I love that lyric from A Long December by Adam Duritz, the lead singer of Counting Crows. As a natural chronicler of life events and someone who is drawn almost as much to depressing songs as to sappy love songs, those words jumped out of that song and into my soul the very first time I heard it. That is how amazing the right lyrics can be.
Honestly, that is how almost all of Adam Duritz’s words are for me. Even when his images are obscure and open to interpretation, they always seem to climb into me and be interpreted by my soul before my brain even becomes involved. From the moment I heard the Counting Crows’ first album, August and Everything After, I was mesmerized and truly shaken by the images and the sadness that it nestled into my heart. I could quote from any of the songs for examples, as they have taken turns as Most Favorite through the years as my life has changed and various live renditions have surfaced. But I will stick with my first love, Anna Begins, which is about trying to resist falling in love as it is overtaking him. There are individual lines that stand out on their own, like this gem: “These seconds when I’m shaking leave me shuddering for days,” she says. But, really, the whole thing is a masterpiece. As much as I hate to leave any words out, here are a couple of my favorite passages:
This time when kindness falls like rain, It washes me away. And Anna begins to change my mind. And every time she sneezes, I believe it’s love. And I’m not ready for this sort of thing.
She’s talking in her sleep. It’s keeping me awake. And Anna begins to toss and turn. And every word is nonsense, but I understand. And oh Lord, I’m not ready for this sort of thing.
I just love those beautiful words! I love the song, too, but I love the words most. These sad ones are from Raining In Baltimore on the same album:
There’s things I remember and things I forget. I miss you; I guess that I should. Three thousand five hundred miles away, but what would you change if you could?
I used to think it was obvious that a good song must have amazing lyrics. It turns out that is just not true. I have been combing through my music collection this week—the best research project ever—and I realized that sometimes the joy of a song is all about the sound of it and how that moves your mood. And though I am kind of artistically snobby about some things, I decided that those fun songs are awesome, too. So, while I wanted to find some genius lines in fun favorites like The Sound of Sunshine by Michael Franti or Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye, I took in their feeling just as well and found them brilliant.
But I love beautiful lyrics, so that is where I focused my search. I realized in the process that there are a few songwriters, like Adam Duritz, for whom I love just about every word that they write, making it hard to pull out individual lines or verses for fear of slighting the other words surrounding them.
One of those gems for me is Indigo Girls (I love them both, but Emily’s songs usually move me more than Amy’s). A few of my many favorites:
Each time you pulled down the driveway, I wasn’t sure when I would see you again. Yours was a twisted, blind-sided highway, no matter which road you took then. You set up your place in my thoughts, moved in and made my thinking crowded. Now we’re out in the back with the barking dogs, my heart the red sun, your heart the moon clouded. I could go crazy on a night like tonight, when Summer’s beginning to give up her fight, and every thought’s a possibility. And voices are heard, but nothing is seen. And why do you spend this time with me, maybe an equal mystery. –Mystery
My friend Tanner, she says, “You know, me and Jesus we’re of the same heart. The only thing that keeps us distant is that I keep f#*@in’ up!” –Shame on You (to be sung at the top of my lungs with my sister)
I went to the doctors, I went to the mountain. I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain. There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line. The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine. –Closer to Fine
And the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota, at a place where you could walk across with five steps down. And I guess that’s how you started, like a pinprick to my heart, but at this point you rush right through me and I start to drown. –Ghost
One of the other things I realized in my joyous search was that I love songs that set a scene and tell me a story. A famous example of this is Billy Joel’s Piano Man, which begins:
It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in. There’s an old man sittin’ next to me making love to his tonic and gin. He says, “Son, can you play me a memory. I’m not really sure how it goes. But it’s sad and it’s sweet, and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”
It just makes you want to hear the rest! This love of a story-song is what has always kept little-known Joshua Kadison on my list of all-time favorites. His “One-hit wonder” status comes from Jessie, which begins:
From a phone booth in Vegas, Jessie calls at five A.M., to tell me how she’s tired of all of them. She says, “Baby, I‘ve been thinking about a trailer by the sea. We could go to Mexico: you, the cat, and me. We’ll drink tequila and look for seashells. Now, doesn’t that sound sweet?” Oh, Jessie, you always do this every time I get back on my feet.
