Livin’ just enough for the city

Here at Hack’s Back Pages, we’ve come up with collections of songs exploring all kinds of different geographical places.  We’ve looked at songs about different U.S. states, songs about different world cities, songs about California, songs about New York.

But we’ve so far neglected to compile a playlist of songs about U.S. cities outside of New York and California.  It’s a big wide, wonderful, diverse, amazing country, with big cities and small chandler_oleary_50states_map_1440pxtowns throughout the Midwest, the South, the Northeast, the Southwest and all parts in between.

Through the years, songwriters of rock, country, blues and pop music have often written wistful odes or bitter diatribes about their hometowns and the cities they’ve visited, grown fond of, or grown to dislike.  I’ve selected 20 songs, mostly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that use U.S. cities as potent subject matter in their lyrics.



“Panic in Detroit,” David Bowie, 1973

davidbowie-panic-in-detroit1Bowie said he wrote this song based on his friend Iggy Pop’s descriptions of his experiences with revolutionaries during the 1967 Detroit riots Rolling Stone called the track “a paranoid descendant of the Motor City’s earlier masterpiece, Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere to Run.'”  Sample lyrics:  “Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph, he wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone, panic in Detroit, he laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom, the police had warned of repercussions…”

“Savannah Nights,” Tom Johnston, 1979

R-4262599-1535339449-7529.mpoGuitarist/singer/songwriter Johnston was the mainstay of The Doobie Brothers until ulcers forced his temporary retirement from the lineup in 1976.  He worked his way back into the business with a 1979 solo LP, “Everything You’ve Heard is True,” featuring this very Doobie-ish tune about his fond memories of Savannah, Georgia:   “He is the King of Savannah nights, the inspiration, the ladies’ delight, you could not catch him if you wanted to try tonight…”

“Allentown,” Billy Joel, 1982

billy-joel-allentown-cbs-3Allentown is one of those hardworking Pennsylvania steel towns that suffered mightily when the US steel industry took a dive in the 1960s and 1970s and never really recovered.  The folks who were born and raised there and were expected to work the mills found themselves in a dead-end existence through no real fault of their own.  Billy Joel made a hit single about it:  “So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all, no, they never taught us what was real, iron and coal and chromium steel, and we’re waiting here in Allentown… and it’s getting very hard to stay, and we’re living here in Allentown…”

“Sick of Seattle,” The Smithereens, 1994

71p9U3hmRJL._SX355_Grunge rock, which featured angst-ridden lyrics and punk/metal leanings, was born in the Seattle underground in the mid-’80s, and became popular in the early ’90s with Nirvana, Soundgarden and others leading the way.  The Smithereens, who hailed from New Jersey, liked grunge but found its heyday was over when they visited Seattle:   “Came here to find me a place in the sun, once was a scene, now it’s already done, thinking of leaving, it’s no longer fun in Seattle…”

“Oh Atlanta,” Bad Company, 1979

R-1660842-1381854436-6168.jpegLittle Feat has a great classic tune with the same title, but I have also always liked Bad Company’s entirely different song, a deep track from their 1979 LP “Desolation Angels.” Country artist Alison Krauss recorded a marvelous cover version in 1995.  Guitarist Mick Ralphs wrote the song in tribute to the “capital of the New South”:  “Oh Atlanta, hear me calling, I’m coming back to you one fine day, no need to worry, there ain’t no hurry, ’cause I’m on my way back to Georgia…”

“San Francisco Days,” Chris Isaak, 1993

San_Francisco_Days_-_Chris_IsaakRockabilly/roots-rock singer Isaak, born and raised in Stockton, California, is probably most widely known for his languid 1990 hit “Wicked Game” and for his dreamy voice.  His fifth LP “San Francisco Days” is full of great songs, including the title track, which pays homage to the nearby Bay City:  “I’m heading for that Golden Gate, hoping I won’t be too late to find the one that I still love, it’s you I’m dreaming of, San Francisco nights, San Francisco days, San Francisco nights…”

“Miami,” Bob Seger, 1986

220px-Bob_Seger_-_Like_a_RockSeger is a Detroit native who sympathized with the plight of refugees who are just looking for a better life.  For his popular “Like a Rock” album in the mid-’80s, he wrote “Miami,” about Cuban refugees who brave the 90-mile trip to the Florida mainland, looking to Miami just as European immigrants looked to New York City in the early 1900s:  “They felt the warm breezes blowing from off the strange new ocean, they reached the end safe, it was a new day, Miami, oh, Miami…”

