There walks a lady we all know

I remember when I was young thinking how cool it would be to have a song named after me.  Well, not me personally, but a song that was entitled “Bruce.”  I quickly noticed, however, that while there many dozens, even hundreds of songs named after women, there are only a handful featuring men’s names.  Elton John’s “Daniel” comes immediately to mind, or that macabre tune from 1971 which features two boys who apparently ate their friend in order to survive being trapped in a mine (“Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?”).

Men (and a few women) have been writing songs about the women in their lives for at least a century or two.  These tunes have come in the form of romantic ballads, bitter group-of-women-smiling.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smartbreak-up songs, heartfelt tributes and bittersweet odes.

More often than not, songwriters don’t mention their women by name, perhaps to preserve anonymity, or because their manager urged them to keep it more generic so the song might have more universal appeal.  But sometimes a writer insisted on keeping it specific to pay homage, or to hold in contempt, or simply because the sound of the name fit nicely in the song’s meter.

There are several dozen pretty great examples of classic rock songs with women’s names as the title.  No modifiers, no extra words.  Just the name.

In searching for these titles, I came across many others that use women’s names with descriptors (“Judy in Disguise,” “Long Tall Sally”), verbs (“Come on Eileen,” “The Wind Cries Mary”) and other qualifiers (“Helen Wheels,” “Sara Smile”).  All perfectly good songs, but I limited my list to one-word titles.

Here are 20 for your consideration, with my usual Spotify playlist at the end.  Enjoy!


“Sara,” Fleetwood Mac, 1979

saraIt took a while, but in 2014, Stevie Nicks indeed confirmed what had been rumored for quite some time — that this 1979 song from Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” LP is about an aborted child she and lover Don Henley chose not to have.  “Had we gotten married and had that baby, and if it had been a girl, her name would have been Sara,” Nicks said.  “It’s a special name to me.  One of my very best lifelong friends is named Sara.”  The recording reached #7 as a single in early 1980, and Nicks still performs the song, both with the band and as a solo act.

“Roxanne,” The Police, 1978

220px-Roxanne_-_The_Police_(Original_UK_Release)In 1977, when The Police were performing in dive clubs around Europe, Sting was inspired by the prostitutes who worked outside the seedy hotel in Paris where the band was staying.  He wrote this sympathetic tune, urging the girl to give up the hard life she had chosen.  He decided to call her Roxanne after seeing a movie poster in the hotel lobby featuring the old film “Cyrano de Bergerac,” whose female lead is named Roxanne.   The song peaked at only #32 in the US in 1978, but it remains one of The Police’s signature songs.

“Gloria,” Them, 1964

220px-Gloria_(Them_song)_coverartVan Morrison said that he wrote “Gloria” in the summer of 1963 as he was turning 18.  The song is as simple as it gets, only three chords, and he would ad-lib lyrics as he performed, sometimes stretching the song to 15 or 20 minutes.  Gloria was a real person, a girl he was infatuated with, and his desire to seduce her made it harder for some ’60s radio programmers to include the song in Top 40 formats.  Indeed, when an obscure group called The Shadows of Knight had a Top 10 hit with their cover of “Gloria” in 1966, it eliminated the reference to “coming up to my room.”

“Victoria,” The Kinks, 1969

220px-Victoria_coverIn the leadoff song on The Kinks’ criminally underrated 1969 LP “Arthur,” Ray Davies’ satirical lyrics juxtapose the grim realities of life in Britain during the 19th century (“Sex was bad and obscene, and the rich were so mean”) with the empathetic hopes of the British Empire in the Victorian age (“From the West to the East, from the rich to the poor, Victoria loved them all”).  Throughout her reign, Queen Victoria was beloved even by the downtrodden working class (“Though I am poor, I am free, when I grow, I shall fight, for this land I shall die”).

“Beth,” Kiss, 1976

5561231359438eae423f7384b93bdeed.500x500x1How peculiar that one of the loudest and most bombastic of all Seventies heavy metal bands would have their biggest commercial success (#7 on the charts) with a ballad, sung by the drummer, with limited instrumental accompaniment.  “Beth” was actually born in 1971 as “Beck” (short for Becky) in reference to the girlfriend of a former band member who would nag him to leave rehearsal and come home.  Drummer Peter Criss later changed it to “Beth” at the suggestion of Kiss’s producer, and even though the rest of the group didn’t want to record it, it ended up boosting sales for the “Destroyer” LP.

