A good friend recently told me he thought it was a shame that, thanks to Google and cell phones, the days of hanging out debating facts and meanings behind various news events, moments in sports, popular films and more are long gone. “We used to have a blast arguing for hours about which year some team won the Super Bowl, or what the words were to some song, or what they meant. Now you can just look it up. What’s the fun in that?”
He has a point. I remember listening to albums over and over trying to discern the lyrics, or struggling to figure out what the writer meant, but we could only guess. These days, there are websites that provide lyrics for every song in an artist’s catalog, and others that offer definitive accounts from songwriters regarding the meaning behind their tunes. It may be nice to know the answer to what’s on your mind, but it removes some of the mystique about the music.
It almost makes it silly for me to devote a blog post to discussing the meaning of song lyrics from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Anyone can look up this stuff on their own now. The thing is, most of you can’t be bothered to do so, and that’s why I provide that service for you.
I’ve picked out eight well-known songs from 50-or-so years ago, songs you’ll know and can probably sing along with, but you might not know exactly what they’re about. Now, you will.
“All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan, 1967
Many of Dylan’s early songs were wordy to the extreme, with as many as six or seven lengthy verses on songs like “My Back Pages,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” In contrast, following his 1966 motorcycle accident and subsequent convalescence, the songs he wrote for his 1967 LP “John Wesley Harding” were notable for their brevity. One critic termed “All Along the Watchtower” as “a masterpiece of understatement,” with only three short stanzas that told a concise story with “implications of cataclysm.” A number of observers noted Dylan’s “audacity of manipulating chronological time” — in other words, the story is told almost in reverse order. It’s remarkable, really; using imagery from the Book of Isaiah, he writes about keeping watch in dread as something potentially evil this way comes. The third verse is where the story begins, as “two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.” Two characters (the thief and the joker) debate whether they have anything to worry about (“There must be some way out of here” versus “No reason to get excited”) and it ends with the last line of the first verse (“None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”). Dylan felt Jimi Hendrix’s fiery rendition improved it, “and I’ve been doing it his way ever since.”
“Tiny Dancer,” Elton John, 1971
My daughters (age 30 and 27) have been crazy about this magnificent song ever since it was used prominently in 2000 in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age rock film “Almost Famous.” They were amazed to learn it hadn’t been a success as a single in the US or the UK at the time of release, on John’s 1971 LP “Madman Across the Water,” although it received FM radio airplay. Elton’s gorgeous melody instantly grabs you, but the lyrics are a bit vague: “But oh, how it feels so real, lying here with no one near, /Only you, and you can hear me when I say softly, slowly, /Hold me closer, tiny dancer, count the headlights on the highway, /Lay me down in sheets of linen, you had a busy day today…” Like many lyricists, Bernie Taupin was reluctant to discuss the meaning behind his songs until many years later. Turns out his inspiration for “Tiny Dancer” came from two sources: California, and his first wife, Maxine, who was, in fact, “the seamstress for the band,” among other duties. During Taupin’s first visit to the US, he was taken by “the spirit, the radiance, the sunshine of California, the freedom of ‘dancing in the sand,’ which was in stark contrast to England. I was particularly captivated by the women we met in the clothes stores and restaurants and bars and clubs on the Sunset Strip. They had this thing at the time about embroidering their clothes and sewing patches on their denim. I called them ‘blue jean babies.'”
“Roundabout,” Yes, 1971
Even devout fans of Yes have acknowledged that many of the lyrics in the band’s catalog are obtuse and challenging to grasp. (Here’s a sample from their opus “Close to the Edge”: “Space between the focus shape ascend knowledge of love as song and chance develop time, lost social temperance rules above…” Huh?) Lyricist Jon Anderson said he was just as keen on the way words sounded as much as what they meant, which actually served the group’s dense song structure well, even if much of the listening public had no idea what he was singing about. Their early Top Ten hit “Roundabout” begins by admitting their lyrics will have you scratching your head: “I’ll be the roundabout, the words will make you out and out…” Fans in their native U.K. are well aware what a roundabout is (a traffic circle), but U.S. fans in the ’70s were unfamiliar with the term. Anderson said the song was born during the band’s lengthy road trip through Scotland and England, and Anderson wrote his thoughts down in free-form style as they traveled. They encountered “probably 50 roundabouts” along the way, and many beautiful lochs and stark mountain scenery (“In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there…”). Anderson was eager to return to his wife in London the next day (“Twenty-four before my love I’ll be there with you…”), and his notes became lyrics with minimal editing, he recalls.
