Top 10 “Story Songs” # 1 Bob Dylan – (Lily Rosemary and The Jack Of Hearts)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

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The story song is the toughest gig in songwriting. The song lyric format is tailor-made for the cut and paste Felliniesque’ imagery of a Dylan; or the run and gun pop couplets of The Beatles and  The Beach Boys.  However, constructing a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying end; with rich characters and a good tune in the span of a few minutes? YOU try it. I have yet to succeed. I’ve written a wedding song and a Christmas Song. Both forms are childs play compared to the story song. Here is my number 1 pick…..

LILY ROSEMARY AND THE JACK OF HEARTS (Bob Dylan)

Upon first listen, one might think “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is just another of Dylan’s marathon, stream of consciousness curios. I did. However with the aid of repeated herbally enhanced  listenings, the mind-boggling brilliance of this masterpiece revealed itself.  Dylan had somehow exceeded the bar he had set for himself in the 60’s at a time when people least expected.

But first some background….

After Dylan’s trilogy of 60’s masterworks, (“Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, and “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan laid down his chopper, busted up his neck and became a mere mortal. His comeback album “John Wesley Harding” was generously bequeathed the title of masterpiece (it wasn’t). After Dylan issued his ramshackle, supersized slab of mediocrity  “Self Portrait”; the 1970 release “New Morning” was lauded as a ‘return to form’ by critics. Yeah, it was…kinda…. But, the Babe Ruth of Rock had just posted a 23 Home Run /80 RBI season. Clearly, our hero had lost a step. Fans and critics were discreetly concerned. No doubt Dylan was as well.

Fast forward to 1975. Dylan rewarded the faithful with “Blood On The Tracks”. Perhaps the finest album in Dylan’s career. Maybe the finest in ANYONE’S career. Break-up songs were nothing new at the time. But, Dylan upped the ante with an unflinching, drop-dead genius divorce album. Just as Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” had revolutionized the landscape of romantic comedy in film; Dylan’s new album had forever altered the landscape of the relationship record. Prior to ‘Blood’, Dylan seldom came off well in relationship songs. His snarky, nasal bray was not the most sympathetic medium for an artist already too condescending, judgmental, and full of himself. With “Blood On The Tracks”, we now had a kinder, gentler Dylan. Moreover, time and circumstance had weathered his trademark sneer into raspy, world-weary croon that suited him (and the audience) better.

At first blush, this protracted horse opera seems odd man out on an album full of finely detailed psychodramas.  However, look closer and you’ll find it not only belongs on “Blood On The Tracks”, but in a sense ties the whole album together. The whole yarn is analogous to a poker game. However, the face cards are real flesh and blood humans. Set in the ‘Wild West”; the story is all about bluffing, calculation, duplicity and cheating. The stakes are life, love and lucre. Big Jim is the kingpin of the town and owns it’s only ‘diamond’ mine. His wife Rosemary enters the cabaret looking like “a queen without a crown…” When Rosemary starts “drinkin’ hard and seeing her reflection in the knife….” Suddenly, Rosemary morphs into the queen of spades. Dylan turns in a career vocal performance full of camp, pathos and fun. He hits the mark on every verse.

There are story songs and then there is “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts.” The scope of the story and characters can only be described as ‘cinematic’. Indeed, two screenplays have been inspired by this song. Dylan switches effortlessly from first to third person in his narrative. He gives us flashbacks, character studies, quick cuts….and it all makes sense and comes together. The best thing about this song is that no video exists. It’s theater of the mind. We know that young Robert Zimmerman was a  disciple of old time Radio Theater as a child in Hibbing Minnesota in the fifties. The pictures he painted in his mind of far away places and exotic people inspired him to leave stifling small town rural America for New York to seek his fortune. Our culture would be forever altered if there had been an MTV to do Dylan’s visualizing for him.

“Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” is an unqualified masterpiece. Dylan captures lightning in a bottle with every line. Throw your ear-buds away please. Do not listen to this song as background music for jogging, blogging, housework or any other peripheral activity. Some songs demand and deserve your undivided attention and enjoyment. Close your eyes hit the play button, and let the curtain rise on the greatest “story song” yet written.

NOTE:

Dear Stereo Loungers:

Thanks to all of you who followed this coundown to it’s conclusion. Lists are silly and subjective….But, it keeps me off the streets at night.

I will not be doing your legwork for you this time. It’s far more rewarding to discover music as an active participant. Seek this song out. Pull up a couch, turn off the lights, close your eyes and listen on a good stereo like god intended.

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 2 Bobbie Gentry (Ode To Billy Joe)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Number 2 …..

Ode To Billy Joe – Bobbie Gentry (1967)

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Southern Gothic meets Twin Peaks. Just as circle jerks around the water cooler in 1990 proffered theories on ‘who killed Laura Palmer?’ So did we muse and ponder in 1967 exactly what the hell it was that Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? It was such an enigma that a feature length movie was produced based on the lyrics to the song.

In many ways, Bobbie Gentry was the Kate Bush of her time and place. Like Bush, Gentry was a white hot classic brunette with a lot going on under the hood. She was one of the first female country music artists to pen her own material (Kate was the first Brit female to pen a number 1).  And, after the hoopla and lucre generated by “Ode”, Gentry began a slow but sure retreat from celebrity. By the late 70’s had removed herself from the harsh spotlight of performing and had chosen the soft afterglow of domesticity (ala’ Kate).

 “Ode To Billy Joe” is a humid, steamy invocation of rural, Deep South culture.  Gentry’s near Bossa Nova guitar plucking has the thick, stagnant funk of swamp gas on a hot, August Delta night.   The string arrangement is as greasy as bacon drippings. Gentry obviously embodied small town Southern culture,  yet crafted ‘Ode..’ with a narrative punch that should remind us that our perception of the double- wide, cousin humpin’ Deep South (formed by a thousand Deliverance jokes) must also include towering literary icons like Falkner, Twain and Tennessee Williams.  Rooted deep in the saga of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ is agrarian plantation society – although built on the backs of conscripted humanity- it still gave us a culture rich in art, architecture and a certain ironic civility we call Southern hospitality.

 

The story is set around the dinner table. The news is disseminated that local boy Billy Joe has jumped to his death off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Ominous plot points and mundane family chatter are intermingled as the chronology of events slowly unfolds:  

 Papa said to mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense,
pass the biscuits, please.”
“There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.”
Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow.

Exotic theories abounded regarding the various unanswered mysteries imbedded in the song. Gentry wisely never made any attempt to explain or reveal them. Her masterpiece had been painted; never again to be equaled or duplicated.

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 3 Gordon Lightfoot (The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald)

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Sailing in at NUMBER 3

“The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot (1976)

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In November 1975 a cargo ship named The Edmund Fitzgerald sailed into a brutal winter storm on Lake Superior and sank. All 29 crew members perished. Canadian singer/songwriter/seafarer Gordon Lightfoot was sufficiently moved to write this dense, dreary tribute soon after. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is a classic on many levels. It went to # 2 on the Billboard chart.  Details of the crew’s final moments will never be known. However, Lightfoot fills in the blanks with a likely scenario that makes full use of the artistic license granted to storytellers in the folk idiom. And, Lightfoot’s love and knowledge of sailing informs and authenticates his view of the tragedy.  Commonly cited as one of the greatest examples of the “story song” in pop history; the song was used as background music for a 2010 television documentary on the event.

In the early seventies, America’s Lyric Laureate, Bob Dylan was maintaining a low media profile. Anxious Rock journalists rung their hands and began a vigilant lookout for “The New Dylan”.  Gordon Lightfoot was among the names most often put forward.  This performance of “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” shows why…..

