Beginnings & Leavings

One of the things that we’ve talked about here at GloNo is coming up with a list of lines from songs that each of us likes for whatever reason. Which got me to think about songs that I’ve long appreciated, songs that are not necessarily widely known, or if known, not listened to in the same context as my listening involves.

While there are some songs that resonate as a whole with us, there are others that have a telling phrase that lingers even after we’re not sure of the other lyrics. It echoes in our memories, long after the cause of that memory is passed.

I guess that the lines that follow were selected based on my experience growing up, when I was pretty much trying to figure out relationships. I suspect that there is a certain male orientation to this, which I point out because I’m not sure whether there is a cross-gender feeling of not exactly inadequacy, but more of mystery: A feeling that perhaps young women were more likely to have it figured out. Or maybe not. Maybe we were all in the same fog-shrouded maze, trying to find the beginning and completely mystified as to the ending.

I should also note that the selections here are evidently not socio-political in bent, that they are based on relationships, potential, unrealized and fulfilled. This is not about sloganeering, of manning the barricades, of sticking it to the Man. There is propaganda. And there is poetry. I’ll leave the White Panther approach for another time.

One of the musicians whose work I most admire is Ricki Lee Jones. Her repertoire contains a wide selection of lines to choose from. It is fairly clear by examining her lyrics that she is self-consciously writing in the sense that if you look back into your English lit. books of the 19th and centuries earlier, you’ll find that poets wrote pieces that included the word “Song” in their title (e.g., just think of William Blake). Her “It Must Be Love” from The Magazine is a song that has probably had far more airplay than any of the other pieces she’s done with the exception of one (and you all know it). The plaintive line that strikes me:

I have seen you walking in the rain

I wanted to know why you were crying

I want to fix what’s wrong

There are many songs about walking in the rain. There’s even the famous “Singin’ in the Rain.” These songs tend to be upbeat (e.g., “Walkin’ in the rain with the one I love/feel so fine”). But here there’s a more appropriate reason. When you walk in the rain and cry, your tears are obscured by the raindrops. Yet the narrator of the song knows that it isn’t just water streaming down someone’s face: There’s pain.

In the same sort of context, there are lyrics from one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, William “Smokey” Robinson. He could turn a better phrase than Michael Schumacher can turn a corner. In a matter of just a few minutes, Smokey and the Miracles were able to tell a story, a story that was often of heartbreak, which is something that everyone growing up could certainly relate to. It is exceedingly difficult to just select one of two lines. There are far too many. One of the things that Smokey examined was the whole relationship between image and reality, between the strong front and what is behind it. If Shakespeare had written pop songs, he’d probably have written the likes of “The Tracks of My Tears”:

So take a good look at my face

You see my smile looks out of place

Look closer, it’s easy to trace

The tracks of my tears

. . .

My smile is my makeup

I wear since my breakup with you.

There’s the issue of betrayal of “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage”:

There you were, beautiful

The promise of love was written on your face

You led me on, with untrue kisses

But you held me captive, in your false embrace.

And of the one who will undoubtedly find his love unrequited, despite its depth and truth, in “(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need”:

I may not be the one you want

But I know I’m the one you need

. . .

Girl, can’t you see while you’re longing for his touch

That I’m the one who loves you so much

As he put it in “More Love”:

This is no fiction, this is no act,

It’s real, it’s a fact.

While Elvis Costello is known for a variety of things, songs of heartache/break are a fundamental of his lyrics. While “Allison” is certainly full of this, a more interesting treatment is found in “The Only Flame In Town” (which, as we make the transition from Smokey, it is worth noting, features “blue-eyed soul” singer Daryl Hall on harmony):

She’s not the only flame in town

She’s got to stop thinking that I’m carrying this

Torch around.

Note that he’s actually carrying the torch, despite the fact that he’s trying to convince her that he’s not—which is really the last thing he wants to have happen. Once again, it is all about a brave face.

