Streets of fire, highway to hell

Upon moving to Santa Monica in 2011, I didn’t have to wait long to find myself driving down streets and highways whose names I recognized from popular songs:

“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 the Palisades, from Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters.”

Santa Monica Blvd Street Sign in Beverly Hills“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 streets and highways inspire artists to write about them.

I’m sure you’ll agree that driving in your car and hearing a song about driving in your car is always a special treat.  There are hundreds and hundreds of great old tunes about hitting the road, 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 on any road anywhere, but others focus on specific highways, avenues and streets.

Today, let’s shine a light on 15 songs that refer to these roads.  Perhaps you’ve driven down them yourselves, or will someday…


blues-highway-61-running“Highway 61 Revisited,” Bob Dylan (1965).  Regarded by many fans as one of Dylan’s three finest albums, “Highway 61 Revisited” features the titantic “Like a Rolling Stone” and such serious works as “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Aproximately” and “Desolation Row.”  One of the lighter moments is the breezy bluesy title tune, inspired by U.S. Highway 61, which runs from Louisiana through the Mississippi River valley to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota.  It’s the route followed by many African-Americans as they left the South for jobs and opportunities in the North.

img_0208-1024x768“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. It inspired this gorgeous acoustic track by the Doobies’ Patrick Simmons on the album of the same name, with lyrics about Creole girls and rooms where “the blood’s a-flowing fast, and spells have been cast.”

200133024-001“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” Nat King Cole Trio (1946).  A fellow named Bobby Troup wrote this during and after a cross-country trip he made with his wife after World War II, much of it on U.S. Route 66, which runs from Chicago to L.A.  It mentions ten cities encountered along the iconic highway (can you name them?). This R&B standard has been recorded by more than 75 artists over the years, including Chuck Berry, Glenn Frey, The Manhattan Transfer, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Bing Crosby, The Rolling Stones, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Natalie Cole, Depeche Mode and Perry Como.

green-light-collection-aerial-view-of-a-city-lake-shore-drive-lake-michigan-chicago-cook-county-illinois-usa“Lake Shore Drive,” Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah (1971).  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.  The lyric “Just slipping on by on LSD, Friday night, trouble bound” was thought by some to be an abbreviation not only for the road but the hallucinogenic drug, but composer Skip Haynes insists that drugs have nothing to do with it.

bleecker-street-sign“Bleecker Street,” Simon and Garfunkel (1964).  One of Simon’s first handful of compositions was this quiet song that pays tribute to the reflective moods and quaint coffeehouses found on this New York City artery that slices through the bohemian Greenwich Village area, where folk artists cut their teeth in those days.  It appears on S&G’s largely ignored debut album, “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.”

eagles-seven-bridges-road“Seven Bridges Road,” The Eagles (1980).  Written in 1969 by Steve Young and named after a road leading out of Montgomery, AL, on which you must cross seven bridges before it ends as a dirt road in the woods.  It had apparently been called that for a century but is now known as Woodley Road.  Arranged in five part-harmony and recorded that way by Ian Matthews in 1973, The Eagles then started opening their concerts with an amazing a cappella version, and included it on their live 1980 LP.

6a00d8341cfbd053ef01bb0933fb73970d-800wi“Penny Lane,”  The Beatles (1967).  To match John Lennon’s childhood remembrance song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Paul McCartney came up with this whimsical tune that captured the activities and characters (the banker, the nurse, the barber, the fireman, and others) found in a Liverpool retail area and transit turnaround he fondly recalled from his boyhood days (and still exists today).  This song and its counterpart is generally regarded as the Beatles’ best double A-side single, and one of the best of all time.

mainstreetseger“Main Street,” Bob Seger (1976).  Just about every city in America has a Main Street, but this hit song by Seger actually refers to Ann Street, a smaller road just off Main Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the University of Michigan.  An underaged Seger used to watch dancing girls in the windows, watch sketchy characters come and go, and listen to the R&B music wafting out from the edgy clubs there, all of which are referred to in the lyrics.