“Jolene,” Dolly Parton, 1973

220px-Dolly_jolene_single_coverParton’s solo career was just gathering momentum when she penned this evocative song about a simple gal who pleads with a stunningly beautiful woman named Jolene to leave her man alone:  “Pretty girl, please don’t take my man just because you can.”   So many country music fans could relate to that woman’s desperate feeling that the song soared to #1 on the country charts (although only #60 on the pop charts).  It became one of Parton’s most loved tunes, and many cover versions have been recorded since, as well as a 2017 tune (“Diane”) that was crafted as a heartfelt apology from the beautiful woman.

“Amie,” Pure Prairie League, 1972

pure-prairie-league-amie-rca-2Craig Fuller was the chief singer-songwriter in the original lineup of the country rock group Pure Prairie League, and he wrote great down-home songs on those classic but largely overlooked first two albums in 1971 and 1972.  One song, “Amie,” didn’t do much at first but eventually earned listeners through FM and college radio stations, and by 1975, it was a #27 hit nationwide.  The narrator and Amie have one of those on-again, off-again relationships, and it’s never clear whether they end up together.  As Fuller said later, “The protagonist of the song is just laying it out and then it’s up to her.”

“Suzanne,” Leonard Cohen, 1967

271ad9f7fe1ea769f3f36624c01f06d0_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqkJnul-JUIdMoNycZiD7Zlp7R5crEcddDrAsWw9J7yjkCohen said “Suzanne” was inspired by his platonic relationship with a woman named Suzanne Verdal, who had been the girlfriend of one of his contemporaries, the famed sculptor Armand Vaillancourt.  The lyrics deftly describe the rituals they enjoyed in Montreal, where they lived near each other.  Contrary to some interpretations, Cohen insisted he and Suzanne were only friends, not lovers.  “I admit I imagined having sex with her, but there was neither the opportunity nor the inclination to actually go through with it,” he admitted.

“Martha,” Tom Waits, 1973

220px-Tom_Waits_-_Closing_TimeFrom the 1970s to the current day, Waits has been known for his distinctive deep, gravelly singing voice and song lyrics that focus on the underside of U.S. society.  Many of the characters who populate his music are unpleasant ne’er-do-wells and unsympathetic outliers, but a few reek of pathos, such as Tom Frost, the elderly guy who places a phone call to “Martha,” an old flame with whom he is meekly hoping to rekindle something.  It becomes clear that that’s not going to happen, but we listeners feel supportive of Tom’s wistful trip down memory lane to speak with her once again.

“Maybellene,” Chuck Berry, 1955

500x500-2Berry wrote and recorded this prototype rock and roll song as an adaptation of the Western swing fiddle tune “Ida Red,” recorded in 1938 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.  Leonard Chess, owner of the legendary Chess Records label, loved Berry’s sprightly lyrics about a hot rod race and a broken romance, but told him he felt the woman’s name needed to be something less rural than Ida Red.  He spied a bottle of Maybelline mascara in the studio and said, “Well, hell, let’s name her Maybellene,” altering the spelling to avoid a potential suit by the cosmetic company.

“Cecilia,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1970

simon_garfunkel-cecilia_s_5This #4 hit single, among Simon and Garfunkel’s last, began life as a cacophony of rhythms pounded out on coffee tables and kitchen counters in Simon’s apartment.  He later wrote the lyrics as a lament about anguish and jubilation regarding an untrustworthy lover.  “Cecilia,” Simon has noted, refers to St. Cecilia, patron saint of music in the Catholic tradition, and he conceded that the song also refers to the frustrations and joy he has experienced in the songwriting process, as musical inspiration comes and goes quickly.

“Josie,” Emily Hackett, 2014

81aTG2tEc1L._SS500_Almost everyone can recall the difficulties one faces during the early teenage years, when friendships and first encounters with the opposite sex seem fraught with uncertainty and insecurity.  My daughter Emily’s song “Josie,” based loosely on the challenges her cousin was facing at the time, offers tender words of encouragement on how best to be true to yourself while navigating the rocky waters of young love.  “It’s about slowing down, enjoying your youth, and knowing that, in time, the person meant to be in your life will find their way to you.”

“Julia,” The Beatles, 1968

JuliaDuring the sessions for The Beatles’ “White Album,” John Lennon was burning with a desire to write a song about his mother, Julia Baird.  “I lost her twice,” he said, “once as a five-year-old when I was moved in with my auntie, and then again when she physically died when I was 17.  Her borrowed phrasings from Kahlil Gibran’s “Sand and Foam” in which the original verse reads, “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so the other half may reach you.”  Lennon performed the song alone on acoustic guitar with none of the other Beatles present.

