Too good to be true, I wanna spend my life with you

There may not be a more frequently explored topic in popular music lyrics than love.  Good or bad, brief or long lasting, love and romance have been mainstays as subject matter for decades:  “Love Reign O’er Me.”  “Love is the Drug.”  “Love Will Keep Us Together.”  “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”  “Love in an Elevator.”  “Love is Like Oxygen.”  “Love You Inside Out.”  “Love Stinks.”

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Songs about weddings and marriage, though, are less plentiful, perhaps because the music industry isn’t exactly overflowing with examples of life-long relationships.  Still, year in and year out, music lovers everywhere continue to give the institution of marriage a go, and who doesn’t enjoy the warm, festive nature of a great wedding ceremony and reception?

This weekend, my daughter Rachel and her fiancĂ© Johnny are getting married, and, as with other important milestones in life, I love to comb through popular music to find enough songs to build a decent set list to commemorate the day, which I hope she’ll be tickled about.  I’ve selected a baker’s dozen tunes to examine below, via Spotify, along with another 15 “honorable mentions” that also focus on weddings.  For all the the brides and grooms out there, and all those who celebrate their union, this blog’s for you!

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“Wedding Song (There is Love),” Paul Stookey, 1971

In the fall of 1969, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary was planning his wedding and asked compatriot Paul Stookey to write and sing a song for the ceremony.  Stookey, a recently converted Christian, went off to pray for guidance, and both the music and lyrics for “Wedding Song (There is Love)” came forth within the hour:  “He is now to be among you at the calling of your heart, rest assured this troubadour is acting on his part, the union of your spirits here has caused Him to remain, for whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name, there is love…”  Said Stookey, “In the lyrics, I paraphrased a few lines of scripture, specifically Matthew 18:20 and Genesis 2:23, so I felt uncomfortable accepting songwriting credit.”  Instead, he set up the Public Domain Foundation, which has since received songwriting and publishing royalties for charitable distribution.  PP&M broke up in 1970, but Stookey recorded the song in 1971 as a solo artist, and it reached #24 on the US charts.

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“Chapel of Love,” The Dixie Cups, 1964

Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, part of the powerhouse of songwriters that came out of the Brill Building in New York in the early ’60s, wrote a dozen Top Ten hits, including “Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Be My Baby,” “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Hanky Panky.”  Following the first wave of Beatles hits in 1964, a vocal trio called The Dixie Cups had the #1 song in the country with this Barry-Greenwich tribute to wedding ceremonies:  “Today’s the day we’ll say ‘I do,’ and we’ll never be lonely anymore, because we’re going to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married…”

“Wedding Song,” Tracy Chapman, 2000

Emerging from the poverty of a depressed upbringing in Cleveland, Chapman went to #1 with her impressive debut in 1988 and has developed a devoted following over the past 20 years and eight albums.  Although she never married and has been ambiguous about her sexual orientation, on her 2000 album “Telling Stories,” she composed “Wedding Song,” a tender examination of the hopes and dreams behind the institution of marriage:  “For you, I don the veil, by your light, others pale by comparison, I place my faith in love, my fate in this communion…”

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“We Got Married,” Paul McCartney, 1989

Sir Paul had been happily married to Linda for 20 years when he was writing the songs that would become the material for “Flowers in the Dirt,” which was sort of a comeback album for him after a few duds in his repertoire.  It did modestly well here, peaking at #17, and his US tour that year helped boost sales of the album, which included “We Got Married,” an ambitious song about the ups and downs of married life from a man who knew all about that:  “I love the things that happen when we start to discover who we are and what we’re living for, just because love was all we ever wanted, it was all we ever had, it’s not just a loving machine, it doesn’t work out if you don’t work at it…”  David Gilmour of Pink Floyd made a guest appearance as lead guitarist on this track.