“Baltimore,” Randy Newman, 1977

61jYBTlq-yL._SX355_Newman is known for writing sardonic lyrics, and his tune “Baltimore” from his successful 1977 LP “Little Criminals” got him in trouble (as did that album’s single, the anti-discriminatory “Short People”).  Said Newman at the time, “People tend to take my songs the wrong way sometimes.  Actually, I think people in Baltimore who objected to that song had a real good case, though, because I didn’t know much about it and had never been there.”  Sample lyrics:  “And they hide their faces, and they hide their eyes ’cause the city’s dyin’ and they don’t know why, oh Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live, oh Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live…”

“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley, 1964

R-3715837-1440593245-2766.jpegDoc Pomus and Mort Shuman teamed up to write this rollicking tune expressly for the Elvis Presley hit movie of the same name.  Presley’s recording reached #27 in April 1964, and the movie, co-starring love interest Ann-Margret, was a box office hit as well.  The lyrics celebrate Las Vegas for its fun and excitement while warning of its risk and danger:  “There’s black jack and poker and the roulette wheel, a fortune won and lost on every deal, all you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel, viva Las Vegas!…”

“Cleveland,” Jewel, 2001

220px-Jewel_-_This_WaySinger-songwriter Jewel was only 21 when her debut album “Pieces of You” made her a star.  Included on her third LP, “This Way,” was this deep album track in which the narrator wants to curl up with her boyfriend, but can’t because he’s on the road, this time in Cleveland:  “It’s only an inch from me to you, depending on what map you use, I wanna tell you everything, I wanna make your toes curl, you be my only boy and I’ll be your only girl, there’s not much I can say ’cause you’re in Cleveland today…”

“Kansas City,” The Beatles, 1964

220px-BeatlesforsaleOne of the first songs in the catalog of famed songwriters Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller was “Kansas City,” a great 1952 blues tune that R&B singer Wilbert Harrison took to the top of the charts in 1959.  The Beatles chose to cover it in a medley with Little Richard’s “Hey Hey Hey Hey” on their 1964 LP “Beatles For Sale.”  The lyrics are barebones simple, but the song is a keeper:  “Ah, Kansas City, gonna get my baby on time, yeah yeah, I’m goin’ to Kansas City, gonna get my baby on time, yeah yeah, it’s just a-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…”

“Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John, 1976

philadelphia-freedomElton was friends with tennis star Billie Jean King and wanted to write a single for her and her pro tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms.  Lyricist Bernie Taupin protested, “I can’t write a song about tennis,” and in fact, the song has nothing to do with the sport.  Although Taupin claims it isn’t about flag-waving patriotism either, its release in 1975 and subsequent rise to #1 on the charts dovetailed nicely with the Bicentennial celebrations in Philly in 1976:  “Philadelphia freedom, shine on me, I love you, shine a light through the eyes of the ones left behind, shine a light, shine a light, shine a light, won’t you shine a light, Philadelphia freedom, I love you…”

“Birmingham Blues,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1975

R-840367-1497372470-5878.jpegDaniels is a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner from Wilmington, North Carolina, and when his career took him on tour far from home, he found himself writing songs where the narrator was longing for the familiar surroundings of his Southern towns.  On his 1975 LP “Nightrider,” he recorded a kickass number dedicated to his woman back in Alabama:  “Had me a fine woman down in Birmingham town, took care of my money and she didn’t play around, all I got left now is a bad case of Birmingham blues…”

“Sweet Home Chicago,” The Blues Brothers, 1980

5353810063_cc623b2149_bRobert Johnson wrote this blues classic in 1936 about blacks fleeing the racist Delta areas for destinations with promise, like California, or Chicago.  Dozens of cover versions have played fast and loose with the lyrics, but the version I know best was recorded by John Belushi and Company for “The Blues Brothers” soundtrack LP in 1980.  Chicago sports teams have adopted the song for use at home games:  “Come on, baby, don’t you wanna go, hi-de-hey, baby, don’t you wanna go, back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago…”

“Memphis,” Johnny Rivers, 1964

R-995789-1335131030.jpegThis Chuck Berry song, first recorded by Berry in 1959 and turned into a #2 hit for Johnny Rivers in 1964, appears to be about a man longing for his love interest who he left behind in Memphis.  Closer examination reveals it’s about his six-year-old daughter Marie, who lives with her mother since a divorce split the family:  “Last time I saw Marie, she was wavin’ me goodbye, with ‘hurry-home’ drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye, but we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree, and tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee…”