“Angie,” The Rolling Stones, 1973

the_stones-angieWhen the Stones reached #1 on the charts yet again with the ballad “Angie” in the fall of 1973, speculation was rampant about the identity of the woman in question.  Some said Jagger and Richards were writing about David Bowie’s first wife Angela, with whom they had been spending time during that period.  Others assumed it was a tribute to Richards’ newborn daughter, Dandelion Angela.  In his 2010 autobiography “Life,” Richards said that he had chosen the name at random when writing the song, before he knew that his daughter would be named Angela or even knew that the baby would be a girl.

“Rosanna,” Toto, 1982

R-1882925-1544979774-7688.jpegThis Song of the Year Grammy winner in early 1983 was written by Toto keyboard player David Paich, who said it was a composite of several girls he had known.  During recording sessions, Toto band members initially played along with the assumption that the song was based on actress Rosanna Arquette, who was dating keyboard player Steve Porcaro at the time.  Arquette herself played along with the joke, commenting in an interview that year, “that song was about my showing up at 4 a.m. at the studio to bring them juice and beer.”

“Peggy Sue,” Buddy Holly, 1957

Layout 1“Peggy Sue,” perhaps Holly’s best known song, was originally entitled “Cindy Lou,” named after his niece, the daughter of his sister Pat.  The title was later changed to “Peggy Sue” in reference to Peggy Sue Gerron, girlfriend and future wife of Jerry Allison, drummer for Holly’s band The Crickets, after the couple had temporarily broken up.  Allison asked Holly if perhaps he could rename the song after her in an attempt to woo her back.  “And it worked,” Allison recalled, though Holly’s premature death not long after the song’s release overshadowed that romantic anecdotal story.

“Emily,” Elton John, 1992

Elton_John_-_The_One_coverJohn’s longtime lyricist partner Bernie Taupin penned one of the most poignant character studies in his catalog on this deep track from the 1992 album “The One.”  Taupin recalled writing the lyrics to “Emily” after an afternoon walk through the streets and cemeteries of Paris, France, where he couldn’t help but notice an elderly woman paying respects at various gravesites as she walked haltingly among the headstones.  “Elton wrote such a glorious melody to accompany this one,” Taupin said.  “It’s one of my favorites”:  “The old girl hobbles, nylons sagging, talks to her sisters in the ground…”

“Jane,” Jefferson Starship, 1979

janeVocalist figurehead Grace Slick had temporarily left the band in 1978 when the Jefferson Starship brought in singer Mickey Thomas for the “Freedom at Point Zero” LP.  Bassist David Freiberg wrote most of the music and lyrics for what would become the album’s single, “Jane.”  He said, “She’s no one in particular, just the kind of girl who’s insincere and manipulative in the way she behaves in a relationship.  I think we’ve all know women — and men — like that”:  “You’re playing a game called ‘hard to get’ by its real name, you’re playing a game you can never win, girl…”

“Aubrey,” Bread, 1972

BreadaubreyOf the many hit singles David Gates wrote in the early ’70s as chief songwriter for the soft-rock band Bread, “Aubrey” came across as one of the most sad and heartfelt.  One interpretation had it that Aubrey was the name of a baby girl who died at birth; another said she was a woman the narrator was infatuated with but was too shy to approach.  In the booklet accompanying Bread’s 2006 anthology collection, Gates said the truth behind “Aubrey” was less interesting — it was inspired by an Audrey Hepburn film he saw but never fully understood.

“Peg,” Steely Dan, 1977

220px-Peg_-_Steely_DanSongwriters Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker have typically been tight-lipped about the meaning behind their often puzzling lyrics, but Fagen once conceded in an interview that “Peg,” a #11 hit in 1978 from their platinum LP “Aja,” referred to Peg Entwistle, a star of Broadway theater in the 1920s and 1930s.  Fagen and Becker found her to be a suitable entry in the Steely Dan cast of offbeat characters because, in 1932, she jumped to her dead off the famous Hollywood sign (when it was “Hollywoodland,” an advertisement for a new housing development) before her first film was ever released.


Honorable mention:

Michelle,” The Beatles, 1965;  “Clarice,” America, 1971;  “Wendy,” The Beach Boys, 1964;  “Valleri,” The Monkees, 1968;  “Amanda,” Boston, 1983;  “Carol,” Al Stewart, 1975;  “Jessie,” Joshua Kadison, 1992;  “Carrie Anne,” The Hollies, 1967;  “Rachel,” Seals and Crofts, 1974;  “Diana,” Paul Anka, 1958;  “Nanci,” Toad the Wet Sprocket, 1994;  “Barbara Ann,” The Beach Boys, 1966.




Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo

As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their 1967 ditty, there’s a lot we can learn from studying the behaviors of zoo animals and their brethren in the wild.  Paul Simon was mostly being whimsical in his observations:  “The monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are _73232303_marius-topinsincere, and the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb, orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages, and the zookeeper is very fond of rum, zebras are reactionaries, antelopes are missionaries, pigeons plot in secrecy and hamsters turn on frequently…”

The Beatles sang nearly a dozen songs about animals, from “Octopus’s Garden” and “Rocky Raccoon” to “Piggies” and “I Dig a Pony.”  Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson is a famous animal lover who has written often about members of the animal kingdom, from “Moths” and “Salamander” to “Heavy Horses” and “Steel Monkey,” not to mention the silly hit single “Bungle in the Jungle.”

I found nearly 100 songs from the classic rock era that mention animals in the titles (and another 100 or so in more recent times), and it seemed like a fun playlist to compile.  Enjoy!


Hejira_cover“Coyote,” Joni Mitchell, 1976

In less than cryptic terms, Mitchell described a strange encounter she had with a restless loner type she called Coyote.  Mitchell was the city girl working all night on songs in the studio while Coyote was up early working on his ranch, and because “we just come from such different sets of circumstance,” there are no regrets that their time together was doomed to be brief.  “Coyote” was the leadoff song on Joni’s brilliant 1976 LP “Hejira,” and she also performed it in The Band’s farewell film/concert “The Last Waltz.”

1*a7pgXoHdbf0mlB2qNK5GEw“Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones, 1971

Keith Richards recalls coming up with the riff and chorus line as he was preparing to say goodbye to his newborn son Marlon as he was heading out on tour.  “It’s the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, having to be a billion miles from where you want to be.”  Mick Jagger remembers, “Everyone always says this was written about Marianne Faithful but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then.  But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.”  “Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away

220px-Elton_John_-_Goodbye_Yellow_Brick_Road“Grey Seal,” Elton John, 1973

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin has said he really hadn’t a clue what he was writing about (“just random images and thoughts”) in this great track from the 1973 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album.  Others say the grey seal is a metaphor for wisdom, and how education comes from life experiences more than traditional schooling.  Still others speculate that the title is not about a sea mammal but the Great Seal of the US, and how the country isn’t as wise as it claims.  “And tell me grey seal, how does it feel to be so wise, to see through eyes that only see what’s real, tell me, grey seal …” 

Al_Stewart-Year_of_the_Cat_(album_cover)“Year of the Cat,” Al Stewart, 1976

This song’s roots come from a piece Stewart wrote in 1966 called “Foot of the Stage,” but in late 1975, during what the Vietnamese zodiac identifies as the Year of the Cat, he used the same music but entirely re-wrote the lyrics to spin a tale about a tourist who meets an exotic woman in a foreign land and loses his ticket home.  The song became the title track to Stewart’s 1976 LP, and a #8 hit single in early 1977.

91V5ngYSvnL._SL1500_“I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles, 1967

In writing this monumental piece of word salad to confound the pundits, John Lennon drew from the 1871 Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Later, he realized the walrus was the villain.  “Oh shit, I picked the wrong guy,” he said.  “I should have said ‘I am the carpenter,’ but that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”  It appears in The Beatles’ 1967 film and album “Magical Mystery Tour.”

cover_4839141762017_r“White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane, 1967

Grace Slick was also a fan of Lewis Carroll’s work, and her Jefferson Airplane hit “White Rabbit” uses imagery from “Alice in Wonderland” in which she takes various pills and potions to grow or shrink, much as her ’60s peers in the counterculture were doing with their mind-expanding experiments.  Slick said the song represented a not-so-subtle dig at parents (including her own) who read their children such novels and then wondered why their children later used drugs.  “The White Rabbit symbolized curiosity,” she said, “and while it’s okay to be curious, in can sometimes get you into trouble.”

220px-AmericaHatTrick“Muskrat Love,” America, 1973

Written and first recorded by singer/songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey in 1972, the song (originally titled “Muskrat Candlelight”) depicts a romantic liaison between two anthropomorphic muskrats named Susie and Sam.  Soft rock band America decided to cover it on their third LP, 1973’s “Hat Trick,” which did nothing for their credibility as hipsters.  Said Dewey Bunnell years later, “It’s a polarizing little number. After concerts, some people told us they can’t believe we didn’t play it, while others went out of their way to thank us for not performing it.”  Finally in 1976, the pop duo The Captain and Tennille made it into a #4 hit, complete with sound effects approximating the sound of muskrats doin’ it.