“I Wanna Marry You” and “The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980

For his1980 double album “The River,” Springsteen wrote two hard-luck songs that focus on tying the knot. The title song tells the heartbreaking story of a couple who married young because the girl got pregnant, which felt to the boy like a dead end that forever limited their life choices:  “Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote…we went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest, no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress…”  On the other hand, “I Wanna Marry You” is more hopeful, with lyrics about a man who meets a single mom, and likes and admires her so much that he offers to marry her to ease her burden:  “To say I’ll make your dreams come true would be wrong, but maybe, darlin’, I could help them along, little girl, I wanna marry you…”

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“For My Wedding,” Don Henley, 2000

Larry John McNally, a respected songwriter whose work has been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and Henley, sang this song at an in-the-round show at the famed Bluebird Cafe in Nashville in 1998.  Henley heard a tape of the performance and so loved the song that he recorded it for his “Inside Job” LP two years later.  McNally talked about the song’s lyrics for the Songfacts website:  “What does it really mean, marriage?  I believe there are misconceptions about what you are entering into, fantasies and delusions sold through movies, songs and advertising.  Nonetheless, there is no denying that faithfulness, loyalty, the depth of human bonding and support for one another through life’s trials and tribulations, these are good things.  That’s what I wanted to write about in this song.”  A sampling:   “To want what we have, to take what we’re given with grace, for these things I pray, on my wedding day…” 

“Kiss The Bride,” Elton John, 1983

In 1983, Elton reunited with Bernie Taupin, his celebrated lyricist from his hugely popular ’70s albums and singles, and the result was the LP “Too Low For Zero,” which spawned “I’m Still Standing” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” both big hits.  Also on the album was the rollicking “Kiss the Bride,” in which the narrator bemoaned the fact that his love was marrying someone else:  “And when the preacher said, ‘Is there anyone here got a reason why they shouldn’t wed?’, I should’ve stuck up my hand, and this is what I should’ve said, ‘I wanna kiss the bride, yeah, I wanna kiss the bride, yeah, long before she met him, she was mine, mine mine’…” 

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“Take My Hand (The Wedding Song),” Emily Hackett & Will Anderson, 2013

In 2013, Emily’s friends Bobby & Katie asked her to sing at their wedding, anything she wanted.  “I was set on writing something,” she said, “so I sat down with my friend Christian, and we decided to focus on the simplicity of it, the honesty of it, the butterflies, in both the excitement and fear that surface at the idea of becoming one with someone.  It took us a long time to feel like we got that right.  How could it not?  When someone asks you to define love and feelings you have on your wedding day, it’s a very difficult thing to do.  We wanted it to relate to the bride and groom we wrote it for, but we’ve been beside ourselves about how much it relates to so many brides and grooms.  It’s our idea of a perfect snapshot of how you feel on your wedding day.”  Indeed it is:  “So give me your word, and I’ll give you all that I’ve got, no we don’t have much, but it sure feels like a lot, so take my heart and take my hand again and again, right where we stand, /Too good to be true, I wanna spend my life with you…”

“Love and Marriage,” Frank Sinatra, 1955 

In the 1940s and ’50s, lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen teamed up on more than a dozen songs that earned Oscar nominations and wins, and another couple dozen that rode high on the pop charts.  One of those was Sinatra’s rendition of “Love and Marriage,” a #5 hit in 1955 after its introduction on a TV production of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.”  Cahn’s lyrics make the case (despite plenty of more recent evidence to the contrary) that marriage and love are inseparable:  “Love and marriage, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, this I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other…”  The song enjoyed new life as the tongue-in-cheek theme song for the popular TV show “Married…With Children” in the ’80s and ’90s.

“The Wedding,” David Bowie, 1993

Bowie had married in the early ’70s and divorced in 1980, but in 1990, he was introduced to supermodel Iman and as he put it, “I was naming the children the night we met.  It was immediate.”  They married in 1992, and “The Wedding” was the centerpiece of the hugely underrated 1993 LP “Black Tie White Noise,” which opened with an instrumental version and closed with the full version with lyrics:  “Heaven is smiling down, heaven’s girl in a wedding gown, I’m gonna be so good, just like a good boy should, I’m gonna change my ways, angel for life…”

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“Wedding Bell Blues,” The 5th Dimension, 1969

This classic was written in 1966 by songwriter Laura Nyro and recorded by her for her “More Than a New Discovery” debut LP that year.  Three years later, The 5th Dimension — who had already had success with two other Nyro compositions (“Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness”) — chose to record “Wedding Bell Blues,” which focuses on a woman who badly wants her lover to propose:  “Bill, I love you so, I always will, and in your voice, I hear a choir of carrousels, but am I ever gonna hear my wedding bells?…”  Perhaps not so coincidentally, group members Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. were engaged at the time but had yet to set a wedding date.  The song rocketed to #1 in the fall of 1969, and in concerts, McCoo would sing directly to Davis.  They married before the year was out, and recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

