Indulge your literary ambitions, or come to resent once more your high school English teacher for sucking the life out of your favourite books by making you talk about them. It's also an opportunity for those of you who like to make up your own theme to do exactly that.
The song is one of humanity's oldest forms of storytelling. Before we had writing we had verse to record and remember, and what we chose to remember was mostly tales of where we had come from, who had been here before us and what they did. From Homer's epics to the Bhagavad Gita to the karakia that recall the battles of the 17th century Aotearoa which resulted in the whakapapa lines of modern day iwi, there have always been stories in our songs.
The overarching theme is songs that tell stories, ideally with a beginning, a middle and an end somewhere within the verse, chorus and bridge. There are plenty of them, and you only need to pick two. They don't need to be off the same album, they don't need to be by the same artist, or even the same genre. They do have to have the same theme -- justice, heartbreak, betrayal, decadence, whatever -- but what that theme is is up to you.
I've worked in the criminal justice sector nearly ten years, so I chose two songs written from the perspective of the offender, boasting of his exploits. They both show how crime can be seen as a combination of individual choice and a supportive subculture that enables those choices.
The first song reflected a rural white subculture in the south of America. This song was Cottonseed by Drive-By Truckers, the southern rock revivalists from Alabama. It is a first person life history of an incarcerated badass with no regrets - They say every sin is deadly but I believe they may be wrong/I'm guilty of all seven and I don't feel too bad at all.
The second song reflected a black urban subculture that exists all over America, and that I saw echoed in some of the young offenders I used to transport to and from youth prison in my first job, at Child, Youth and Family in Grey Lynn. They all worshipped Tupac, so I was thinking of them when I chose Hit 'em Up. It is like much G-Funk, an odd combination of crude and ugly lyrics over a smooth groove. Tupac gets quite worked up towards the end, with genuine rage at pretty much every rapper ever to come out of New York. All you motherfuckers/ fuck you/die slow motherfucker/my fo fo make sure all yo kids don't grow… we're motherfucking thug life riders west side till we die.
Hit 'em up
My theme is unrequited love with hookers.
The mighty Akercocke disbanded a few years back after delivering their opus, Antichrist. Thankfully for humankind, former members decided to take the high art project a step further into the depths of progressive and technical death metal and create the performance vehicle called Voices. It's an ambitious undertaking that combines their lust for high drama, suspense, tension, emotional resonance, with flamboyant and florid language. All of these attributes make for a memorable and riveting narrative, whether book, spoken word or song - and here they deliver an uncompromising affair. The album Voices is an atonal, grating masterpiece and I selected the song Vicarious Lover. The album apparently uses The end of the Affair by Greene as the narrative arc across all songs but sets it in the musty, filth ridden, ominously dark side of London, beyond the edge of the well lit streets that humanity treads. We join the protagonist falling off the precipice into insanity and the underbelly of city life. His only solace and hope resides in the pursuit of a prostitute, Megan. The song has a ferocious beginning, a disconcerting middle, and a plaintive end that includes an awesome (yes you held your breath for its duration) spoken word conclusion.
In order to complement the mood I selected Love for Sale by the equally mighty 24-7 Spyz. The guys that invented and own the whole genre known as heavy metal soul. Mr J Hazel is in incredible song writing form and playing chops for the whole of this album. Love for Sale sees our second protagonist innocently strolling home, probably from an arduous and life sapping day at work, and meets a beautiful woman who makes the first bold, yet amorous approach. He is then faced with the moral dilemma of does he, or does he not, finish the night on a satisfying high, after finding out that the aforementioned lady is of the scarlet variety and expects payment for services rendered. Tricky indeed.
Love for Sale
My theme is - Religion, and its Misinterpretation by Man.
Letter From God To Man - Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip
These Essex lads created an online furor with their first viral hit, Thou Shalt Always Kill. Since then they've been producing amazingly creative videos for their brand of mix-and-remix-fuelled, spoken-word hip-hop. They're going from strength to strength with 3 albums together and a number of bits and pieces separately, gaining a strong following on the back of self promotion, imaginative videos, and strong lyrical messages. This is off their first album, Angles, and the message and connection to my theme speaks for itself.
One Rode To Asa Bay - Bathory
Bathory are probably the most influential Swedish extreme metal band of the 80's and 90's, first cultivating the Scandinavian Black Metal scene before defining the Viking Metal genre. This track is from their fifth album, Hammerheart, which was described as a cornerstone album of Viking Metal. It details the arrival of settlers bringing a new religion, Christianity, to the fictitious Asa Bay in Scandinavia. The track is absolutely fantastic, particularly when accompanied with lyrics.https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Narrative is what first drew me to music - the telling of a story in so few lines, allowing the listener to participate by imagining goings-on on the fringes of those carefully chosen words. Narrative is often what keeps me listening to beloved tracks, and what keeps me discovering new favourites.
The narrative theme I have chosen is the deadly consequences of a crime on a relationship.
My first choice is Robert Earl Keen's track 'The Road Goes on Forever' off his 1989 album Western Textures. Keen is a friend of Lyle Lovett, a songwriter less inclined to narrative-driven lyrics (''cause fat babies have no pride; and that's okay, who needs pride?') - the two Texans attended university together, during which time they were neighbours and wrote songs together on Keen's porch. Many of Keen's songs are narrative-driven, but this is among my favourites. Here Keen narrates the tale of Sherry and Sonny, strangers at the opening of the song, who have a whirlwind romance which is cut short by their running out of money. A plan is hatched involving contraband ('Sonny met the Cubans in a house just off the route; with a briefcase full of money and a pistol in his boot'), but the deal goes wrong when the police arrive. Sonny is facing arrest when Sherry shoots the arresting-officer, and the couple go their separate ways, with Sonny telling Sherry to say he forced her into the crime. Time lapses almost two years between the penultimate and final verses, the latter of which details Sherry learning of Sonny having been sentenced to death by electrocution for her crime. One wonders how many films it would take Peter Jackson to re-tell Keen's rich 520-word narrative.