“La Grange,” ZZ Top, 1973

ZZTopThe infamous “Chicken Ranch” brothel located on the outskirts of La Grange, Texas, is the subject of this minor hit for ZZ Top in 1973 (it peaked at #41), and also the hit stage play and film “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in the early 1980s.  The track is mentioned among Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs All Time:  “Rumour spreadin’ around in that Texas town ’bout that shack outside La Grange, and you know what I’m talkin’ about, just let me know if you wanna go to that home out on the range, they gotta lotta nice girls, have mercy…”

“Tulsa Time,” Eric Clapton, 1978

81lIZIogODL._SX355_Country artist Don Williams recorded this Danny Flowers tune in 1978 and had his eighth consecutive #1 hit on the country music charts that year.  Clapton chose to record it for his “Backless” LP, and a live version released on his “Just One Night” album in 1980 became a #30 single.  It tells the tale of a musician who gives up on his Tinsel Town dreams to return to his Oklahoma roots:  “Well, there I was in Hollywood, wishin’ I was doin’ good, talkin’ on the telephone line, but they don’t need me in the movies and nobody sings my songs, guess I’m just wastin’ time, well, then I got to thinkin’, man I’m really sinkin’, and I really had a flash this time, I had no business leavin’ and nobody would be grievin’ if I went on back to Tulsa time…”

“Doraville,” Atlanta Rhythm Section, 1974

Atlanta_Rhythm_Section_1977Barry Buie wrote many of the early songs by his band Atlanta Rhythm Section, who were formed in the Georgia town of Doraville, which was semi-rural at the time but grew into a sizable suburb of Atlanta.  Many of their songs were also recorded in a small recording studio there, and although the group went on to national fame with songs like “So Into You,” “Champagne Jam” and “Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight,” it’s songs like “Doraville” that remind everybody of their hometown pride:  “Doraville, touch of country in the city, Doraville, it ain’t much, but it’s home…”

“Lodi,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

220px-Creedence_Clearwater_Revival_-_Green_RiverOf the many great songs John Fogerty wrote for his band Creedence in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I’ve always been partial to this tune from the “Green River” album about a traveling musician whose plans didn’t work out and he found himself stuck in a podunk town in Anywhere USA.  Fogerty decided to pick on Lodi, California, a tiny railroad town not far from his own home town of El Cerrito:  “The man from the magazine said I was on my way, somewhere I lost connections, ran out of songs to play, I came into town, a one-night stand, looks like my plans fell through, oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again…”

“Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen, 1982

51EEhoEevQL._SY355_Among the bleak, introspective songs Springsteen wrote for what ended up comprising his “Nebraska” LP was the haunting “Atlantic City,” which explored the difficulties the Jersey boardwalk town was having with its plan to revitalize through the proliferation of gambling casinos.  Despite the song’s dark mood, the lyrics offer a hopeful note:  “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line… Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back, put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City…”


Honorable mention:  “Gainesville,” Tom Petty, 1998; “The Boston Rag,” Steely Dan, 1973; “Galveston,” Glen Campbell, 1969; “Angel From Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt, 1974;  “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” Warren Zevon, 1991; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Dionne Warwick, 1966; “Dallas,” Johnny Winter, 1973; “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard, 1969; “Nashville Cats,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966; “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” Jan and Dean, 1963;  “All the Way to Reno,” R.E.M., 2001;  “Tallahassee Lassie,” Freddy Cannon, 1959; “Tucson, Arizona,” Rory Gallagher, 1973.



Is there anybody going to listen to my story?

To tell a story in a compelling way is an art; to do it to a melody is a wondrous thing.

For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song.  In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of tales of heartbreak, tales of war and famine, tales of love and tradition.  These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature.

Not surprisingly, these ballads tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, which is hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”

Still, some songwriters  — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went a little beyond the conventional song length.  I’ve selected a handful of tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.


“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972  

81Gd3K9ctQL._SL1416_Great story-songs paint an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters.  In the case of this remembrance from Chapin’s real past, there’s Harry, the taxi driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover.  They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they share an uneasy moment.  “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…”  Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, but as they part, he appears to be content just driving a cab, while she seems unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.  Chapin’s debut single reached #24 on the pop charts in the fall of 1972.

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977

meatloafThe entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy material for a Broadway stage play, with multiple stories about the exploits of numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman for his pal, Mr. Loaf, to sing.  None was more cinematic than “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” the vivid story of a teenage boy hoping to seduce his girlfriend.  They volley back and forth until she asks for his undying love in exchange for a night of passion (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?”  “Let me sleep on it”).  It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties across America.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972  

MI0000383010Motown artists were known for short, punchy dance tunes, but they weren’t opposed to taking a stab at the story-song.  The Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September, a day I’ll always remember”).  It was originally recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the Top 40 version clocked in at nearly seven minutes.  The vocal group’s final #1 single set the tone for many more soul records that told stories over the next decade.

