This morning, on the way to work, I had a phenomenal run of radio luck. If you’re not familiar with the term, it was introduced by author Nicholson Baker in his 1992 novel, “Vox.” He explains it better than I can:
“It seems to me that you really need the feeling of radio luck in listening to pop music . . . If you buy the record, or the tape, then you control when you can hear it, when what you want is for it to be like luck, and like fate, and to zoom up and down the dial, looking for the song you want, hoping some station will play it–and the joy when it finally rotates around is so intense.”
In other words, the song is more satisfying if you somehow stumble upon it (especially from the beginning), rather than cue it up on your own. Maybe you’ve experienced it. This morning, I was the recipient of a rare triple – three of my favorites in a row. (That happens much more on satellite than on terrestrial radio, because the playlists are so deep and targeted. I have to give my buds at Sirius/XM a free pop. It’s well worth the $12.95 a month they charge. And they could use the positive publicity. Sirius stock is currently trading somewhere around 30 cents a share.)
Anyway, the songs I’m referring to are “Just Us Kids” by James McMurtry, “Master of Disaster,” by John Hiatt, and Dylan’s classic, “Tangled up in Blue.” Almost 20 minutes of pure artistry set to music. By the time I got to my office, I was much less depressed than usual.
It occurs to me that the songs I’ve really connected with over the years have been story songs. Makes sense, because I’m essentially a story teller at heart. I very much admire and respect someone who can sum up a life in 5 minutes (and make it rhyme, no less). I don’t have that gift.
McMurtry certainly does. His father, Larry McMurty, wrote the Western novel, “Lonesome Dove.” So I guess James comes by his talent naturally. Which doesn’t negate all the hard work that goes into his craft. Check out this slice of life captured in a few short lines:
“Ya know, we could realy have it all Our kid’s gonna graduate next fall
I could take retirement in 10 years It’s a damn short movie
How’d we ever get here?”
Gives me chills just reading it. I know exactly how he feels.
Many of Hiatt’s songs are autobiographical. He puts it out there, warts and all. In “Master of Disaster,” he addresses his struggles with addiction, a recurring theme with a kick-ass beat.
Of course, nobody does it better than Dylan. Part of his genius, it seems to me, is in what he chooses to leave out. In songs like “Tangled up in Blue,” you don’t really know if it’s the narrator’s story, or a series of interwoven vignettes. Doesn’t matter. The listener fills in the blanks, becoming an active co-creator in the process.
Other great story songs:
“WOLD” by Harry Chapin. Anyone in the radio industry knows that guy. Or is that guy.
“The Man in the Bed” by Dave Alvin (formerly of The Blasters). – A gut-wrenching tale from the perspective of a dying old man. “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine. A similar story told from the point of view of an elderly woman. If Prine is still under your
personal radar, I urge you to discover his impressive body of work.
“Maggie May” by Rod Stewart. Hard to believe that Stewart was once a legitimate artist. This narrative of a young man’s affair with an older woman is a classic, and deservedly so. I always thought it would make a great movie.
“Supersede” by Jackie Greene. A 10-minute epic about a young woman’s suicide and the emotional wreckage left in her wake. Greene could be the next Dylan.
Dozens of songs by Springsteen. Take your pick across Bruce’s 35-year career. He’s a master at inhabiting the skin of the working man.
Dozens of songs by Tom Waits. I’m not on solid ground here, but my colleague, Alex Raffi, tells me this guy’s incredible. If “My Old ‘55” (covered by the Eagles) is any indication, I believe him.
In my next lifetime, I might sign up to be a song writer. And, while I’m at it, I wouldn’t mind being able to play guitar like a mother. In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.