My second pick is Ray LaMontagne's track 'Narrow Escape' off his 2004 album Trouble, which was produced by the legendary Ethan Johns and many of the songs for which he wrote while working in a shoe factory in Maine. LaMontagne's songwriting also often employs narrative, though perhaps less frequently than does Keen. This track details the story of lovers Lejos and Mary, and their awaiting the arrival of the consequences of his having killed a man prior to the song's beginning ('it seems he cut a man down in a Tennessee town'). When vengeance does come, in the final verse, Lejos has fled and it is Mary - and, perhaps, their unborn child - who is killed as a result of Lejos' crime. Counting the chorus once, LaMontagne creates an entire world in a mere 171 words.
Both narratives, then, tell the story of the partner of a perpetrator of a crime being killed as a result of their earlier misdeed.
In many ways, the riff-based 40 Bucks, with it tightly composed narrative that develops the history of its protagonist and follows a distinct though non-linear narrative arc with a clear punchline stands in contrast to Sing Another Song Boys, with its barely-a-story story and rich, mysterious imagery. Nevertheless, both are thematically linked as tales of unsatisfactory one-night stands, which is why I chose them as my songs.
When I set this theme I thought I was onto a winner -- many of my favourite songs are stories, and many of my favourite musicians are storytellers. I was confident that I was going to be able to come up with two great tunes that were thematically linked. In fact, I was more concerned about how decide between a wealth of options.
As it turned out, I gave absolutely little thought to the task during the summer break, and all of my thinking became devoted to what became the second tune I played on the night. The Hold Steady's 40 bucks is a b-side from the Stay Positive era, when Franz Nicolay's keyboard was still a major component of their output. The narrative is a simple little story about a woman's encounter with her favourite band, who are touring through her town. It incorporates the classic Hold Steady themes -- the spiritual importance of music and the music scene, drug use, and the ill-advised behaviour of young people -- in a well-crafted narrative which culminates with a minor betrayal as the musician the protaganist sleeps with steals $40 from the dresser as he leaves the next morning.
It's one of my favourite story songs, largely because it covers a lot of narrative ground in four short minutes -- the circumstances of her conception, her feelings of aging out of scene, a drug deal, and a seduction.
Having gravitated to 40 Bucks more or less by default, I had some trouble matching it up thematically with another song. I eventually landed on an old favourite by one of the greats -- Leonard Cohen's Sing Another Song Boys. This song is barely a narrative. The money-lender's daughter seduces an attractive young man, who, it turns out, isn't much cop in bed. After what seems to be a brief encounter, the erstwhile lovers are left dissatisfied at the experience. The situation isn't resolved -- we leave the lovers wondering why the sex was so bad as Cohen implores us to sing another song. Perhaps the awkwardness is dispelled in the one and a half minutes of la-la-las that conclude the song. We'll never know.
Tom Waits on the other hand is a well known story teller that speaks his own mind and controls his own destiny. My first pick off an album called Swordfishtrombones would have been "Shore Leave" but since I can't even organise that for myself I would feel morally remiss in using it... that and the fact I couldn't think of anything else to pair it with. So you can listen to "Frank's Wild Years" off the same album, and my connecting theme is 'Choices'.
The second offering is from another great story teller and observer of the human condition, David Byrne and Talking Heads. Having read David B's book I'm struck with how unsure they all were about what they were doing and why which may be why they were able to relate so well to the less talented amongst us. The song is "Seen and Not Seen" off the album "Remain in Light".
In this instalment I have chosen eight minutes of spoken word and three minutes of pop to tell us tales of mariticide. Traditionally, mariticide meant to kill ones husband, but in contemporary usage it is correct to use this term for either a man or a woman that murders his or her spouse.
The first track I have chosen tells a story of mariticide that occurs in the most bizarre circumstances. “The Gift”, written and recorded for The Velvet Underground’s 1968 album White Light/White Heat, features the dead-pan vocals of John Cale who recounts the story of Waldo Jeffers, a love-sick youth. Jeffers plans to surprise his girlfriend, Marsha Bronson, and succeeds. Unfortunately for Waldo, things do not turn out quite way he had planned them:
The second track I have chosen was written primarily by John Lennon along with Paul McCartney for the Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul. Lennon later described this track as his “least favourite Beatles song” and “the song he most regretted writing”. The track is “Run for Your Life” where Lennon describes how he will react to his “little girl” if he sees or catches her with another man. Lennon is not explicit in what will actually happen to his little girl; however, we can imagine that the “end of little girl” might just be mariticide:
OllieBruce Springsteen - Highway Patrolman
Nebraska is an album of stories, all of them about blue collar, small town America - good people driven to do bad by a mean set of circumstances: a rustbucket economy, military service and bad credit. This track tells the story of a local cop torn between duty and family as he speeds across State in hot pursuit of his errant brother. Relying solely on his voice, an acoustic guitar and occasionally a harmonica, Bruce works the line between song and elegy perfectly, delivering one of the best possible soundtracks to a road trip across America.
Lee Hazlewood - the Nights
An odd and some would say embarrassing choice this one, both in terms of subject matter (white woman takes up with red indian tribe) and tone (dour sexual melodrama in a teepee). What can I say? Pretty much what I said at the time: it's the first song that popped into my head when the theme was announced. And I happen to think that Lee Hazlewood is an under-rated singer-songwriter who, at his best (admittedly, perhaps not on this track) rivals the Boss for irresistible melancholy.