If only you would listen

In his first big hit, “The Sound of Silence,” Paul Simon, one of our wisest and most articulate lyricists, famously wrote, “People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening…”

There’s an important distinction between hearing something and really listening. Hearing may be accidental or involuntary and require no effort. Listening requires intentional focus that often takes sustained concentration.

It’s a sad truth about the human race. As a rule, we’re not good listeners. We’re distracted by other things, other thoughts. Sometimes our egos get in the way, so we’re thinking more about what we’re going to say next instead of focusing on what is being said to us.

As my mother once taught me, “Listening is very important.  You miss a lot if you don’t listen.  Show interest in what others have to say. Listen to your children, and your friends, and your heart. Listen, even if you’re tired, and you’re angry, and you’d like not to, because you will hear things you may never hear any other time.”

When it comes to music, I’ve found that you’ll get much more out of it if you give it your full attention and really listen, especially to the words, perhaps with headphones or earbuds.

The lesson about being a good listener hasn’t been lost on the lyricists of popular song through the years. I have scoured the vaults and selected 15 classic tunes about listening from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and I have written a little about each one. As always, there is a Spotify playlist at the end that allows you to, well, listen to the songs as you read along.

Thanks for reading and listening!

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“Listen to the Music,” The Doobie Brothers, 1972

Tom Johnston was a talented, inventive guitarist who wrote and sang most of The Doobie Brothers’ early singles, and recalls how their first big hit came to be. “The chord structure of it made me think of something positive. It occurred to me that if the leaders of the world got together, sat down and just listened to music and forgot about all this other bullshit, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian, but it made for a fun song that’s still popular 50 years later.” It appeared on their “Toulouse Street” album and reached #11 on the U.S. Top 40 in 1972.

“Listen,” Chicago, 1969

As the “rock band with horns” that first called themselves Chicago Transit Authority were still playing Chicago area clubs, they were just grateful for the chance to perform. Keyboardist/vocalist Robert Lamm wrote a riveting rocker about how they were convinced people would like their music if they just took the time to hear it: “If it’s good, you can tell us all, /Or you can smile, that’s all right, my friend, /It could be so nice, you know, if only you would listen…” It’s the shortest, punchiest track on Chicago’s debut LP.

“Listen For the Laugh,” Bruce Cockburn, 1994

Cockburn has been a huge star in Canada for decades, but his only chart appearance in the US was 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which reached #21 and earned him a slot on “Saturday Night Live” that year. “Listen for the Laugh,” which came 15 years later, was one of the more philosophical songs he started writing at that point in his career: “It’s not the laughter of a child with toys, it’s not the laughter of the president’s boys, /It’s not the laughter of the media king, this laughter doesn’t sell you anything, /It’s the wind in the wings of a diving dove, you better listen for the laugh of love, /Whatever else you might be thinking of, you better listen for the laugh of love…”

“Listen To Me,” Buddy Holly, 1958

After a debut album as a member of The Crickets, Buddy Holly emerged as the star, with the next record issued under his name, with The Crickets as supporting musicians. On that album, chock full of radio hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” and “Rave On,” one of the deep tracks was “Listen to Me,” which could have arguably been a single in its own right. Holly co-wrote it with his producer, Norman Petty, who owned a studio in small-town New Mexico where most of Holly’s songs were cut: “Listen to me, hear what I say, our hearts can be nearer each day, /Hold me darling, listen closely to me…”

“Listen to Your Heart,” Roxette, 1988

Per Gessle, the guitarist from the Swedish duo Roxette (with Marie Fredriksson on vocals and keyboards), described “Listen to Your Heart”  as “The big bad ballad.” He went on, “This is us trying to recreate that overblown American FM-rock sound to the point where it almost becomes absurd. We really wanted to see how far we could take it.” The lyrics were inspired by a close friend who was “in emotional turmoil, stuck between an old relationship and a new love. A year later, I called him up in the middle of the night and told him, ‘Hey, you’re number one in the States.'” “Listen to your heart when he’s calling for you, /Listen to your heart, there’s nothing else you can do, /I don’t know where you’re going and I don’t know why, /But listen to your heart before you tell him goodbye…”

