Perhaps it came out of the ancient folk traditions, when the telling of a tale and the singing of a song were the same thing. But in pop music, the story-song has had tremendous impact as a form, although with varying degrees of quality, believability, and overall appeal depending on which one we’re talking about. The idea of telling a story in song may have been the best way for traveling troubadours to remember the details. Certainly, it’s a great way for listeners to remember the stories. But, I’m often left to ponder on the holes in the plots of some of these stories, even if I can appreciate the jaunty tune which goes along with them.
Here is a list of selected story-songs which I think bear talking about. Some of them are classics. Some of them are terrible. Frankly, I had a hard time narrowing my focus, as there are so many I could have chosen from so many genres of music, from the Temptation’s soul-pop classic “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, to Cole Porter’s tin pan alley tale of “Miss Otis Regrets”, to 70s schlock like Paperlaces’ “The Night Chicago Died”. Heck, I had my pick with Smokey Robinson tunes alone! But here they are, randomly, in all of their glory and in no order – I don’t believe in top ten lists – the glorious, the grand, and (in some cases) the gut-wrenchingly awful story-song.
From Bob’s 70s peak album Blood on the Tracks, comes this tale of drifters, love gone wrong, and regrets for things which might have been. It’s always been a favourite, even if Bob seems to change the words every time he sings it. Sometimes it’s in first person, sometimes it’s in third person. Typical Bob. Is he a part of the story? Is this about his own experience in some way? Or is this just a movie he made up with the engine of his fertile songwriting brain? You’ll never know. Neither will I. It doesn’t matter. This is classic cinematic storytelling, with 13th Century Italian poetry, Joe-jobs, topless bars, untied shoes, pipe-smoking, basement apartments on Montague Street, and mathematician’s wives all thrown in for good measure. Brilliant.
A Shel Silverstein poem as told by the king of the outlaws, Johnny Cash. A hard life is the one lived by a boy named Sue, constantly defending his honour due to an effeminate moniker, and vowing to destroy the one who so thoughtlessly bestowed it upon him. This is the ultimate ‘blame your parents’ tune, complete with patriarchal fist-fighting and a touching, albeit misplaced, fatherly sentiment at the end. So, not just God, Murder, and Love then. Well, maybe a bit of love. But this love has broken teeth.
This is not just a story; it’s a way of life! Kenny Rogers’ immortal tale of a gambler on his last legs handing down his famous advice in exchange for a mouthful of hooch has become burned into the brains of anyone who was in earshot of a radio at the end of the 70s and early 80s. Unfortunately, the song gave way to several TV movies about the titular gambler, with Rogers in the title role. We like the song better, Kenny!
A powerful tale of an iron-ore freighter and her crew who lose a battle with the winds of November on Lake Superior is a staple story song in Canada and has made an impact south of the 49th parallel too. It’s a typical folk tale of a modern-day shipwreck (which actually happened in 1975, the year the song was written). Shipwrecks in general have been prime fodder for folk singers everywhere. But, Lightfoot brings real pathos to this story; when the cook says “fellas, it’s been good to know ya”, your heart sinks, if you have one. The song has come to mean a lot to anyone who loves a great tale, but means the most to the relatives – “the wives and the sons and the daughters” who actually know the events of this song more intimately than anyone.
It’s the song that frightened a generation into paying more attention to their kids. Self-absorbed, workaholic Dad gets bitten in the ass when he realizes he’s raised a self-absorbed, workaholic son. Don’t let this happen to you, hints Chapin. For all of its familiarity, it still packs a punch, maybe because so many people still haven’t figured out its message. To those people: Hey! Put down that cell phone and go and play catch with your kid, already!
Is it a song about the Church of Satan? Is it about being in Hell? Was the overlong double-necked guitar solo really necessary? What the hell does “colitas” smell like, anyway? Whatever the answers to these burning questions, HC became a radio staple, inspiring many a cover version for many a street musician and bar band. Personal factual nugget: as a child, I was sure that Henley was saying “we threw up in the middle of the night/Just to here them say…” As it is, it’s “wake you up in the middle of the night…” which is less interesting.
This is a tale of lust, jealousy, and madness, set in the sultry, sensual Caribbean. Is this a Jim Thompson novel? No, it’s Barry Manilow! This one has such a jaunty tune, yet is rife with violence. I wonder if Tipper Gore ever really listened to this song, which ends up with the beautiful show girl “losing her mind”, after a fatal shooting of her lover in a Cuban nightclub. There would be Parental Advisory stickers all over that sucker.
This song is a marvel. A truly maudlin, yet preachy, tale of a good time girl trying to steer a dissatisfied house-frau from a life of debauchery, debasement, and sinfulness in favour of a good old-fashioned monogamous, Republican-approved vision of womanhood. This wouldn’t be so bad, if Charlene didn’t make the former sound so much more fun than the latter. “I’ve been laid by royalty, had orgasms that have lasted for days, and forgotten about more physical pleasure than you’ll ever know. But, don’t be like me.” Classic.
Get this. He’s not happy with his relationship. He puts an ad in the paper, revealing what he’s really into, and how much he wants to get the hell out of his crappy situation with his tired old lady. He gets an answer to his ad. He meets the mystery woman who is the answer to all of his hopes for crazy, pina colada-fueled sexual thrills on the dunes of the Cape. And whaddya know? It’s his current girlfriend. Now, is this really a relationship booster that the two of them needed, or is it an incredible burn when the realization eventually hits him that she found him to be a dismal drag and wanted to get the hell away from him too?
This is actually another great story-song to beat most; a tale of a fan gone mad with murderous intent, driven by homoerotic obsession. Dido (who would never be as effective again) shines as the ghostly voice in the chorus, and Eminem packs a wallop in an Oscar-worthy performance as both the crazed fan as well as the object of the fan’s desire, Slim. It’s not just that the song is disturbing. It certainly is that. But, it’s that Em had the balls to tell the story in a genre which doesn’t traditionally value male vulnerability. It is one of the best songs of the 90s in any genre, and certainly one of the better examples of the tremendous potential of hip-hop in general.
So there you are; ten tales of the imagination to shock, to entertain, to educate, and to repulse you. Long live the story-song! Feel free to share your own!