220px-Little_Feat_-_Dixie_Chicken“Dixie Chicken,” Little Feat, 1973

Lowell George’s California band took on a decidedly more New Orleans R&B/funk style beginning with this album and song.  The tune’s lyrics explore a once promising romantic relationship (“If you be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb”) that eventually fails.  Here’s a fantastic band that absolutely should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

73258a46725fb9bd6f97a20777ab2122bdb4f609“See You Later, Alligator,” Bill Haley and His Comets, 1956

Bill Haley’s recording of “See You Later, Alligator” popularized a hip catchphrase already in use at the time among the beatnik crowd, complete with “After a while, crocodile.”  Following the game-changing hit “Rock Around the Clock” and his cover of “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Haley had his final top 10 hit with this song, originally titled “Later, Alligator” and written by Louisiana bluesman Robert Guidry.

640x640“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961

Written in 1920 as “Mbube” (Zulu for “lion”) by South African composer/singer Solomon Linda, it was brought to the US in the late 1940s, where it was made into a folk hit by The Weavers, who misheard the chorus “Uyimbube” as “Wimoweh.”  By 1961, lyricist/arranger George Weiss conceived the doo-wop arrangement and sax solo, and added the English words, and the result was a huge #1 hit for The Tokens:  “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight, hush my darling, don’t fear, my darling the lion sleeps tonight…”

walsh02-1“Wolf,” Joe Walsh, 1973

Walsh’s signature LP ‘The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get,” one of the great guitar album of all time, includes this rather spooky album track that perpetuates the stereotype of the wolf as predator who sneaks in to feast on the sheep when there’s no one looking:  “It’s raining in the meadow, shepherd’s gone to town, wolf has finished breakfast, no one else around…”

Traveling-Wilburys-Vol-1-album-cover-web-optimised-820“Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” Traveling Wilburys, 1988

This Wilburys tune, written largely by Bob Dylan, is regarded as a playful homage to Bruce Springsteen, with lyrics that refer to specific Springsteen songs (“Thunder Road,” “Factory,” “The River,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Stolen Car,” “State Trooper”) and New Jersey locales.  Is the Monkey Man meant to be The Boss?  Dylan, of course, isn’t saying for sure.

61HYrCLz0ZL._SX466_“Sheep,” Pink Floyd, 1977

Pink Floyd’s hugely successful “Animals” album is loosely based on George Orwell’s iconic political fable Animal Farm, in which the dogs are combative, the pigs are despotic and the sheep are the mindless, unquestioning herd.  In the “Sheeps” track, Roger Waters takes Psalm 23 a grisly step further:  “He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places and converteth me to lamb cutlets…”

220px-Us_(Original)_-_Peter_Gabriel“Kiss That Frog,” Peter Gabriel, 1992

In the wake of the playful sexual entendres Gabriel used in his big 1986 hit “Sledgehammer,” it wasn’t all that surprising he would continue that approach on the 1992 album track “Kiss That Frog,” which is perhaps more obvious in its allusions to oral intimacies:  “Sweet little princess, let me introduce his frogness, you alone can get him singing, he’s all puffed up, wanna be your king, oh you can do it, c’mon lady, kiss that frog…  He’s gonna dive down in the deep end, he’s gonna be just like your best friend…”

753908-1546733009792767_origin“Dead Skunk,” Loudon Wainwright, 1972

Wainwright, part of the singer-songwriter movement of the early ’70s, wrote and recorded this amusing little novelty track one day after having an unfortunate encounter with a skunk.  “The car in front of me killed it, but I drove over it too, and I think I got the brunt of the odor,” he said.  “He didn’t see the station wagon car, the skunk got squashed, and there you are, you got your dead skunk in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven…”


Honorable mention:

Chestnut Mare,” The Byrds, 1970;  “Peace Frog,” The Doors, 1970;  “Barracuda,” Heart, 1978;  “Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974;  “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” U2, 1991;  “Mama Lion,” Crosby and Nash, 1975;  “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, 1971;  “Cat Scratch Fever,” Ted Nugent, 1976;  “Flight of the Rat,” Deep Purple, 1970;  “Genocide (The Killing of the Buffalo),” Thin Lizzy, 1980;  “The Fox,” Elton John, 1981;  “Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor, 1982;  “Karma Chameleon,” Culture Club, 1983;  “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran, 1982;  “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin, 1974;  “A Horse With No Name,” America, 1971;  “Crocodile Rock,” Elton John, 1972;  “Penguin in Bondage,” Frank Zappa, 1974.