2013-01-04-st-thomas-166“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 Crequi Alley, a tiny lane in the Virgin Islands where Phillips, his new wife Michelle and his first band, The New Journeymen, used to perform in a club there.

52ndst_cover_2“52nd Street,” Billy Joel (1978).  Following the enormous success of “The Stranger” album and its multiple hit singles, Joel took a turn toward jazzier themes (“Zanzibar,” “Stilletto,””Honesty”).  The result was the aptly named “52nd Street,” the street that served as the hotbed of jazz clubs and music in New York City in the ’40s and ’50s, and perhaps not coincidentally, the location of the studio he used to record the album.

electric-avenue-2007“Electric Avenue,” Eddy Grant (1983).  Grant, a respected Guyanese British musician who had been a member of The Equals (“Baby, Come Back”) in the late ’60s and in the forefront of the reggae movement, scored an international #1 hit with this pop-synth dance favorite.  It’s inspired by Electric Avenue, a market street in the Brixton area of London that has always specialized in African, Caribbean, South American and Asian products.  It was the first street in London to be fully lit by electricity.

baker-street-station-guelph-pub-1“Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty (1978).  Rafferty was a member of the early ’70s band Stealers Wheel (“Stuck in the Middle With You”), which dissolved in acrimony and lawsuits.  A resident of Glasgow, Scotland, Rafferty needed temporary lodgings in London while legal matters were being resolved, and he found them at a good friend’s flat on Baker Street, a major avenue in London.  The lyrics tell the story of being depressed about the situation, but culminate at song’s end when things are resolved, with lyrics about “the sun is shining, it’s a new morning.”

broadway-parking“On Broadway,” The Drifters (1963) and 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 become stars there.  The Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song “On Broadway” does a particularly fine job of this, and it has been recorded by many dozens of artists since its debut in 1963.  The Drifters’ #9 hit and Geoirge Benson’s #7 version  are the most notable.

telegraphstreetsign“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, and saw a parallel between what he was reading and what he was seeing.  He soon composed a multi-part, 14-minute masterpiece that goes through as many changes as the road he had traveled.

grateful_dead_-_shakedown_street“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 album of the same name to describe sketchy urban boulevards where drugs and prostitution reigned and customers were often fleeced.  In more recent years, it has evolved to connote the area in parking lots at Grateful Dead (and other jam band) concerts where vendors sell food, beverages and other wares.

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) and Rascal Flatts (2006);  “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).

I’m gonna tell you a story…

images-11For probably a thousand years or more, great stories of myth, legend and history have been told in song.  To tell a story in a compelling way is an art, and to do it to a melody often makes it all the more appealing.

In the past century, the country, folk and blues genres have told hundreds and hundreds of stories of heartbreak, stories of war and famine, stories of love and tradition.  These story-songs had characters, a plot, and a message, much like a well-crafted short story in literature.  Not surprisingly, they tended to last five or six minutes or longer, which largely prevented them from making the pop charts, where the average song lasted no more than three minutes, hardly enough time for the lyrics to say much of anything beyond “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” or “I want to hold your hand.”

Still, some songwriters  — country, pop, rock — through the decades have shown a fine talent for telling riveting stories in a succinct enough way that they ended up as chart successes, with a beginning, middle and end, even if they went beyond the conventional song length.  I’ve selected roughly two dozen tracks that offer a healthy cross section of story-songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some topped the singles charts, some were far more obscure tracks by major artists, but all are fascinating stories set to song.

“Taxi,” Harry Chapin, 1972  

The key to a great story-song is painting an aural picture, a visual place where we can understand what’s going on with the lead characters.  In this case, it’s Harry, the cab driver, and Sue, the wealthy lady who was once his lover.  They meet again by chance when she hails his cab, and they have an uneasy re-meet.  “She was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly…”  Neither one achieved their dreams, evidently, and he seems happy just driving a cab while she’s unhappy in whatever wealthy enclave she ended up.

“Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” Meat Loaf, 1977

The entire “Bat Out of Hell” album was worthy of a Broadway stageplay, with multiple stories sung by numerous characters conjured up by lyricist Jim Steinman and his pal, Mr. Loaf.  None was more cinematic than “Paradise,” the vivid story of a teenage couple debating about whether to have sex (“What’s it gonna be, boy, yes or no?”  “Let me sleep on it”) and what it all means.  It’s still acted out all these years later by boomer men and women at bars and parties every Saturday night.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Temptations, 1972  

Even Motown took a stab at the story-song, when the Temptations hit it big with this urban tale of a family who struggled to move on after their deadbeat father flew the coop and then died (“on the Third of September”).  It was recorded as an epic 12-minute track with multiple instrumental passages (including a nearly 4:00 introduction), and even the single version clocked in at nearly 7:00.  The vocal group’s final #1 set the tone for many more soul-story records over the next decade.

“Uneasy Rider,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1973

This song goes on and on with thirty (30!) triplets that tell the amusing story of a hippie from L.A. who’s stuck in Mississippi with a flat tire and has to do some fast talking to avoid a beating from a gang of rough rednecks.  Standard country fare, perhaps, but it ended up on the mainstream Top 40 at #9 in the summer of 1973.  It helped expand the appeal of country rock beyond the confines of the Deep South, with numerous country-rock groups hitting the Top Ten over the next several years.

“Copacabana,” Barry Manilow, 1978  

Disco was all about instant gratification, and mindless dancing to a relentless beat, but this song, one of Manilow’s biggest hits, told the tragi-comic tale of Lola and Tony, and how their time in the limelight was ultimately destined to fail.  It had more of a point to it than most disco tracks, not unlike the film “Saturday Night Fever,” which is remembered for its disco dance songs but is really a sad story of death and loss.

“Rocky Raccoon,” Beatles, 1968

By the time of the “White Album,” the Beatles had tried just about everything in the way of song structure, so it only seemed right to try a story-piece like “Rocky Raccoon,” with Paul McCartney front and center singing the country-western yarn about rivals Rocky and Dan, and the girl Magill (“who called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”).

“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash, 1969

The late great Johnny Cash was deeply rooted in country music but periodically blew over into the pop music scene, most notably with his #2 hit “A Boy Named Sue” in 1969, which tells the story of a boy whose father left his family but not before naming his son Sue to make him strong and defiant in the face of adversity.  The boy hated the name, naturally, and eventually learned why his father had done this, but vowed to name his own son “Bill, or George, or any damn thing but Sue!”

“Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976

Dylan has written so many story-songs through the years that I could do an entire column just on his work.  But perhaps his most notable is the one about Reuben Carter, a real-life boxer who was far from a saint, but got unfairly caught up in a homicide rap, and Dylan was sufficiently moved to write a lengthy piece that told Carter’s story.  It’s a sordid tale of institutional racism at its worst, and Dylan is almost libelously specific in his accusations about the prosecutor and his questionable testifying witnesses.

“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin, 1971

Kris Kristofferson wrote this superb story in 1970, and in the original version, Bobby was a woman, but when it was recorded by Janis Joplin only a few weeks before she died, she changed the genders so Bobby was a man.  Her version went to #1 posthumously, but it doesn’t really much matter — the story it tells is of two drifters (male and female) trying to make something of their hardscrabble lives.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

Canada’s folk hero had been recording and touring for ten years when he scored his biggest chart success with this #1 ode to the sunken freighter.  It struck a chord with Americans and Canadians alike who live near the Great Lakes and know all about the ferocious storms that have laid claim to dozens of vessels through the years.  It’s a great story but, frankly, a pretty boring song, featuring only three chords stretched out over seven long verses.

“American Pie,” Don McLean, 1972

Not so much a story as a historical treatise, “American Pie” explained, in rather enigmatic language, the evolution of rock and roll from 1955 to 1971, when the song was written.  It has earned a place as one of rock’s true anthems, with its references to icons like Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and how they changed both popular music and popular culture.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1989  

Also not actually a story, but more of a litany of headlines of news events from 1955 to 1989, when the song was released.  Social science classes in middle and high schools have used this song to help today’s students understand the impact of the major and minor milestones of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that affected societal changes during those years.