“Lisa, Listen to Me,” Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1971

David Clayton-Thomas, lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears in their commercial heyday, co-wrote this song for the group’s “BS&T; 4” LP in 1971. The lyrics hint at something traumatic that happened to “Lisa” in the past, but she is now in a safer place and can speak freely. The fact that Clayton-Thomas had experienced some parental abuse gives the song more compassion and credibility. The narrator implores her to listen, to share her thoughts and know that he will be a caring listener: “He said, ‘Lisa, listen to me, don’t you know where you belong? /Darling, Lisa, you can tell me, you’ve been silent for too long…”

“Stop and Listen,” Chuck Berry, 1961

Berry had been one of the true pioneers and stars of early rock and roll, but by the time his album “New Juke Box Hits” was recorded and released in 1961, he was in the midst of legal difficulties, which led to a prison term in 1962. The adverse publicity from these legal problems affected record sales, which is a shame, because people missed out on several deep tracks. The slow blues tune “Stop and Listen,” which has a wonderful groove to it, I only recently discovered, in which Berry warns against jumping into a relationship: “Stop and listen, before you make a start, /Stop and listen, before you make a start, /Because if you fall in love, it may break your heart…”

“Listen to Her Heart,” Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 1978

Although it peaked at a disappointing #59 upon release in 1978, “Listen to Her Heart” is now considered one of Tom Petty’s best songs. He wrote it at a time when another man had been hitting on his then-wife, and he felt the need to tell him, “Buddy, you don’t even know her.” He played it often in concert during his long career: “You think you’re gonna take her away with your money and your cocaine, /Keep thinkin’ that her mind is gonna change, but I know everything is okay, /She’s gonna listen to her heart, it’s gonna tell her what to do, /Well, she might need a lot of lovin’, but she don’t need you…”

“Listen to What the Man Said,” Paul McCartney and Wings, 1975

Author Vincent Benitez, who wrote at length about McCartney’s solo years, said “‘The Man’ in this tune is not explicitly identified, but many interpret it to be God. McCartney is advising us to stick with the basics of life, which to him means love.” Wings recorded the track in New Orleans for their “Venus and Mars Are Alright Tonight” album, with Tom Scott providing a masterful solo on sax. “Listen to What the Man Said” is “another fine example of buoyant, optimistic McCartney pop,” said Benitez. “Love is fine, for all we know, /For all we know, our love will grow, /That’s what the man said, /So won’t you listen to what the man said?…”

“Listen,” Al Green, 1972/1989

Throughout the 1970s, Al Green recorded for Hi Records, a small Memphis record label that specialized in gospel-influenced Southern soul. During Green’s commercial peak when he had three Top Ten albums (1972-1973), many extra songs were recorded but set aside for various reasons. Several of those were unearthed in 1989 and compiled on “South Lauderdale Avenue,” a collection of previously unreleased tracks by Green and others on that label. The best is “Listen,” which could have easily been a hit for him.

“Listen Like Thieves,” INXS, 1985

In this catchy track, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence asks us not to believe everything we read and hear. Band member Andrew Farriss said, “I love that phrase, ‘listen like thieves.’ Thieves have to listen closely lest they be discovered committing a crime. I think Michael’s lyric was saying that discerning the truth takes vigilance. The media haven’t been great watchdogs when it comes to news and politics. To get the real story, we need to listen like thieves.”

“Listen To Me,” The Hollies, 1968

This song was the final Hollies track in which Graham Nash participated before leaving to join forces with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Nash had wanted to move beyond the usual sunny Hollies fare but the rest of the band disagreed. Written by songwriter Tony Hazzard, “Listen to Me” reached #11 in their native UK but went nowhere in the US. Its lyrics ask that we listen as “I’ll sing a song to change your mind” and help us be more optimistic: “Listen to me and very soon I think you’ll find /Somebody wants to help you, somebody seems to care, /And very soon you’ve forgotten that you didn’t care about love…”

