A song can make a strong first impression in a number of ways. The most obvious is probably a strong hook; a phrase in the instrumental line grabs you before the song is even fully underway. Sometimes a distinct vocal sound will do, especially if you are hearing an artist for the first time; Bob Dylan is the classic example of this. But there are times when the thing that stays with me is a line of the lyrics; this often takes the form of “did s/he really just say that?” Let me give you some examples.
Rickie Lee Jones: Danny‘s All Star Joint
Danny’s All Star Joint was on Rickie Lee Jones’ debut album from 1979. At that time in my life, it sounded like a great place to hang out. I could see in my mind the pinball machines flashing. There would be a magazine rack with the latest comics, (there were no specialty comic book shops in those days). And there would have to be a lunch counter, hence the line, “Carte blanche sandwich, oh lettuce get thick!” If, in a moment of madness, I ever decide that I need to have another blog, I’m going to call it The Thickening Lettuce.
John Hiatt: Trudy and Dave
John Hiatt is one of the most quotable songwriters I know. This is the man who rhymed Queen of Sheba with amoeba in Thing Called Love. But here is my favorite line of his: “stole the money for the laundromat and drove away clean.”
Steely Dan: Everything You Did
The line here is, “turn up the eagles, the neighbors are listening”. I used to think that there were these two eagle statues in the room with volume knobs that emitted some sort of white noise. This didn’t make much sense, so I kept thinking about it. My next thought was that the song took place outside of Philadelphia, and the football game was on. This was better. But the most likely explanation was that a song by the Eagles was on the radio or the stereo. Ironically, the characters in this song don’t strike me as the type to listen to Steely Dan.
Lyle Lovett: Church
Lyle Lovett is not afraid to write a song about something bizarre, and here is my favorite example. A gospel number about hunger, the climax of the story is the sudden appearance of a dove in the church. Referring to the preacher, Lovett sings, “...the dove flew down beside him, and a fork appeared right in his hand...”, and the conclusion, “...everyone got really nervous.”
Talking Heads: Seen and Not Seen
David Byrne has never been afraid to be bizarre. Sometimes he carries this tendency too far, and it almost becomes self-parody. But, when he hits it right, as he does here, Byrne becomes an alien observer of human foibles, with much to teach us about ourselves. Seen and Not Seen is about our obsession with changing our appearance. The Line is, “some might have gotten half way there, and then changed their minds.”