Questions of a thousand dreams

“What’s all these crazy questions they’re asking me?”

Popular music lyrics, in ’60s and ’70s rock music especially, seem to ask a lot more questions than they provide answers.  They offer possibilities, theories, even concrete statements, but they mostly pose “what ifs” and open-ended queries of all kinds.

Lyrics through the years have asked hundreds of questions — questions that have obvious answers or hoped-for answers.  For instance, consider the multitude of songs with questions about emotional relationships:  

“Can I just make some more romance with you, my love?” (Van Morrison, 1970)

“If I should call you up, invest a dime, would you say you belong to me and ease my mind?” (The Turtles, 1967)

“I’ll bet you think this song is about you, don’t you?” (Carly Simon, 1972)

“Do you, don’t you want me to love you?” (The Beatles, 1968)  

 “Are we really happy with this lonely game we play?”   (George Benson, 1976)

“A love like ours is love that’s hard to find, how could we let it slip away?” (Chicago, 1976)

“Get out of my life, why don’t you, babe?”  (The Supremes, 1966)

“But we just can’t stay together, don’t you feel it too?” (Carole King, 1971)

Some questions are cosmic, or rhetorical, or puzzling, or even nonsensical.

In a 1970 song aptly titled “Question,” The Moody Blues asked, “Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door?”  It added, “There’s a thousand million questions about hate and death and war…”  It was almost an existential query, rooted in the quagmire of the Vietnam War then raging, but of course, there was, and is, no easy answer.

In 1983, then up-and-coming band U2 asked, in regard to the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” incident between warring factions in Northern Ireland, “How long?  How long must we sing this song?”  Again, there is no pat answer…except, perhaps, sadly:  “Forever and always.”

The question Joni Mitchell asked in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi” — “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” — referred to our regrettable penchant for replacing natural beauty with man-made conveniences, but it could refer to anything, or anyone, we let slip through our fingers.

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”  Simon and Garfunkel asked that in the summer of 1968 in the song “Mrs. Robinson,” a #1 tune referring to the lead character in “The Graduate” which had nothing whatsoever to do with baseball in general nor DiMaggio in particular.  In fact, DiMaggio once confronted Simon and asked what he meant.  “What do you mean, ‘Where have I gone’?  I’m still here, dammit!”  Simon chuckled and answered, “I could have said Mickey Mantle, but I needed the syllables.”  In other words, there was no deep, hidden meaning.  After all, it’s only rock and roll.

“Do you believe in rock and roll?  Can music save your mortal soul?”  And, by the way, can it teach you how to dance real slow?  Don McLean, in his epic song “American Pie” about the history of rock music from roughly 1955-1970, posed these pivotal questions as he mused about whether popular music was really all that important in the whole scope of things.  Is it?  Who knows?

Now and then, there’s a question that’s asked and answered, briefly and emphatically:  “War! What is it good for?”  Absolutely nothing!  So said Edwin Starr in 1970.

“How many times can a man turn his head, pretending that he just doesn’t see?” That’s one of nine questions asked by Bob Dylan back in 1963 in his seminal protest song, and his response to each was “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”  Meaning what?  Well, meaning the answer is baffling, elusive, undefinable.  We’re still asking these questions fifty years later.

Is this the real life?  Is this just fantasy?”  We often wrestle with what is reality and what is simply imagined, and Queen pondered this one in their operatic 1975 anthem, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  Even Madison Avenue asked a version of this one in the famous tag line for recording tape:  “Is it live?  Or is it Memorex?”

“Oh mirror in the sky, what is love?”  Ah, love.  Since the dawn of time, we’ve been searching for the answer to that one, and Stevie Nicks asked it once again in her 1975 beauty, “Landslide.”

Roger Waters, composer of most of the Pink Floyd catalog, whimsically yet philosophically wondered the same thing his parents’ generation used to ask children in the post-war period:  “How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”

And then there is a whole group of tunes that pose a question in the song’s title, and some have some very intriguing answers:

“How Can I Be Sure” in a world that’s constantly changing?  How can I be sure I’ll be sure with you?…”  These are the kinds of questions Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati were contemplating when their band The Young Rascals attended several weeks of transcendental meditation sessions in “The Summer of Love” in 1967.  Cosmic questions, indeed.

Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Herman Santiago, tenor in The Teenagers, wrote the song in 1955 based on some lines from love letters shared by a neighbor, including “Why do birds sing so gay?” and “Why do lovers await the break of day?” and “Why does the rain fall from above?”  It made the top ten twice in 1956, and again for Diana Ross in 1981. More unanswerable questions, these.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” In 1986, CBS news anchorman Dan Rather was accosted and beaten on the streets of New York by two men who repeatedly asked him, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?!”  When R.E.M. songwriter Michael Stipe heard about this, he couldn’t resist turning it into a song about an older man trying to figure out the motivations among the Generation X kids coming of age at the time, but getting nowhere. “I don’t understand, don’t f–k with me,” was how Stipe ultimately concluded this failed quest.

“Who’ll Stop the Rain?”   Most people think this 1970 John Fogerty song has nothing to do with an endless downpour, but is instead a plea to halt the endless rain of bombs that were falling on Southeast Asia at the time he wrote it for his band Creedence to turn into a #2 hit.

“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”  Is she really going to take him home tonight?  In 1979, British New Wave rocker Joe Jackson was eager to know whether a woman he knew well was seriously contemplating dating a guy he thought was a loser.

“Do You Feel Like We Do?”  Whose wine?  What wine?  Where the hell did I dine?  Mercurial pop star Peter Frampton woke up from a nasty drunk one morning in 1973 and asked these questions of himself and his audience, and then answered, “Come on, let’s do it again!”

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”  Paula Cole was a newcomer in 1997 when she made a big impression with this #8 hit single that agonized about the neglectful, selfish man she was involved with.  “Where is my John Wayne?  she demanded to know.

“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” And does anybody really care?  Robert Lamm, keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter for Chicago, recalls, “I was walking by a movie theater one afternoon, and there was an usher taking a cigarette break.  I asked him, ‘Hey, man, what time is it?’ and he looked at me with a thoughtful look on his face and said, ‘Does anybody really know what time it is, man?’  I decided that would be a great line for a song I was working on.”  It went to #7 in 197o.

“Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”  The Beatles “White Album” is chock full of wildly diverse material but perhaps nothing quite as unusual as Paul McCartney’s little throwaway ditty, considered rather blatantly naughty for its time.  “No one will be watching us,” luv, so indeed why not?

“When Will I Be Loved?” We all want and need to be loved, but the eternal question is “When?  When will love come?”  Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers wanted to know when he wrote this hit that reached #8 for the duo in 1960, and then was reborn as a #2 hit for Linda Ronstadt 15 years later.

“Where is the Love?”  This is merely another way of asking the same question Everly asked:  “Where does love come from?  Where do I look for it?”  Two completely different tunes with the same title, 40 years apart, wanted to know.  The duo of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway took a song by Ralph McDonald and William Salter, which examined a troubled relationship, and registered a #5 hit in 1972.  Then in 2003, a committee of nine people including will.i.am (William Adams) and others in the hip-hop band Black Eyed Peas asked the same thing in a broader context.  Both Fergie and Justin Timberlake were featured vocalists in this song, which bemoans the hate, anger, racism and terrorism in the world.

In today’s lingo, I supposed these would all be known as FAQs…

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9 comments

  1. CRO · August 7, 2015

    Who wrote the book of love? Velvet Jones.
    http://snltranscripts.jt.org/82/82cvelvetjones.phtml

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tobar · August 7, 2015

    Here is my comment. Why do the Browns continually suck?

    Liked by 1 person

    • brucehhackett · August 8, 2015

      I tend to mention the most well known version when I quote a lyric. But you’re right, Leon’s is the definitive one. After all, he wrote it…

      Like

    • brucehhackett · August 8, 2015

      Unanswerable question.

      Like

  3. Mark Frank · August 8, 2015

    Fun trip down memory lane Hack! And a bold move noting G. Benson’s mediocre (although hit single) This Masquerade vs. Leon Russell’s hauntingly beautiful original from ’72. (glad to learn he was part of the Wrecking Crew). Many other covered this tune including the likes of Willie Nelson, The Carpenters, Robert Goulet (of Beetlejuice fame), Kenny Rogers and Widespread Panic. I think even Helen Reddy had a version, but How Can I Be Sure?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Barney Shirreffs · August 8, 2015

    Lynyrd Skynyrd said it best:
    So don’t ask me no questions
    And I won’t tell you no lies
    So don’t ask me ’bout my business
    And I won’t tell you goodbye

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Budd Bailey · August 8, 2015

    Let’s review here. You write a column about questions in rock music, and you leave out the most obvious one? As one musician put it, there are only three questions that matter in life:

    1. Is there a God?
    2. Are we alone in the universe?
    3. Who let the dogs out?

    Liked by 1 person

    • brucehhackett · August 8, 2015

      A better question, Budd, is “Why was ‘Who let the dogs out?’ popular?”

      Like

      • Budd Bailey · August 9, 2015

        Woof! Woof, woof, woof!

        Like

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