Episode 4: Short Stories in Songs

Way back, the words and the music could not be divided. These were the days before the actors arrived on stage. This episode is a tribute to that Athenian world of the 6th century B.C.: where lyrics and music were, quite literally, in perfect harmony. Only without the masks and olives.

Short stories don’t sell, publishers will tell you. Short stories in songs aren’t much in vogue these days either, but when were they? The 1970s, perhaps, when Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks got to number one - not only a short story in a song, but also a sentimental one in which the protagonist is about to die. Or maybe he’s emigrating, which might be a relief for those he’s left behind, by the sound of it.  

No Seasons in the Sun for us; it fails to hurdle the demanding quality bar Sombrero Fallout demands of all successful candidates. What we’re looking for is a great song, of course, but one that could work as a piece of literature as well. And a way with words, as Chris Difford’s sustained deployment of the half-rhyme delivers in Squeeze’s Up the Junction.

I got a job with Stanley; he said I’d come in handy                                                                            And started me on Monday; so I had a bath on Sunday

Sometimes the little details give away a song’s age, such as making an event out of watching The Simpsons in The First Big Weekend by The Arab Strap. But low culture can invoke strong emotion, and that in turn renders the song universal.

Sunday afternoon we go up to John's with a lot of beer in time to watch the Simpsons. It was a really good episode about love always ending in tragedy except, of course, for Marge and Homer. It was quite moving at the end and, to tell you the truth, my eyes were a bit damp. 

Dry Your Eyes by The Streets was, amazingly for a short story song, a number one hit. What works here is the fumbling attempt by the dumpee’s pal to cheer him up, with his inarticulate homespun wisdom, complete with clumsy passive voice and ready cliche.

Dry your eyes mate, I know it's hard to take but her mind has been made up                                  There's plenty more fish in the sea

Sometimes the songwriter is intent on memorialising a peripheral character with whom nobody would ordinarily bother. This is how Mark Kozelek begins his great album Benji: penning a tribute to his distant trailer trash cousin; and this is is what Conor Oberst is aiming for in Light Pollution.

John A. Hobson was a good man; he used to loan me books and mic standsHe even got me a subscription to the Socialist Review

It’s no surprise John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is turning his hand to novel-writing these days. Though most Goats songs would work as well, here we have the two minute masterpiece, The Fall of the High School Running Back, who blew his knee out in an out of town game and now there is nothing but the ground left for you to fall to.

But selling acid was a bad idea; and selling it to a cop was a worse one                                               And the new law said that seventeen year olds could do federal time; you were the first one                     So I sing this song for you, William Staniforth Donahue                                                                   Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland; but you made a bad decision or two

The pop lyric can mean everything and nothing, and is, naturally, dependent on the music that accompanies the words. I wanna hold your hand - a sentiment bland beyond belief, but in the right context with the right music and the right attitude, a commercial goldmine. These songs aim higher. Listening, you can, just for a moment, hold life in the palm of your hand, the noble aim of Carver and Chekhov and Mansfield. And these bands have something the master short story writers lacked. The music inherited from Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides.

Tracklist

Up the Junction, Squeeze

Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, The Jam

The First Big Weekend, The Arab Strap

Jonathan David, Belle and Sebastian

Ellen and Ben, The Dismemberment Plan

Dry Your Eyes, The Streets

On the Bus Mall, The Decemberists

Light Pollution, Bright Eyes

My Dog Was Lost, The Fiery Furnaces

Papa Was A Rodeo, The Magnetic Fields

Fall of the High School Running Back, The Mountain Goats 

Jim Wise, Sun Kil Moon

Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin

Frank’s Wild Years, Tom Waits