By The Landlord
Many years ago, I got off a train in Naples, and beyond the barrier, was surprised to be immediately accosted by a man in a blue uniform coming out of an old caravan parked in the station forecourt. He beckoned me inside. I peered cautiously into the van. A rather striking woman was inside, sitting down with her legs crossed, smiling at me, encouraging me in. I didn’t understand at first, but then realised they both wanted me to take off my coat. Why? Then they wanted me to remove more clothes. And then she was looking me up and down. I didn't know where to look.
Now she was pointing to something. It was my arm. Then I realised. They wanted me to give blood. “Oh. Right. Sorry, I can't now. I don't have time. I’m in a hurry,” I mumbled, in bad Italian and quickly moved on. But just as I eft the station entrance, I found myself suddenly surrounded by four men. I was trapped with my back to a wall. They all had closely cropped hair, tattoos, and wraparound shades. They certainly meant business. I noticed that one of them had discreetly pulled something out of his pocket. It was pointing at me. It was a knife…
"Stories," says the writer Neil Gaiman, "are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
If only that were completely the case in Naples, that evening …
“The only way I know how to make a book is to construct it like a collage: a bit of dialogue here, a scrap of narrative, an isolated description of a common object, an elaborate running metaphor which threads between the sequences and holds different narrative lines together.” - Hilary Mantel. Are those elements that can be used in song storytelling, aside from verses and choruses?
Stories are deeply embedded in our nature. Perhaps they are tuning into something, a structure or a key, that's already in our brain, from the cave and savanna campfires of the past, not only with words, but also in the structure of music. Here’s the cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker: “The mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the web: they might as well not exist.”
“Think of your own childhood, how important the bedtime story was. How important these imaginary experiences were for you. They helped shape reality, and I think human beings wouldn't be human without narrative fiction.” – Paul Auster
And how do you tell, or map a story in song? There are plenty of great stories in songs, but more than that, this week's topic is about songs that tell a story skilfully, or in an original way. But when is a song a story, not just a series of exclamations, one-liners, observations or evoked feelings? That's something we can also examine this week.
Once you've decided that a song tells a story, then it's handy to look at how it is told. So this week, as well as good tales, we’re particularly looking for those that narrate in songs in such a way, that, although you know what's coming, always pull you in and make you want to listen to the end. And the best do this by timing, pace, and by weaving the story into the fabric and style of the music. But how?
First up, what kind of stories catch our attention? Within infinite sub-varieties and settings, it’s been long argued that there are just seven basic plots, as detailed, most famously in Christopher’s Booker’s study of this very subject. These are, to summarise: 1) Overcoming the monster – the hero or heroine sets out to defeat an invading or evil force attacking their family or homeland, e.g. Star Wars or The Magnificent Seven; 2) Rags to riches (and sometimes back again) - Cinderella, Great Expectations, Barry Lyndon; 3) The journey in which we must overcome obstacles - Lord of the Rings, any road movie, a category which could also be combined with or separate from, voyage and return, with new experiences gained. 4) Comedy - in which order turns to chaos with lots of laughs and then back again; 5) Tragedy - in which a major character flaw draws the protagonist into a series of inescapable events, leading to a bad spiral - e.g. Hamlet, Macbeth; 6) Rebirth - events utterly change the main character, making them see the world differently. And finally, 7) Metaplot, in which the story is about, or contains another story, and could contain any of these other categories.