“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973

Front Cover copyThis song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from California who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks.  Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973.  It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.

“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968

beatles_1478685cBy the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it was only a matter of time before they (actually Paul McCartney) came up with a story-song.  “Rocky Raccoon,” with an arrangement dominated by acoustic guitar and jangly piano, is basically a country-western yarn with McCartney front and center singing about South Dakota rivals Rocky and Dan, and the object of their competing affections, a girl named Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).

“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969

51nB9lgIE-L._SX300_QL70_The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically crossed over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969.  The tune tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity.  The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”

“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971

thIn 1969, songwriter Kris Kristofferson wrote this poignant story of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.  It was first recorded by Roger Miller (a #12 hit on the country charts), then by Kristofferson himself, and then Gordon Lightfoot, and in those versions Bobby (Bobbi?) was the woman.  But then it was recorded by Janis Joplin in 1970 only a few days before her death, and Bobby became the male character.  Her version went to #1 on the pop charts in the spring of 1971 and remains the definitive rendition.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

wreckitlCanada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for more than ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with his ode to the sunken freighter.  It resonated with Americans and Canadians alike, especially those who lived near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years.  It’s a great story artfully told but, frankly, one of Lightfoot’s more boring songs, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven verses.

“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972

don-mclean-american-pie--albumcoverproject.comNot so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” took listeners on a journey, told in enigmatic language, through the evolution of rock and roll from its birth in 1955 to 1971, when the song was written.  It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its veiled references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones, and events like Woodstock and Altamont, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967  

Bobbie-gentry-Ode-toThis sleepy, sultry number about a fictional Deep South tragedy would’ve worked perfectly in the soundtrack to “In the Heat of the Night,” the Oscar-winning movie from the same year.  As it is, the song was a big #1 hit on the pop charts for then-newcomer Gentry, who wrote it with sensitive, descriptive lyrics.  It tells the tale of a rural Mississippi family’s reaction to news of the suicide of local boy Billie Jo MacAllister at the Tallahatchie Bridge, the subsequent passing of the family patriarch, and the effects of the two deaths.

“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967  

alices-restaurant-1Perhaps the longest story in popular music (and subsequently made into a feature film), “Alice’s Restaurant” is an 18-minute rambling account (apparently true) of what happened to songwriter Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one Thanksgiving Day during the Vietnam War protest years.  It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness and disbelief at the folly and absurdity of war as well as the justice system’s overreach.

“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

dan-fogelberg-same-old-lang-syneThis tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do.  The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store on Christmas Eve, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again.  It struck a chord with many people who recall past flings and relationships, and Fogelberg deftly weaved in a few bars of “Auld Lang Syne” as the song concludes.  It reached #9 on the charts and still gets plenty of airplay during the Yuletide season.

“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976

cd-cover“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…”  For his hugely successful LP “Fly Like an Eagle” in 1976, Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, kind of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde.  It reached #11 as the first of three hits from the album that year.  Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in his movie “Natural Born Killers” after the felonious couple Miller described in the song.

“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982

John_cougar-jack_diane_s“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…”  John Mellencamp was still Johnny Cougar when he wrote this commercial story-song about another down-and-out  couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life.  Allegedly based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up a bit and gave it a more contemporary bent for the ’80s audience.  With a catchy guitar riff and stutter-stop rhythm, it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 1982, and still gets a ton of exposure today.

“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975

ZumaThis 11-minute opus, found on Young’s sprawling “Zuma” album, tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century.  Young had been reading historical biographies during this period of his life and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits.  The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.

“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

The-Wild-The-Innocent--th-017Like Dylan, The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as “Incident on 57th Street,” an under-the-radar saga from his “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” in late 1973.  It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.

“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975

Bad Company Straight ShooterWriting a story-song was not the exclusive domain of American composers — witness this minor classic by British rockers Bad Company.  Found on their “Straight Shooter” LP, “Shooting Star” tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle.  Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his favorites in the Bad Company repertoire.

“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989

220px-JoeJacksonBlazeOfGloryThis one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Bob_Dylan_-_DesireDylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work.  Perhaps his most notable is the one about real-life boxer Reuben “Hurricane” Carter, who, though far from a saint, got unjustly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently outraged to write this lengthy piece that told Carter’s story.  It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.