“Her Town Too,” James Taylor, 1981
There’s really no way else to interpret this tune than as “a gentle, incisive divorce song,” as the Rolling Stone Album Guide put it. Since Taylor’s own marriage with singer Carly Simon was breaking up at the time of the song’s release, most folks assumed it was autobiographical, but Taylor denies this, saying the lyrics were inspired by what producer Peter Asher’s ex-wife was going through in the aftermath of their split. But it’s not merely about the end of a specific couple’s relationship; as Taylor explains, “it’s a well-meaning song about how difficult it is to be friends with both parties after a breakup.” Indeed, “Her Town Too” is about the sad broader picture where third parties are affected when they’re expected to choose sides, and friendships with one partner or the other disintegrate. The lyrics refer to the dividing of property (“She gets the house and the garden, he gets the boys in the band…”) but also the tricky business of what happens to alliances: “Some of them his friends, some of them her friends, some of them understand…” To Taylor’s credit, the song’s title looks at how things can be tougher for the woman if the man is a celebrity: “She always figured that they were her friends too but maybe they can live without her, /It used to be her town, it used to be her town, too…”
“Killing Me Softly With His Song,” Roberta Flack, 1973
Little-known singer songwriter Lori Lieberman came up with the phrase “killing me softly” when she was in the audience at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood one night in 1971, watching Don McLean sing his poignant break-up tune “Empty Chairs.” She had written it on a cocktail napkin, and later took it to her songwriting collaborators Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, who helped her complete it with words that emphatically spoke of the power a singer and a song can have on the listener: “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd, /I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud, /I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on /Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song…” Lieberman recorded it and released it in 1972, and although it went nowhere, she always mentioned the song’s inspiration when she performed it. Later in 1972, Roberta Flack gave it a more uptempo feel, and it became not only a #1 hit single but won the Grammy for Record of the Year (for Flack) and Song of the Year (for the songwriters). McLean said the following year that he was stunned to learn that he was the muse for the lyrics. “I’m absolutely amazed. I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s versions, and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.” Its lasting impact continued into the 1990s, when a new version by hip-hop group The Fugees, featuring Lauryn Hill on lead vocals, again reached #1.
“Gimme Shelter,” The Rolling Stones, 1969
Keith Richards remembers the day he began work on this definitive Stones anthem. “I had been sitting by the window of my friend’s apartment in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black, and an incredible monsoon came down. It was just people running about, looking for shelter. That was the germ of the idea.” Later, when Mick Jagger joined the effort, it became much more, “a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It was such a violent period in history, with a nasty war going on, protests, police, all on TV screens. We went further into it until it became, you know, ‘Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away.’” “Gimme Shelter,” together with the serial killer piece “Midnight Rambler,” came to define The Stones’ reputation as the band that sang dark, threatening music, and they did little to dissuade that notion in the years that followed.
“You’re So Vain,” Carly Simon, 1972
Few songs in the popular music canon have been as speculated about as Simon’s furtive tune that topped the charts in early 1973. Her lyrics are brutal in their criticism of the man’s arrogant behavior: “You walked in to the party like you were walking on to a yacht… You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte…” He goes on to be callous with the female narrator’s feelings: “You said that we made such a pretty pair, and that you would never leave, /But you gave away the things you loved, and one of them was me…” Worst of all, he’s a liar and a cheat: “You’re where you should be all the time, and when you’re not you’re with… the wife of a close friend…” Okay, so who was Carly singing about? She still won’t say, except that it’s really a composite of three men, one of whom is actor Warren Beatty, who famously once said, “Let’s be honest. That song was about me.” Simon’s response? “He certainly thought it was about him. He even called me and said, ‘Thanks for the song!’ The second verse is about him, but not the other two. That’s all I’ll say about that.” Mick Jagger sings uncredited harmonies with Simon on the recording, giving rise to rumors that he was one of the others, but both deny that. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the truth.
“I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles, 1967
At first blush, the lyrics to this notorious John Lennon tune are about as nonsensical as they come, and not just the “goo goo g’joob” bit. Much of it just seems like random word play: “Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess…” “Corporation t-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday…” “Sitting on a corn flake, waiting for the van to come…” Actually, it WAS random word play. Lennon had heard that college professors had been dissecting Beatles lyrics looking for deeper meaning, so he came up with this purposely bizarre track and said to his bandmates, “Let those fuckers work that one out!” “Mister city p’liceman sitting pretty little p’licemen in a row” was written to go with the two-note drone music that he heard from a police siren one night, as was the song’s opening line, which sounds like a Maharishi mantra: “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together…” The phrase “elementary penguin” referred to those who chant naive phrases and put their faith in one idol. Lastly, the title comes from Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and The Carpenter,” and Lennon admitted later he should’ve paid closer attention to the fact that the Walrus was the villain. “I should’ve picked the other guy…but “I Am the Carpenter” wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”