he was 18, has claimed that the book eventually inspired him to kill John Lennon. But why? What is it about the book that made him do it?  Personally, I think it has to do with “phonies.”  After all, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield hates “phonies,” and maybe Chapman did as well.  Maybe he saw Lennon—a $150 million businessman who sang about “no possessions,” a man who preached peace but was prone to fits of rage—as one of these “phonies.”   Perhaps the crazed, delusional Chapman felt Lennon was such a phony that he needed to be removed from the world.

Of course, this is all conjecture. All we know is that inside the front cover of the copy of Catcher that Chapman had with him on December 8, 1980, were these four words: “This is my statement.”

The assassination tragically links Liebowitz’s photo and Salinger’s novel.  The photo, after all, shows innocence, one that is odds with adulthood.  The novel explores the same idea: Holden Caulfield wants, quite literally, to prevent kids from falling from innocence into experience.   And yet, the fact that Annie Liebowitz took her picture the exact same day that Lennon was assassinated suggests that the innocence embodied by John cannot last.

The Chapman/ Salinger connection shows the powerful effect stories can have on people—though not just the bad effects.  After all, both Lennon and Salinger brought joy to millions of people with their words.  In fact, Catcher has a lot to do with the fact that I now teach high school English. In the summer before my junior in high school, I read Catcher for the first time, and I remember thinking it was unlike any other book I had ever read up until that point. And I think the initial inspiration that I could teach literature for a living started there.

Both John Lennon and J.D. Salinger are dead.  But somewhere out there, some child is discovering the Beatles for the first time, or some teen is getting hooked on Catcher in the Rye.  And when that happens, innocence lives again.  Maybe just for a moment, but it still lives.

R.I.P. John Lennon (9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980)

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