Monday, November 10, 2008

Tell Me A Story

Beck--"Mexico" (mp3)
Bruce Springsteen--"Highway 29 (live)" (mp3)
Bobbie Gentry--"Ode To Billy Joe" (mp3)

The hardest type of song to write is the one that tells a story. You've got to get all of the elements in there--plot, character, etc.--plus you've got to make it fit the structure of the song, not only getting your tale to fit a rhyme scheme but also any kind of chorus you might have that hammers your theme home. To make matters more difficult, you have very, very few words with which to get your story told, and even though you can probably only sketch it out at best, I think most people want a story that's fresh and original.

Quite a challenge, I'd say.

Maybe it isn't the hardest kind of song to write, but I do think that it is the type that I most admire. Occasionally. Too many story songs break me quickly, especially if the stories are clunky or cliched. And, if the song is to be any good or successful at all, the story has to be one that you want to hear more than once or twice. That means there at least have to be parts of it that a listener looks forward to over and over--twists or special turns of phrase or line or image that produces a chuckle.

And so, I offer a few spectacular examples of the genre.

The Beck song, "Mexico," a little heard gem that came on a compilation of songs performed live at a radio station, almost doesn't sound like a Beck song at all. Just him and an acoustic guitar and a slacker tale of a guy and his friends who decide to commit a small-time hold-up at the McDonald's where the narrator used to work. The tale is full ironic, funny details. It's hard to know if it was intended or not, but the kind of careless guitar playing and twangy, off-key vocals fit the story to a "t."

Bruce Springsteen's "Highway 29" is an economical masterpiece of the genre. It's the story of a man who gets seduced into committing a crime by a woman, but as he ponders his fate, he realizes that "it was something in me" that causes him to do what he does. Springsteen also dispenses quickly with any obvious parts of the story:

It was a small town bank,
It was a mess,
Well, I had a gun,
You know the rest.

That resignation pervades the song until its a powerful, but inevitable, conclusion. It's a song where every word counts.
Probably my favorite story song for over 40 years now has been "Ode To Billy Joe," by Bobbie Gentry. And, like the rest of the world, I still don't know what the heck it means. But Gentry's song is narrated by a young woman trying to keep her composure, while her rural Mississippi family is sitting at dinner and mulling over the news that "Billie Joe McAlister jumped off the Talahatchee Bridge."

The mystery? Well, over the course of dinner, the mother reveals to her daughter that she ran into the preacher, who saw "a girl who looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge/ And she and Billie Joe was throwin' somethin' off the Talahatchee Bridge." Many have speculated as to what that something was--everything from a ring to a baby to the innocence of the '60's--but no one has yet come up with a satisfactory answer that I know of. So I keep listening to her tell the story.

I'm not aware that Beck's "Mexico" is available anywhere, but the other two songs are available at Itunes.


Billy said...

Due to my particular love of cheese, favorites that immediately come to mind are "Rocky Raccoon" by the Beatles, "New Test Leper" by REM, "Spread Your Wings" by Queen, "Don't Give Up" by Peter Gabriel... but then, I'm not even sure any of those qualify for the parameters...

Johnny said...

Hey do you know where I can find the Beck song on CD? You said it was on a live radio disc, but that sounds kinda rare and if you could point me in the right direction that would be nice.

Bob said...

Johnny, it's from a compilation called "Rare on Air," so if you can find that, you'll have it.


Bob said...

It's rare on air, vol. 1. I see they have it at amazon. There are some other good songs on there, too.