“Marry Me,” Train, 2009

Since forming in San Francisco in the late ’90s, Train has evolved into one of the most popular roots-rock bands of the new millenium, with six Top Ten albums and numerous hit singles (“Drops of Jupiter,” “Calling All Angels,” “Hey Soul Sister”).  Patrick Monahan, the band’s singer and chief songwriter, said “Marry Me” tells the story of a guy who has a “love at first sight” moment when he spies a waitress in a diner, and the music video for the song depicts that fleeting encounter:  “Promise me you’ll always be happy by my side, I promise to sing to you when all the music dies, marry me, today and every day, if I ever get the nerve to say ‘hello’ in this cafe…”

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“White Wedding,” Billy Idol, 1983

Although he had much bigger hits later in his career (“Eyes Without a Face,” “To Be a Lover”), Billy Idol may be best known for this 1982 song he wrote, which stalled at #36 in the US but made #6 in his native England.  The narrator speaks to a girl who he once loved who had married, apparently unsuccessfully, and now he has returned and hopes she’ll be willing to try again by marrying him:  “Come on, it’s a nice day for a white wedding, it’s a nice day to start again…”  The song’s music video, played heavily at the time on the relatively new MTV channel, was somewhat controversial for its dark gothic images and barbed-wire wedding ring.  The Spotify list includes the longer version (Parts 1 and 2).

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Here are a few “honorable mention” tracks having to do with weddings and marriage:

Let’s Get Married,” Al Green, 1974;  “Marry You,” Bruno Mars, 2010;  “We’ve Only Just Begun,” The Carpenters, 1970;  “I Do,” Colbie Caillat, 2011;  “Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song),” Patti LaBelle & The Blue Belles, 1963;  “Be My Wife,” David Bowie, 1977;  “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon, 1971;  “Legalize Our Love,” Timbuk 3, 1995;  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” The Beach Boys, 1966;  “I Do,” Jewel, 2008; “Down the Aisle of Love,” The Quin-Tones, 1958;  “From This Moment On,” Shania Twain, 1997.

There’s still time to change the road you’re on

Upon moving to Los Angeles 11 years ago, I didn’t have to wait long before I found myself driving down streets and highways whose names I recognized from popular song lyrics:

“I flew past LaBrea out to Crescent Heights…I passed her at Doheny and I started to swerve…”  — three major streets in West Hollywood off Sunset Boulevard, made famous in Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve.”

“Drive west on Sunset to the sea…” As Sunset reaches the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades, from Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters.”

“…And the sun comes up on Santa Monica Boulevard” from Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do.”

And so on.

The same is true, no doubt, for those who move to New York City, or London, or any number of other areas of the country or the world where famous or obscure streets and highways inspire artists to write about them.

There are hundreds and hundreds of great songs from the classic rock era about hitting the road, written and/or recorded by artists from Eric Clapton to Bruce Springsteen, from Steppenwolf to Jackson Browne, from Joni Mitchell to The Doobie Brothers, among countless others. Most of these songs feature lyrics that could be about traveling on any road anywhere.

Today, let’s shine a light on 14 songs about specific roads.  Perhaps you’ve driven down them yourselves, or will someday…

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“Highway 61 Revisited,” Bob Dylan (1965)  

Regarded by many fans as one of Dylan’s finest albums, “Highway 61 Revisited” features the titantic masterpiece “Like a Rolling Stone” and such serious works as “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Desolation Row.”  One of the lighter moments is the breezy, bluesy title tune, complete with a siren whistle to punctuate each new verse with comical effect. The song was inspired by U.S. Highway 61, which runs from Louisiana north through the Mississippi River valley to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota.  It’s the route followed by many Blacks as they left the South for jobs and opportunities in the North.

“Toulouse Street,” Doobie Brothers (1972)  

One of the better known streets in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, Toulouse Street is a magical brew of fabulous restaurants, sketchy strip bars, outrageous souvenir shops and mysterious voodoo characters. Doobies guitarist/singer/songwriter Patrick Simmons wrote the hauntingly beautiful ballad about some bad times in The Big Easy, with lyrics about Creole girls and back rooms where “the blood’s a-flowing fast, and spells have been cast.” The track stands in stark contrast to the harder edged rock found on the rest of the “Toulouse Street” LP, but Simmons actually contributed several more gentle pickin’ tunes to The Doobies catalog over the years.

