“Writing About Musicians Writing About Music? How Very Meta.”
They always say write what you know, so a lot of musicians write about music. Some songs are of the “The power of music can save you” variety, and some get more specific, referencing individual people, groups, or songs. I’ve always found the whole idea fascinating. Obviously I’m leaving a bunch out (ABBA, Madonna, Barry Manilow, et al.), but here are eleven that I love.
Hold Steady lead singer and lyricist Craig Finn was immersed in the vibrant Minneapolis music scene in the ‘80s as a fan. When he started his own band, he filled his songs (most notably “Hot Soft Light,” “Certain Songs,” “Rock Problems,” every other Hold Steady song) with references to bands and albums he loved. My favorite is “Joke About Jamaica” which starts with a reference to Led Zeppelin’s “D’Yer Mak’Er” and cites a bunch of other Zeppelin songs (and Nick Gilder, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash. It’s jam packed) in a tale of a young woman coming of age in a small town in the late ‘70s. He also references earlier Hold Steady songs. It’s dense and brilliant. One music geek singing to another.
A tale of the power of music. We’ve probably all felt it. Life is awful and nobody understands except the person singing that song that’s making you cry right now. And then we move on, life gets a whole lot better and we forget the songs that got us through that rough patch. Even a terrible person like Morrissey gets it. He knows he may have been that singer who made you feel better. And he wants you to know you’re welcome. I really do love this song.
I was a fan of Jimmy Eat World’s second album “Clarity” so I picked up the follow up, “Bleed American,” the day it came out. Track two, “A Praise Chorus,” got me right away. “Praise” compares life to being at a concert and waiting for the band to play a song you know so you can shout along. The band enlists one of their heroes, Davey Von Bohlen of The Promise Ring, to sing lines of songs ranging from Tommy Shondell to They Might Be Giants, from Madness to Motley Crue (he even throws a couple of Promise Ring songs in there). Jimmy’s singer, Jim Adkins, then implores “So come on Davey, sing me something that I know” AFTER Davey’s already done just that. But it’s a powerful moment so we’ll let him have that one.
There’s a cliché that says that clichés are clichés for a reason. And the hoariest rock nuggets have hard grains of truth buried in them. Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch knows this and, amidst a swirling hypnotic guitar storm, wants to tell the musicians that they were right. A hard rain IS gonna fall, we ARE all dust in the wind, and life DOES go on long after the thrill of living is gone. But sorry Bob Marley, everything isn’t gonna be alright. The only happy sentiment on the list is the only one that’s wrong. Bummer.
Not a bummer is “Sir Duke.” It’s four minutes of pure joy. Duke Ellington passed away in 1974 and Stevie wanted to pay tribute to him and the other pioneers of swing and jazz, whom he namechecks in the second verse. As astute as the lyrics are (his description of music as a language is brilliant), it’s the music itself that really grabs you, burrowing into your brain and staying there for a bit. And how could you not like a song that, as my friend Emily said, “just makes you wanna dance stupid.” Which is the only way I dance.
Taken from the Off Broadway play “Hedwig And The Angry Inch,” “Midnight Radio” is the closing song. The play is a tale of a person trying to find their other half and finally doing so in the end. “Radio” touches on how music helped them achieve that. Hedwig sings of finding herself in musical terms (radio transmission, 45 rpm records). And she lists the artists who gave her meaning; Patti Smith, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Aretha Franklin, Nona Hendryx and Nico. And then she names herself because she knows that she’s a star too, which is awesome and inspiring as all get out. So good. My favorite version is the original cast recording with the creator, John Cameron Mitchell. The movie soundtrack is pretty great too, but I personally would avoid the Neil Patrick Harris version. He makes it all Broadway glossy and utterly strips the rock and roll from it, which is totally against what it’s about.
By 1999, Alabama’s Drive By Truckers had released two studio albums and had decided to go all out for their third. Calling it “A Southern Rock Opera,” it was mostly about Lynyrd Skynyrd, their music and their relationship to people from the South. The track “Ronnie And Neil” details the friendship between Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young. After all of the awful things that happened in Alabama during the fight for civil rights, Young wrote a couple of songs that painted everyone from the state as being horrible racists, which Van Zant took issue with. Skynyrd had just recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield Alabama. Home of one of the best groups of backing musicians in America (The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, or The Swampers, as they were affectionately called), the studio had recorded classic tracks by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and The Staple Singers (among others). Skynyrd had met a bunch of people there who were kind and progressive and they felt that Young’s songs were unfair. So Van Zant wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” which Young loved. Thus began a friendship that lasted until Van Zant’s untimely death. Echoing a line from “Sweet Home,” “Ronnie And Neil” states that “Southern men need both of them around.” Truckers’ guitarist Patterson Hood wrote “Ronnie And Neil” from a semi-insider’s point of view. His father is David Hood, bass player for the Swampers.
Every town has their local bands. Some hope to get signed to a label, but many just do it for fun and, having day jobs, a bit of income supplement. “Sultans Of Swing” is about one of the latter. The Sultans are a jazz band playing to a half empty bar, which they seem ok with (although I’m sure they could do without the bored drunk kids in the back). Apparently, Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler had actually seen the real Sultans Of Swing play in Deptford England in the exact circumstances listed in his song. I think we’ve all seen our own version at one time or another. Some were probably playing this song.
Billy Bragg began as a Socialist folk singer playing acoustic guitar run through a crummy speaker, writing songs both political and personal. By his (difficult) third album, “Talking With The Taxman About Poetry,” he had expanded both his sound and subject matter. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” tells the story of a woman living in a trailer, who’s been abandoned, and later almost killed, by her husband (the line “It’s you and me against the world kid/she mumbled to herself” is heartbreaking). The whole time she listens to a tape by the Four Tops and it anchors her and gets her through. Bragg understands how important music can be in our lives.
So does Frank Turner. A less political version of Bragg (the two of them are actually good friends), Turner writes more personal songs. And quite a few of them are about music. The songs I listed are two sides of a coin, so I put both in here. “I Still Believe” is the usual “saved by rock and roll” song, namechecking the artists that saved him and culminating in the line “So just remember folks, we’re not just saving lives/we’re saving souls/and we’re having fun” (a lot of songs forget about how fun music can be). “Try This At Home” takes it a bit further and suggests that YOU should get in on the act too. Maybe you can write a song that someone can relate to and it’ll get them through their miserable times. Anyone has that power. After all “There’s no such thing as rock stars/there’s just people who play music/And some of them are just like us/And some of them are jerks” (Which is not the word he uses). We all have power? Maybe he is political.
More life-saving here. Indeep were a disco band who had a pretty big hit with “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life.” Lyrically it’s not amazing, saying the same thing a bunch of the other songs on this list have said. The reason I included it was that it was on the Fever 105 radio station in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and every time it came on, I’d just drive around until it was over. It’s a fantastic song.
(Note: CD only bonus track, not available on LP or Cassette)
In 1987 I bought the album “Pleased To Meet Me” by The Replacements. The second track on that album is “Alex Chilton.” Alex was the former singer for the Box Tops who later co-started a band called Big Star. I absolutely adore Big Star. They made three albums that were ignored and faded away. Thus, I had never heard of them in 1987 when “Pleased To Meet Me” came out. I found a copy of their first album and it blew me away. I still listen to it and their two other albums regularly. So maybe “Alex Chilton” didn’t save my life but it surely changed it for the better and that’s pretty ok too.