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 4 Bob Dylan (Tangled Up In Blue)

NUMBER   4

Bob Dylan – Tangled Up In Blue (1975)

 

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In his early period, Dylan seldom fared well in relationship songs.  His snarky, nasal bray wasn’t the best mode of expression for an artist already too arrogant and full of himself.

However, by 1975 time and circumstance had beaten down his trademark whine into a world weary croon that suited his songs (and the audience) better. “Tangled Up In Blue” is story song about a red hot love affair driven into the ditch.  Dylan journeys from the “Great North Woods” down to New Orleans. He meets a lot of women, but his old flame never ‘escapes his mind’. We now had a Dylan that could share the guilt and feel the pain. Like many pathetic Bobophiles, I was sure “Tangled Up In Blue” was somehow telepathically speaking to me personally.

NOTE:

Bob is forever shape-shifting and tweaking his songs.  Forces of Nature seldom sit still.  As a result, his live performances can frustrate fans who worship a certain recorded version of their favorite song.  Here is Dylan messing with his own masterpiece to questionable effect…..

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 7 The Kinks (Lola)

By Dale Nickey:

NUMBER – 7

Lola – The Kinks (Songwriter Ray Davies)

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For most people my age, Lola was the first introduction to transgender culture. Head Kink, Ray Davies tells this shaggy dog story about a chance encounter with a hot trannie at a Soho club. Confusion, self-examination and romance ensue. One of those Classic Rock lyrics most boomers could recite from memory if they really sat down a gave it a try,  Ultimately, the verdict of this mini morality play falls on the side of love and  acceptance. Further, Ray sings it with a conviction that makes one wonder if this story was fiction or reportage.

 

Top Ten “Story Songs” # 8 Harry Chapin (Taxi)

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By Dale Nickey:

Number 8….

“TAXI” – Harry Chapin

There are some songwriters who try their hand at the story song with great success. There are the rare few who specialize in the form. Harry Chapin was one of the latter. The mawkish, weepfest “Cat’s In the Cradle” went # 1 and paid the bills. However, the urban fable:”TAXI” was Chapin’s first splash in the mainstream and is by far the superior work; both musically and lyrically. A chance reunion with an old flame in a cab is artfully set up with the line, “she was gonna be an actress, and I was gonna learn to fly….” Gorgeous cello fills and a rich and melodious instrumental bridge makes “TAXI” a musical feast as well as an engrossing story song that rewards multiple listens. Such a tragic irony that uber-philanthropist and all around good guy Chapin would die too young of cardiac arrest in fiery a car crash 1981. He did NOT die in a taxi accident as many urban legend enthusiasts would have you believe.

Top 10 “Story Songs” # 10 Tom Waits (Phantom 309)

By Dale Nickey:

Click for other story songs>>>>>> 10  9  8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 

The story song is the toughest gig in songwriting. The song lyric format is tailor-made for the cut and paste Felliniesque’ imagery of a Dylan; or the run and gun pop couplets of The Beatles and  The Beach Boys.  However, constructing a story with a beginning, middle and satisfying ending; with rich characters and a good tune in the span of a few minutes? YOU try it. I have yet to succeed. I’ve written a wedding song and a Christmas Song. Both forms are childs play compared to the story song. Here are some of the best…..

Number 10….. (Phantom 309)

Phantom 309 is a song written by Tommy Faile and released as a single by Red Sovine in 1967. Definitive version by Tom Waits (1995).

Ice Road Truckers meets The Twilight Zone. A great story song suitable for paranormal geeks and Nascar goons alike. Me, I like Tom Waits version of the song. You can imagine Waits’ scruffy persona slumped at the counter of an all night truck stop at about 3:00 a.m., Chesterfield King in one hand, cup of hot, black  joe in the other, slowly spinning this yarn about a poor clueless hitchhiker picked up by a benevolent ghost trucker. Plotline is so universal and durable, it was tweaked and borrowed for a subplot in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. Remember Large Marge?