“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” Nat King Cole Trio (1946) 

A fellow named Bobby Troup wrote this infectious standard during and after a cross-country trip he made with his wife just after World War II, much of it while traveling on U.S. Route 66, which runs from Chicago to L.A.  Troup’s wife Cynthia suggested the title that rhymes “kicks” with “66.” The lyrics mention ten cities one encounters along the iconic highway (can you name them?), and Cynthia remarked later, “I can’t believe he didn’t find a way to include Albuquerque in there lyrics.” The jazz/blues tune has been recorded by more than 75 artists over the years, from Nat Cole and Bing Crosby to Chuck Berry and The Rolling Stones, from Glenn Frey and John Mayer to Natalie Cole and The Manhattan Transfer.

“Lake Shore Drive,” Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah (1972)  

Those outside the Greater Chicago area may not be familiar with this one, but Windy City music fans have long hailed the irresistible beauty of this catchy, piano-driven ode to the famed roadway that runs along Lake Michigan from the North Shore past the Gold Coast to downtown.  Guitarist Skip Haynes — one third of the trio with bassist Mitch Aliotta and keyboardist John Jeremiah — wrote the tune to celebrate the road her and his friends so often traveled as they headed into Chicago for nights on the town. The lyric “Just slipping on by on LSD, Friday night, trouble bound” was thought by those not familiar with Chicago to be a reference to the hallucinogenic drug, but Haynes insists that drugs have nothing to do with it. The song was revived for the “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” 2017 film sequel.

“Bleecker Street,” Simon and Garfunkel (1964)  

One of Paul Simon’s first songs, which appears on the duo’s largely ignored debut LP “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.,” pays tribute to the street that slices through the bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhoods of Manhattan in New York City. Simon and Garfunkel, both from Queens, frequented the numerous coffeehouses on Bleecker where many folk artists performed in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The simple melody and lyrics, typical of Simon’s early work, evoke a poetic vibe: “Voices leaking from a sad cafĂ©, smiling faces try to understand, /I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand, on Bleecker Street… The poet reads his crooked rhyme, holy holy is his sacrament, /Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street…”

“Seven Bridges Road,” The Eagles (1980)  

This pretty piece was written in 1969 by country rock musician Steve Young, named after a road that leads southeast out of Montgomery, Alabama. On maps today, it’s identified as Rte 39, or Woodley Road, but for a century or more, it was known by locals as Seven Bridges Road because of the seven wooden bridges one had to traverse as it headed into rural county and ended as a dirt road there. Said Young, “Consciously, I was writing a song about a girl and a road in south Alabama, but I think, on another level, the song has something kind of cosmic about it that registers in the subconscious. The number seven has all of these religious and mystical connotations.” He recorded it in 1969, and Ian Matthews devised a five-part harmony for it on his 1973 rendition, but it’s the version by The Eagles that is best known. They began all their post-1979 concerts with it, and included it on their live 1980 LP.

“Penny Lane,”  The Beatles (1967)  

As a counterpoint to complement John Lennon’s song of childhood remembrance, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Paul McCartney came up with this whimsical tune about Penny Lane, a retail area and transit turnaround in a suburb of Liverpool, England. The lyrics paint a carefree picture that captured the activities and characters — the banker, the nurse, the barber, the fireman — McCartney recalled seeing there when he was a boy. Just as Lennon’s song uses a somewhat surreal melody and arrangement to match his enigmatic lyrics, McCartney’s happy-go-lucky melody provides a suitable underpinning to carry the buoyant words. The songs, released as a double A-side single in February 1967, topped the charts in the US and is regarded as one of The Beatles’ best.

“Creeque Alley,” The Mamas and The Papas (1967)  

This autobiographical song by John Phillips tells the story of The Mamas and The Papas — how they met, how they got together, how they became famous, and what was going on with some of their musical contemporaries at the time.  The title, which is never mentioned in the lyrics, refers to Creque Alley, a tiny lane in the Virgin Islands where Phillips, his new wife Michelle and his first band, The New Journeymen, used to perform and hang out in a club there. The group was struggling financially while living there, but soon made their way to Los Angeles and a record deal. By the final verse, when “California dreamin’ is becoming a reality,” they’ve left behind the spartan life on Creque Alley. The song peaked at #7 in 1967 and became their final Top Ten hit.