“Listen to the Band,” The Monkees, 1969

Written by Michael Nesmith and recorded in Nashville, “Listen to the Band” was released as the B-side of a single with “Someday Man,” a Paul Williams song sung by usual Monkees lead singer Davy Jones. DJs preferred the country music vibe of Nesmith’s tune, but The Monkees were on their last legs at that point (Peter Tork had left), and the song never made it past #63 on the U.S. charts. The song suggests focusing on the band performing instead of getting caught up in a lost lover: “Weren’t they good? They made me happy, I think I can make it alone, /Oh mercy, woman plays a song and no one listens, I need help, I’m falling again, /Play the drum a little bit louder, tell them they can live without her if they only listen to the band…”

“Listen To Me Baby,” Smokey Joe Baugh, 1955

This early rocker is credited to Baugh, but it’s basically the Big Joe Turner classic “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with new words and a slightly altered melody. Baugh was on Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, and Phillips figured Baugh’s distinctive, raspy voice would appeal to black audiences even though he (like label mate Elvis Presley) was white. Baugh made dozens of recordings for Sun but they were never issued, mostly because Baugh and Phillips never got along.

“Listen,” Tears for Fears, 1985

Ian Stanley, who served as a member of Tears for Fears for the group’s first three albums, was given chief songwriting credit for “Listen,” the mostly instrumental closing track on the multiplatinum “Songs From the Big Chair” album. It has a spooky, otherworldly vibe dominated by guitar and keyboards, and a brief lyric that implores us to simply “listen…soothe my feeling…now I feel it…” Stanley left the group during production of “The Seeds of Love” in 1989 but went on to produce numerous other artists in the 1990s and beyond, including The Pretenders, The Human League and Tori Amos.

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She’s a woman who understands

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about women.

Not my wife and daughters in particular, although I already think of them all the time. Not even female friends, necessarily. I’ve been thinking about women in terms of their position in society, their impact on life, the influence of their personalities.

I have been tardily immersing myself in the dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is brilliantly written and acted but oh so very bleak and pretty frightening. The subtle and not-so-subtle parallels between the subjugation of women in that story and the impact of the right-wing Supreme Court’s outrageous gutting of Roe v. Wade are more than a little disturbing.

I rarely address political issues in this rock music blog (except for occasional overviews of protest songs as a sub-genre), but this week, I am moved to explore songs that celebrate women — strong women, smart women, kind women, independent women. I have selected a dozen songs with “woman” in the title that go beyond the superficial or pejorative generalizations all too common in pop songs of the classic rock era.

In addition to these 12 songs, the Spotify playlist at the end includes several “honorable mentions” that have lyrics less relevant to my intended message but still worthy of inclusion because the music warrants it.

This Independence Day weekend, I shall be deep in thought about how our country is in trouble when it summarily removes established rights from half its people. This cannot be the way forward…

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“Woman in Chains,” Tears for Fears, 1989

For “Woman in Chains,” the leadoff track on the excellent “The Seeds of Love” LP, Tears For Fears singer/songwriter Roland Orzabal was inspired by two different lines of thought when he wrote it. “The song is about how men have traditionally played down the feminine side of their characters, and how both men and women suffer for it. I think men in a patriarchal society have been sold down the river. We’re told that we’re in control, but there are also a hell of a lot of things that we miss out on, which women are allowed to be.” He also revealed he was writing about his mother’s unhappy life as a nightclub stripper, and the abuse she took from her husband (Orzabal’s father): “Well, I feel deep in your heart there are wounds time can’t heal, /And I feel somebody somewhere is trying to breathe, /Well, you know what I mean, /It’s a world gone crazy keeps woman in chains…”

“She’s Always a Woman,” Billy Joel, 1977

I find this song to be one of Billy Joel’s most delightful, beautiful melodies, but the lyrics have always perplexed me. If she “steals like a thief” and “can ruin you faith with her casual lies,” why is she also the recipient of his love and affection? It’s actually autobiographical. In the ’70s, Joel was married to Elizabeth Weber, who managed his financial affairs and handled his contract negotiations with a toughness bordering on ruthlessness. Male business adversaries naturally labeled her as “unfeminine,” but Joel saw she was fighting for his interests, and he loved her for it: “Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants, /She’s ahead of her time, /Oh, and she never gives out, and she never gives in, /She just changes her mind…” The marriage didn’t last, though, and he sees his part in the failure: “She’ll bring out the best and the worst you can be, /Blame it all on yourself ’cause she’s always a woman to me…”