Finally, a verse from a musician who is the victim of the MTV-driven success of his “She Blinded Me With Science,” Thomas Dolby. To be sure, on its own, that is nothing more than a novelty record. But it is something that fits within the context of The Golden Age of Wireless, an album that is something of an audio Thomas Pynchon novel. But with “Science” being where most people started and stopped, Dolby has been pretty much dismissed to the level of the likes of The Thompson Twins. Which is unfortunate. Listen to his cover of Dan Hicks’s “I Scare Myself” from The Flat Earth and realize that Dolby puts his audio science to good work.

The lyric in question comes from Astronauts & Heretics, from the N’awlins spiced “I Love You Goodbye”:

Some words are sad to sing

Some leave me tongue-tied

(But the hardest thing to tell you)

But the hardest words I know

Are I love you goodbye

I love you goodbye

Note, this isn’t an ending, but a departing, a leaving. Once the tears are past, once the love has been gained, leaving isn’t such sweet sorrow. As Smokey asked back in 1961 in “What’s So Good About Goodbye”:

How can goodbye be good

To a lover who really cares?

8 thoughts on “Beginnings & Leavings”

  1. Smokey Robinson is one of the best songwriters ever, especially lyrics. My favorite story is when Smokey first approached Berry Gordy with a huge notebook full of songs, maybe 100 of them. He played them all for Gordy and Gordy pointed out something wrong with every single song. Instead of being totally discouraged, Smokey went home and rewrote many of his songs and wrote a bunch of new ones. Gordy loved Smokey’s songs so much they formed Motown Records together. (At least that’s how I heard it.)

  2. Some favorites:”…I promised you everything/you promised me thick and thin/but now you just turn away and say ‘Romeo?’ I think I used to have a scene with him…” (Mark Knopfler)AND”…Now I’m over you and there’s nothing really I can do/I know you don’t mind that I don’t matter…” (Ike Reilly)Don’t know why the gutwrenching ones are at the top of the list, but there you are, from a sentimental girl…

  3. One that never fails to get me, particularly with a suitably ragged delivery live in person or on recording is the couplet:”phone sure sounds dead, my pockets sure feel tight/the things I promised not to do with you today, I sure need to tonight” – You Am I ‘Jaimmie’s Got a Gal’ (T.Rogers)Though officially about his brother specifically, and the palpable sense of loss a young man feels when their best friend gets a girlfriend, these lines sum up the greater themes of the song and perhaps even the album that contains it perfectly. Youth, alienation, despair, money (lack thereof), love, friendships, heartbreak – the need for more of some and less of others – all tempered by the knowledge that relationships will change and sometimes people move in different directions and at different times in their lives perhaps unintentionally leaving us behind at the time to get on the business of growing and living. Young man blues at its absolute finest, (and thats no dismissal), for me at least.

  4. I often find just the tiniest couplet getting stuck in my head for days at a time. They’re often rendered meaningless to someone I’m telling them to outside of the context of the song as a whole, but they always mean the world to me… at least for a little while. Here are a trio:”A person can work up a mean, mean thirst/After a hard day of nothing much at all.” The opening lines of the Replacements’ classic “Here Comes A Regular.””I’ve been cryin’ all night and I’ve been cryin’ all day/And I’m tryin’ to remeber what it feels like not to feel this way” from the Gear Daddies’ “Don’t Look At Me.” And the truly obscure “I don’t look in mirrors and tell myself things that aren’t true” That’s the opening line of a song by the Frontier Wives called “Never.” I think that’s what it was called, anyway.Yeah, the sad songs always find a way to stick around.

  5. The sad goodbye song that comes to my mind is “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” by Tom Waits.The song’s viewpoint is from a guy at a bar who’s trying to convince himself that he really isn’t interested in the woman across the way. But really he’s just afraid of the possibility of rejection, and he lets her slip away without even trying to meet her.The song ends thusly:”I search the place for your lost face, guess I’ll have another roundAnd I think that I just fell in love with you.”This after constantly repeating the opposite as the song’s refrain.This song gets me because I’ve gone through this more than once.

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