He has a lot of wonderful stories about old people, too, which I have always loved. These are some of his opening lines that draw me right in:
He tells her, “I want to paint you naked on a big brass bed, with bright orange poppies all around your head.” And she says, “Crazy old man, I’m not young anymore.” “That’s alright,” he whispers. “I’ve never painted before.” —Painted Desert Serenade
A cigarette burns itself out in a crushed up Coca Cola can ashtray. In front of a busted up old mirror, Delilah Blue is checking out his tired sachet. –Delilah Blue
Tangled in the sheets of a motel bed, Samantha paints her toenails cherry red. She asks me if she can paint mine, too. And I say, “Samantha, anything for you.” –Beau’s All Night Radio Love Line
Neffertiti came out West in a stolen limousine, twenty dollars to her name and a walk like you ain’t never seen. She moved into Number 8 with just a bottle in her hand, an old radio wrapped up in its cord, and no particular plan. I watched her in the hallway, she blew me a little kiss, and said, “Hey baby, what’s a boy like you doing in a place like this?” –Jus’ Like Brigitte Bardot
Marc Cohn is another one on my short list, a brilliant songwriter whose one hit is another story-song, Walking in Memphis. My favorite verse:
Now, Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood. And they brought me down to see her, and they asked me if I would do a little number. And I sang with all my might. She said, “Tell me are you a Christian, child?” And I said, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”
Beyond the storytelling, I am also drawn to songs with social and moral messages embedded in them. A few favorite lines:
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one. –John Lennon, Imagine
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds. Have no fear for atomic energy, ‘cause none of them are going to stop the time. How long must they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? Some say it’s just a part of it: we’ve got to fulfill the book. Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom? ‘Cause all I ever had: Redemption Songs. —Bob Marley, Redemption Song
Come on, people now, smile on each other. Everybody get together. Try to love one another right now. —Chet Powers (The Youngbloods), Get Together
I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. And no message could have been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. –Michael Jackson, Man In The Mirror
And of course, as I mentioned, I am a sucker for love songs, from sappy to tragic and everything in between. I have already mentioned a handful, but here are some other lines that get inside of me:
If you find yourself lost out in this world, then I’ll find a way to get back to your side. No mountain’s too high, no stone is too small. I’ll build a bridge through the fire; for you I would crawl, from New York to California. –Mat Kearney, New York to California
Tonight our bed is cold. I’m lost in the darkness of our love. God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of. –Bruce Springsteen, Brilliant Disguise
Tell the repo man and the stars above: You’re the one I love. –David Gray, The One I Love
The time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love. –Lisa Loeb, Falling In Love
There are way too many love songs. I think they’ve got it all wrong. ‘Cause life is not the mountaintops; it’s the walking in between. –Ben Rector, I Like You
What do I do to make you want me? What have I got to do to be heard? What do I say when it’s all over, and “Sorry” seems to be the hardest word? –Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours. –Bob Dylan, Talkin’ World War III Blues
I wanna have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become not the man that I was. I want to have friends who will let me be all alone when being alone is all that I need. –The Avett Brothers, The Perfect Space
You got a fast car. Is it fast enough so we can fly away? We gotta make a decision: leave tonight or live and die this way. –Tracy Chapman, Fast Car
Together again, it would feel so good to be in your arms, where all my journeys end. If you can make a promise, if it’s one that you can keep, I vow to come for you, if you wait for me. –Tracy Chapman, The Promise (This was in my wedding.)
All you need is love. –John Lennon, All You Need Is Love
I could go on like this all day! There are a million more songs and verses I would love to share with you. I LOOOOOVE music!!! However, instead of giving you more lyrics, I will close with two quotes from my favorite movie about music, Almost Famous. The first is from Band-Aid (groupie) Sapphire: “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” And finally, from music critic Lester Bangs: “Music, you know, true music, not just rock ‘n’ roll—it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone, listening to your headphones—you know, with the vast, scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain.” That’s how I feel, too.
How about you? What are the lyrics that have chosen you? Open up your journal and your music catalog. As you peruse your CDs or your iTunes account or whatever, what jumps out at you? Find favorites whose lyrics have climbed down into your soul and taken root. Do you have any artists that can basically do no wrong when it comes to songwriting, like my Adam Duritz or Indigo Girls? What is it about their words that attaches to you so organically? Do you find yourself more drawn to certain types of songs, or is it all over the board? What are your favorite story-songs? Feel-good songs? Songs with a social or moral message? What about love songs? Do you like the straightforward, sappiest love songs, or do you like the more subtle, not-so-obvious lyrics (for me, Anna Begins fits the latter category, whereas Marc Cohn’s True Companion, which I also love and was in my wedding, is the former)? How much do the lyrics matter to you, anyway? Are they just icing on the cake of a great sound, or are they an essential piece if that song is going to be one of your favorites? What are some of your favorites with weak lyrics? What about the reverse: which songs have amazing lyrics but not a great sound? Which ones have the best of both? How much do you love music? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the songs of your soul?
Be swept away with Gratitude,
P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with someone who will appreciate it. I love sharing music!