Lord, do you know what I mean?

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.

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“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.'”

Jon Anderson

“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?”   

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Don’t you know I’m feeling mellow

Going back into the catacombs to find another dozen lost classics to feature here is always a labor of love for me. They might be great obscure songs you’ve never heard before, or great songs you heard once or twice many years ago but have long forgotten about. The point is, they’re songs that are well worthy of your attention. Listen up. Maybe with headphones (or just ear buds) if you like.

This time around, I was in a more mellow mood than usual, so I thought I’d let that see where it took me. The result is a list of thoughtful, relaxing tunes that might be just right to accompany your first cup of coffee, or to close out a trying day. We’ll rock out on the next go round. This playlist is for quieter times. I hope you like it.

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“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” Dusty Springfield, 1968

Long before he won Oscars in the 1990s and beyond for composing songs and film scores for Pixar movies like “Toy Story,” Randy Newman was a critically acclaimed songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s, writing tunes covered by other artists from Three Dog Night to Barbra Streisand, from The Everly Brothers to Bonnie Raitt. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” was perhaps his most widely covered song from that period, with fine renditions recorded by Judy Collins, Nina Simone, UB40, Joe Cocker and my favorite, Dusty Springfield, on her “Dusty…Definitely” LP in 1968, the same year Newman recorded it himself for his debut album. The music is achingly beautiful, while the lyrics (which Newman has said he doesn’t like much) are alternately hopeful and dark.

“Elton’s Song,” Elton John, 1981

When Elton John first revealed in 1976 that he was gay, it wasn’t exactly a surprise but, coming at a time well before homosexuality was widely accepted, it hurt his career for a few years. Album sales dropped off, and hit singles were few and far between. He put his longtime partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin on the shelf for a spell, instead using Gary Osborne and gay rights activist/musician Tom Robinson. On John’s so-so 1981 LP “The Fox,” Robinson wrote lyrics for a deep track he called “Elton’s Song,” which I recently learned is about the angst and shame of a gay schoolboy crush. I recall finding the music captivating and thinking the lyrics were about a boy who pined for an out-of-reach girl. Either way, a beautiful, poignant piece.

“Hello in There,” John Prine, 1971

Prine, who died last year at 73, wrote and recorded extraordinarily compelling, deceptively simple country folk songs, often with humorous lyrics about daily life and regular folks. “Hello in There,” on the other hand, offers a profoundly melancholy take on aging, and how old people are too often ignored or forgotten in their declining years: “You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day, /Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello,’ /So if you’re walking down the street sometime, and spot some hollow ancient eyes, /Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare as if you didn’t care, /Say, ‘Hello in there, hello’…” The song appears on his 1971 debut album and has been covered by Bette Midler, 10,000 Maniacs and others.

“No Regrets,” Tom Rush, 1968

Rush holds a unique place in the canon of singer-songwriters who popularized the confessional style of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He covered the tunes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne before they began their own recording careers (Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves,” Browne’s “These Days”), but also wrote his own lovely, insightful songs. “No Regrets” may be Rush’s best, carried by his pleasantly gruff baritone and subtle arrangement of guitars and light percussion. It’s one of the better songs about looking back on a relationship that’s ending: “No regrets, no tears goodbye, don’t want you back, we’d only cry again, say goodbye again…”

“Toulouse Street,” The Doobie Brothers, 1972

People tend to have one of two impressions of Doobie Brothers music. Either it’s the solid-rocking, guitar-based tunes of founder/singer Tom Johnston (“Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin'”), or it’s the R&B-leaning, keyboard-based songs of the Michael McDonald era of the group (“Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes”). Sometimes forgotten in the analysis of this superb band are the contributions of guitarist/singer/songwriter Patrick Simmons, who brought a sweetly melodic sense to their catalog on songs like “South City Midnight Lady” and the hauntingly beautiful “Toulouse Street.” Simmons’s tribute to the French Quarter district of New Orleans uses gentle acoustic picking, flute and easy-on-the-ear vocals that offer a delightful contrast to The Doobies’ other oeuvres.

“How Deep It Goes,” Heart, 1975

When Seattle-based Heart first won a recording contract, it was with a small Canadian label, Mushroom Records, who chose the lush ballad “How Deep It Goes” as the debut single in early 1975. It received scant attention, but it was included on the debut LP, “Dreamboat Annie,” released in Canada in fall 1975 and the U.S. in spring 1976. Heart quickly became known for a hard rock sound through its successful hits “Crazy On You” and “Magic Man,” carried by the astonishing lead vocals of Ann Wilson. While their hard rock approach remained their forte throughout their impressive career, the group’s mellower songs like the 1985 #1 hit “These Dreams” and the aforementioned “How Deep It Goes” mustn’t be ignored.

“Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison, 1970

While Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness jazz/ folk music on his 1968 LP “Astral Weeks” was a critical favorite, it sold poorly, so once he signed with Warner Brothers in 1969, he charted a new, more accessible course that embraced soulful horns, chorus and a vibrant rhythm section. The first fruit from that tree was the magnificent “Moondance” album, which has been described as “a rock musician singing jazz, fixated on the power of nature.” It’s an overwhelmingly warm collection of songs that merge Morrison’s new R&B style with the orchestrated leanings of his previous work. In particular, “Into the Mystic” evokes what critic Joe Harrington calls a “visionary stillness, a sense of cosmic harmony” through judicious use of sax, piano, guitar and Morrison’s distinctive vocals.

“Johnny’s Garden,” Manassas, 1972

Following the implosion of the CSN/CSNY axis — probably doomed from the outset by outsized egos and too many talented songwriters in one band — Stephen “Captain Manyhands” Stills continued his proclivity to dominate everything he worked on. His solo debut showcased his multiple talents: prolific songwriting, stunning acoustic and electric guitar playing, earthy production and a gruff, soulful voice. In 1972, he recruited ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and several other top-notch session players to form Manassas, who merged blues, folk, country, Latin and rock. As Stills put it, “Manassas reminded me of Buffalo Springfield at its best. They could play anything.” Deft guitar work and sublime melody make Stills’ “Johnny’s Garden” one of my favorites from the group’s classic 1972 double LP.

“Please Be With Me,” Eric Clapton, 1974

After surviving a harrowing period of heroin addiction, Clapton found himself humbled and seeking a stronger spiritual foundation when he reemerged in 1974. His “461 Ocean Boulevard” LP was startling in its abandonment of the virtuoso blues guitar workouts that had marked his days with Cream and Derek and The Dominos. Instead he embraced gospel, folk, reggae and an acoustic-based blues, all highlighted by a plaintive vocal style. Clapton’s chart-topping cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” got all the attention, and I admired the way his band rocked out on guitarist George Terry’s “Mainline Florida,” but I found myself drawn to the serene harmonies and relaxed tempo of the lovely folk ballad “Please Be With Me,” with Eric on dobro.

“For the Roses,” Joni Mitchell, 1972

Joni’s magnificent fifth album was something of a transition. She changed labels, from Reprise to Asylum, and she arranged many of her songs to include Tom Scott’s woodwinds, the first step toward the evolution of Mitchell’s music from folk to jazz, which began in earnest on her next LP, “Court and Spark.” Many of these deeply personal tracks describe various facets of her 1970-1971 relationship with James Taylor, especially “For the Roses,” which examines the down side of fame, both for her and her celebrity lover: “Remember the days when you used to sit and make up your tunes for love, and pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee, /And now you’re seen on giant screens and at parties for the press, and for people who have slices of you from the company, /They toss around your latest golden egg, speculation, well who’s to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so…”

“Good Friends,” Livingston Taylor, 1970

Speaking of James Taylor, his younger brother Livingston has been a very fine singer-songwriter in his own right for decades, content to play in the shadow of such an iconic figure. His similar Carolina-born vocal style is even more nasal, and his aw-shucks approach to whimsical songwriting gives his albums much of their charm. His 1970 debut isn’t the best produced album I’ve ever heard, but Taylor’s original songs are honest and engaging, from the upbeat “Sit On Back,” “Carolina Day” and “Packet of Good Times” to the delicate “Lost in the Love of You” and “Thank You Song.” He wrote the heartwarming “Good Friends” when he was still in high school, and it has been a regular part of his concert repertoire throughout his career.

“End of the Day,” Al Stewart, 1978

From roughly 1967 until 1975, Stewart released six LPs that showed his unique talent for combining folk-rock songs with delicately woven tales of characters and events from history…but no one much noticed. Then came “Year of the Cat,” a #5 album and a #8 hit single in the US in 1976-77, followed by the equally strong LP “Time Passages” in 1978. I played the hell out of these albums and was particularly taken by the guitar stylings of Stewart’s collaborator Peter White, who really shines on tracks like “On the Border” and the lovely “End of the Day,” a lost classic if I’ve ever heard one. It is indeed one of the quintessential songs to play as you’re kicking back in your soft clothes after work watching the sun set.

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