“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, 1967  

This sleepy, sultry number about a Deep South drama would’ve been perfect in the soundtrack of the movie from the same year, the Oscar-winner, “In The Heat of the Night.” As it is, the song’s lyrics do a marvelous job of telling the fictional story leading up to poor Billie Jo MacAllister’s suicide at the Tallahatchee Bridge.

“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie, 1967  

Perhaps the longest story in popular music, this one tells the tale of a bizarre Thanksgiving Day littering arrest, apparently a true story that happened to Guthrie in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, during the Vietnam War protest years.  It’s mostly comic and whimsical in the telling, although the underlying message is one of sadness at the folly and absurdity of the justice system’s overreach.

“Same Old Lang Syne,” Dan Fogelberg, 1981

This tale tugs at the heartstrings, as many Fogelberg songs do.  The narrator runs into his old girlfriend in the grocery store one night during the Yuletide season, and they end up drinking a six-pack in her car while recalling the good old times…but they say their goodbyes and, presumably, never cross paths again.  It struck a chord with many people as they recalled past flings and relationships.

“Goodbye Earl,” Dixie Chicks, 2000

One of my very favorite country songs is this jewel by the Dixie Chicks from 2000, which tells the dark comic tale of a woman who copes with an abusive husband until, with help from her girlfriend, concludes that “Earl had to die” and decides to poison his black-eyed peas.  It’s said to be motivated by the popular films “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Thelma and Louise,” which both involve the consequences of redneck husbands beating up their wives.

“Take the Money and Run,” Steve Miller Band, 1976

“This is the the story ’bout Billy Joe and Bobby Sue…”  Steve Miller came up with this tale of two young outlaws on the run from their various crimes, a la Bonnie and Clyde.  Film director Quentin Tarantino has said he modeled the depraved murderers in “Natural Born Killers” after Miller’s couple.

“Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982

“Little ditty ’bout Jack and Diane…”  Another story of a couple who just didn’t have what it took to succeed in life.  Based on the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp sexed it up and made it more contemporary for the ’80s audience.  It was one of the biggest hits of 1982 and still gets a ton of exposure today.

“Cortez the Killer,” Neil Young, 1975

This 11-minute opus tells the story of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish warrior who fought the native Aztecs to conquer Mexico for Spain in the 16th Century.  Young had been reading historical biographies during this period and was moved to write about Cortes and his exploits.  The turmoil of the many battles won and lost is symbolically represented in the fiery guitar solo that dominates the track.

“Incident on 57th Street,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973

The Boss has written many story-songs over the years, but perhaps none as dramatic as this under-the-radar number, “Incident on 57th Street,” in late 1973.  It tells the tragic tale of Johnny and Jane, a couple who live in a New Jersey walk-up with a minimalist view of New York City, and how they try to make do in a rough-and-tumble world in which Johnny feels an undeniable need to prove his manhood in the streets.

“Shooting Star,” Bad Company, 1975

Even the Brits knew how to write a story-song now and then.  Witness this minor classic from Bad Company’s second album, which tells the story of Johnny, the kid who is inspired by The Beatles to become a rock star, has a hit single, becomes famous, and then dies as a victim of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle.  Singer Paul Rodgers has said this is among his most favorite in the Bad Company repertoire, and it might seem almost cliche, but it strikes a chord with many people (fans and musicians alike).

“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989

This one, from Jackson’s extraordinary but underrated 1989 song-cycle “Blaze of Glory,” tells the story of a young musician named Johnny (so many Johnnys in these songs!) who made it big, but then “the ride started to go too fast and Johnny conveniently died.” Jackson, a New Wave iconoclast who was only briefly a mainstream artist (1982’s “Steppin’ Out” in particular), has produced some incredible work in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, even though no one has seemed to notice.

Popular music is full of great stories.  Keep them coming.