“The E Street Shuffle,” Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band (1973)

During his formative years, Springsteen wrote quite a few songs about streets, from the fictional “Thunder Road” to the Manhattan-based “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” Following a largely ignored debut LP, Springsteen broadened his musical palette to write more operatically for his follow-up album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” Springsteen’s original piano player, the brilliant David Sancious, lived on E Street in Belmar, a town near Asbury Park, NJ, and the fledgling band often met and rehearsed there. They began referring to themselves as the E Street Band, and Springsteen wrote the funky, horn-heavy album opener, “The E Street Shuffle,” to commemorate that fact.

“52nd Street,” Billy Joel (1978)  

Following the enormous success of “The Stranger” album and its multiple hit singles, Joel took a praiseworthy turn toward jazzier themes and arrangements, which showed up in sophisticated tunes like “Zanzibar,” “Stilletto” and “Honesty.”  They can all be found on Joel’s aptly named LP “52nd Street,” the Manhattan street that served as the hotbed of jazz clubs in New York City in the ’40s and ’50s, and perhaps not coincidentally, the location of the studio he used to record the album in the ’70s. The brief title song deftly draws a parallel between romance and jazz music: “They say it takes a lot to keep a love alive, /In every heart there pumps a different beat, /But if we shift the rhythm into overdrive, /Well, we could generate a lot of heat on 52nd Street…”

“Baker St. Muse,” Jethro Tull (1975)

Three years before Gerry Rafferty had an international hit with his sax-dominated tune “Baker Street,” Ian Anderson wrote this 16-minute, four-part suite about the same street for Tull’s “Minstrel in the Gallery” album. It offers a wistful, rather melancholy look at the various sketchy characters and sordid scenes encountered during a walk down Baker Street, a major boulevard in London, in the 1970s. Prostitutes, drunks, weary beat cops and opportunists populate Anderson’s impressive piece as its navigates multiple tempos, genres and instrumental arrangements. The final section finds Anderson looking at his own career at that point, making sure not to take himself too seriously (“If sometimes I sing to a cynical degree, it’s just the nonsense that it seems…”)

“On Broadway,” George Benson (1978)  

The iconic thoroughfare of Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan, one of the world’s top two centers of theater arts, has been the inspiration for numerous movies, plays and songs over the past century.  Many of them focus on the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors and musicians who want nothing more than to have their names up in lights on a theater marquis there.  The song “On Broadway,” which does a particularly fine job of this, was the result of a rare collaboration between two famous songwriting teams. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, who wrote it as a perky shuffle for the girl group The Cookies, reworked it into more of a bluesy tempo with assistance from Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. The Drifters nailed it with a version that reached #9 in 1963 followed by numerous other artists’ attempts. Jazz guitarist/vocalist George Benson did a fabulous remake in 1978, peaking at #7 on the pop charts.

“Telegraph Road,” Dire Straits (1982)  

Singer/guitarist/songwriter Mark Knopfler was on tour in the Midwest U.S. one day on a tour bus, reading a book about the degradation of urban centers.  He noticed that he was on one road, Telegraph Road, for a very long time, and observed how the landscape and development changed dramatically as it headed north from the Ohio border past Detroit into the northern suburbs. He saw a parallel between what he was reading about and what he was seeing as he traveled the lengthy thoroughfare. A few months later, he was moved to write one of his most impressive compositions, a multi-part, 14-minute masterpiece named for the road in question, which would appear on Dire Straits’ next LP, “Love Over Gold.” The tune goes through about as many changes as the road he had been traveling.

“Shakedown Street,” Grateful Dead (1978)  

Not a real street at all, but a term coined by lyricist Robert Hunter in the title song of the Grateful Dead album of the same name. Hunter used the phrase to describe the kind of sketchy urban boulevards found in countless large cities where drugs, prostitution and street hustles reigned supreme, and customers were often fleeced.  Since the song’s release in the late ’70s, the term “Shakedown Street” has evolved in more recent years to connote the area in parking lots at Grateful Dead (and other jam band) concerts where fast-talking vendors sell food items, beverages and many other wares of questionable value.

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We’ll conclude with a tip of the hat to some of the great generic songs about the pleasure and freedom of driving, life on the highway, and the allure of the road:  “Life is a Highway,” Tom Cochrane (1992);  Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf (1968); Rockin’ Down the Highway,” The Doobie Brothers (1972); The Road, Jackson Browne (1977); Racing in the Streets,” Bruce Springsteen (1978); I Can’t Drive 55, Sammy Hagar (1984);  Ramblin’ Man,” Allman Brothers Band (1973); On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson (1980); Refuge of the Road, Joni Mitchell (1976); Riders on the Storm,” The Doors (1971).

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