What kinds of plots are favoured in song? Pete Townshend swaggers into the Song Bar: “I’m only interested in rites of passage stories.” That explains Quadrophenia then. But perhaps one of the most successful, and best-known straight-told storytelling songs is The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot. Here this tragic tale is delivered steadily-paced, and sparsely spaced, giving the story the main attention over the music itself, remorsely moving towards it impending disaster:
What about Nick Cave? He knows how to tell a good yarn. “I’ve always hated narrative songs. I hate those songs where, basically, it's an unfolding of a story,” he tells us, surprisingly, and yet what he loves to do is tell that story forcefully, with drama, and no shortage of aggression. Let’s get a shot of him delivering a shot of that 1911 classic, Stagger Lee:
Shifting perspectives and changing narrators can work wonders in song storytelling. Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe is a classic of unspoken tragedy from the point of view of the narrator who fell for the boy who jumped from Tallahassee bridge, but can't reveal it:
Now, by enormous contrast, Eminem uses in his narrative by rapping a series of letters from a fictional, angry, crazed fan, Stan, to himself, the rap star. Eminem then writes a too-late return letter to Stan. Pretty clever and slick stuff on reflection, if you can see past the blandness of Dido’s sample part:
Storytelling from different angles is also a great excuse to say dish up distasteful perspectives “from the character’s” point of view. Eminem's big influences, Ice Cube and Ice T in their early late 80s and early 90s heydays of NWA and friends managed to do this, for example, with no shortage of sharo words and sneaky ambiguity, telling stories and attracting controversy with a gangster perspective that flirted with their own personal experiences. But when it comes to dysfunctional men, and family matters, here's another effective one, that also jumps back and forward in time. It's Harry Chapin’s Cat's In The Cradle - where an absentee father finds history repeating itself:
Some storytelling songs don’t need to tell us a plot from A to B, but can be far more compressed, and effectively so, by just glimpsing the past within the present. Handbags and Gladrags, perhaps sung at with a best version by Rod Stewart in 1969, and written and arranged by Mike d'Abo just two years earlier, sees the singer addressing, and sort of dressing down (careful, Rod) a teenage girl who pines for trendy new clothes. A story is implied more within a point of view than a narrative.
Joni Mitchell is less balladeer, more Impressionistic in her narratives, with snapshot images. But in The Last Time I Saw Richard, she combines the two in an argument. In the first two verses, she recalls encounters with Richard in a bar years before, then after long gap, she comes to the third verse showing how years later, they are both still in a dark place, but now in different locations.
Some narratives, meanwhile, float through time and just keep us guessing what will happen next. Bob Seger’s anecdotal Turn the Page is forever on the road with a story that can't stop: "On a long and lonesome highway/East of Omaha/You can listen to the engine/Moanin' out his one note song./You can think about the woman/Or the girl you knew the night before,/But your thoughts will soon be wandering/The way they always do./When you're ridin' sixteen hours/And there's nothin' much to do."
Country or folk ballads will doubtless crop up a plenty this week, but one of the more interesting examples could be this parody of the genre by Loudon Wainwright III, with The Man Who Couldn't Cry. A series of increasingly bad things happen to the man, yet, while this is melancholy parody, the song is still full of emotion and pathos, and the song brilliantly continues its story even after death:
Bob Dylan will surely feature heavily this week, riding on the back of his recent Nobel prize, and whether you might think of Tangled Up in Blue, Hurricane, A Simple Twist of Fate or anything else, the other point about Bob is how many other artists he has influenced in the narrative technique. Aside from the ballads, here’s an example of the fantastical, scattergun one-liner approach of storytelling reminiscent of the 'dream' songs, in which Jeffrey Lewis takes us on a journey-type psychedelic story without actually going anywhere, in The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane:
OK a few examples here, but I'm really only scratching the surface. The rest is for the collective wisdom and knowledge of you wonderful Song Bar visitors. There are so many stories to tell, and by so many artists. So whether your songs employ backstories, flashforwards, narrator's perspectives, pithy one-liners, red herrings, framing devices, non-linear narratives, a story within a story, twists, cliffhangers, self-fulfilling prophesy, ticking clock scenarios, surprise denouement or anything else to keep us hanging on to how they finish, this week it’s time to suggest them in comments below. Who is this week’s omniscient narrator? I’m delighted to welcome yet another new debut umpire to the bar, Uncleben, who will doubtless plot us a perfect playlist or two by next Wednesday. Time for nominations will be called on Monday.
… "You are Engleesh?" said one of the gang of four. Before I could answer, they ushered me, by knife point, around the corner to a quiet street, where, as a door opened, I was obliged to walk down some steep stairs to a dark basement …
If you're interested, more of this story will unfold in comments during this week’s topic …
New to comment? It is quick and easy. You just need to login to Disqus once. All is explained in About/FAQs ...
Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.