“Kind Woman,” Buffalo Springfield, 1968

Buffalo Springfield didn’t last long because the two major talents in the lineup, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, were too competitive for their own good, both as songwriters and as performing guitarists and singers. Overshadowed in the mix was third singer-songwriter Richie Furay, a much gentler soul who later founded Poco and ultimately gave up the business for life in the clergy. One of his finest efforts in the Springfield was “Kind Woman,” a plaintive country-based tune in which the narrator sweetly asks the nice woman he has just met if she’ll keep him company: “Remember once before, you’re hearing the old folks say, ‘Love’s an ageless old rhyme,’ /But nowadays, you know the saying depends so much on the kind of woman that you find, /Kind woman, won’t you love me tonight? /The look in your eyes, kind woman, /Don’t leave me lonely tonight…”

“Just Like a Woman,” Bob Dylan, 1966

On the face of it, this classic tune from Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” double album appears to traffic in stereotypes, describing actions that are supposedly “just like a woman” would do. There is some of that in there, to be sure, but I interpret the lyrics to be more universal. We all ache, we all have pain, both men and women, especially the emotional variety from unsuccessful relationships, and we all break “just like a little girl” (or boy). He’s throwing in the towel: “Your long-time curse hurts, but what’s worse is this pain in here, /I can’t stay in here, ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit, /Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit…” Some observers think the song is about former lover Joan Baez, who was once a bigger star than he was: “When we meet again, introduced as friends, /Please don’t let on that you knew me when I was hungry, and it was your world…”

“American Woman,” The Guess Who, 1970

This #1 single by the Canadian band that has had the most success on US pop charts was widely misinterpreted at the time of its release in the spring of 1970. With American involvement in the Vietnam War at its fullest, many listeners saw the song as an anti-American slap by a foreign group, but that’s simply not the case, according to singer Burton Cummings. “The lyrics were written on the spot during an onstage jam after we’d returned from a U.S. tour,” he said in 2013. “What was on my mind was that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls, and that made them seem dangerous. When I sang, ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant, ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ We weren’t used to strong, outspoken women.”

“Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” Harry Belafonte, 1956

This provocative song’s authorship is somewhat unclear, but the prevailing opinion is that it was written by Norman Span, a popular calypso musician who first recorded it back in 1936. Belafonte made it popular as an album track on his #1 LP “Calypso” in 1956, and artists including Chubby Checker, Roseanne Cash, The Grateful Dead, Robert Palmer and The Carpenters all recorded it over the years. It was featured on an episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy put a band together to outfox Ricky and show him he wasn’t the only one with talent. The lyrics advance a theory regarding superior intellect: “Ah, ever since the world began, woman was always teaching man, /And if you listen to my bid attentively, I goin’ tell you how she smarter than he, /And not me, but the people, they say that the men are leading the women astray, /But I say, that the women of today, smarter than the man in every way…”

“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” James Taylor, 1976

Taylor wrote so many great songs but also loved recording cover versions of R&B-flavored numbers like Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” and The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof.” On his underrated 1976 LP “In the Pocket,” Taylor did a spectacular job with Bobby Womack’s 1972 song “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a funky soul tune written by Womack and his stepdaughter Linda Womack. The lyrics, which center on a woman they knew who was thinking of going elsewhere for intimacy because her husband had grown neglectful, serve as a warning to pay attention: “Do the things that keep a smile on her face, say the words that make her feel better every day… /Woman’s got to have it, I believe that I should know, she’s got to know that she’s needed around, /When you kiss her, you got to make her feel it everyday, boy, /She’s got to know that she’s not walking on shaky ground, /Think it over…”

“(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin, 1967

One day in 1967, Atlantic Records producer/mogul Jerry Wexler stopped Carole King on the street and said he needed her to write a song for his new artist Franklin, to be entitled “Natural Woman.” King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin collaborated that very evening, and you would think the lyrics would’ve been written by a woman, but in fact, King wrote the music while Goffin came up with the words. It became one of Franklin’s signature songs, a song of gratitude to a man who offers so much devotion and kindness, from a woman whose “soul was in the lost and found”: “Before the day I met you, life was so unkind, but your love was the key to my peace of mind, /’Cause you make me feel, you make me feel, /You make me feel like a natural woman…” King ended up recording the song herself four years later on her multi-platinum “Tapestry” LP.

“Woman,” John Lennon, 1980

The former Beatle, abandoned by his mother (and father) at a young age, developed an unhealthy defense that included berating and even physically abusing women who he felt had done him wrong. Therapy and Eastern philosophy helped quiet Lennon’s demons, such that, by 1980, he was able to acknowledge the huge importance of women in not only his life but in the universe. “Women make up half the sky, half the world, half of everything,” he noted. He wrote a mea culpa song like “Woman” to try to make amends for past behavior: “Woman, I can hardly express my mixed emotion at my thoughtlessness, /After all, I’m forever in your debt, /And woman, I will try to express my inner feelings and thankfulness for showing me the meaning of success… /Woman, I know you understand the little child inside the man, please remember my life is in your hands…”

“Woman,” Peter and Gordon, 1966

I couldn’t resist putting this song in the mix, which credits Bernard Webb as the songwriter, but that was a pseudonym for Paul McCartney, who wanted to see if a song he wrote could be successful if no one knew he wrote it. Peter Asher, as the brother of McCartney’s then-girlfriend Jane Asher, had benefited greatly from Lennon-McCartney songs the duo had given to Peter & Gordon — “A World Without Love,” “I Don’t Want To See You Again” — but “Woman” also did well for them (even though it wasn’t long before we learned who really wrote it). A line like “be my woman” may seem rather possessive these days, but it was well-intentioned for its day, and he’s hoping for mutual love, need and want: “Woman, do you love me? /Woman, if you need me, then believe me, I need you to be my woman…”

“No, Woman, No Cry,” Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1974

Following the success of “Burnin’,” The Wailers’ 1973 LP with future reggae classics such as “Get Up Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left to pursue solo careers, and Bob Marley assumed the mantle of frontman of the group. “Natty Dread,” the first album by Bob Marley and The Wailers, included “No Woman, No Cry,” which became a huge favorite in concert and was a featured track on the group’s 1975 “Live!” album. Although some misinterpreted the title to mean “If there’s no woman, there’s no reason to cry,” Marley said he meant it in Jamaican lingo as, “No, woman, nuh cry (don’t cry).” He was offering comfort in times of sadness: “Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost along the way, yeah, /In this great future, you can’t forget your past, so dry your tears, I say, /No, woman, no cry…”

“I Am Woman,” Helen Reddy, 1972

In 1972, Australian singer Helen Reddy had grown so tired of the demeaning treatment she and other female artists had to endure in the music business that she was motivated to write some defiant lyrics about it.  She handed them off to songwriter Ray Burton, and the result was the multi-million-selling “I Am Woman,” a somewhat cheesy but game-changing song that Helen Reddy played on every TV variety show she could. For better or worse, it gave many women the confidence to defy the odds, to chase their dreams, to press harder for more favorable contracts, to resist men’s unwanted advances, and to go where only men had gone before: “You can bend but never break me ’cause it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goal… /Oh yes, I am wise but it’s wisdom born of pain, /Yes, I’ve paid the price, but look how much I gained, /If I have to, I can do anything, /I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman…”

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Honorable mentions:

More Than a Woman,” The Bee Gees, 1977; “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” Derek and the Dominos, 1970; “Gold Dust Woman,” Fleetwood Mac, 1977; “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge, 1966; “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973; “Witchy Woman,” The Eagles, 1972; “Black Magic Woman,” Santana, 1970; “Long Cool Woman,” The Hollies, 1972; “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison; “L.A. Woman,” The Doors, 1971; “Evil Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975; “Kentucky Woman,” Neil Diamond, 1967; “Parachute Woman,” The Rolling Stones, 1968; “She’s a Woman,” The Beatles, 1964.

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