I was lucky enough to catch Guided By Voices on the Alien Lanes tour in 1995. I was working as a journalist at the time and writing part-time for my friend’s fanzine. We already had the band’s previous albums in rotation on the stereo, but everything changed when this one came in the mail. We got the last three tickets in Los Angeles and had our faces melted off at the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood. There are plenty of great songs on this impressive collection, but “Motor Away” has always been a stand out. The repetitive riff and driving rhythm are vintage GBV, but the lyrics would make a great short story.
Our narrator is a road warrior who has spent his life chasing a tired dream. The long, winding road that stretches to the horizon in both directions is littered with the bleached bones of missed opportunities, broken promises and failure to grab the brass ring. He’s the last man standing from a once proud army that haunts him day and night. Despite the odds, he’s made it further than any of the others he originally set out with, but he’s still no closer to reaching their ultimate destination. And every day he wonders if this will be the last before he finally turns the wheel and drives off into the sunset.
Read the full lyrics for Guided By Voices’ “Motor Away” right HERE.
I went to see Weezer in Hollywood last night. It got me thinking about how I was introduced to the band and the impact they had on my musical tastes in the early 90s. I was fresh off the plane from Europe when a friend handed me the blue album, swearing I would love it. I remember describing their sound as a cross between The Pixies and The Beach Boys back then, with fantastic hooks and interesting lyrics. It might be hard to remember now, but Weezer’s early music was chock full of angsty Emo goodness with “Undone—The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly,” “Tired of Sex” and “Why Bother?” But my all-time favorite, and a song that would make a great short story, is “Say It Ain’t So.”
Our narrator is exploring his refrigerator when he discovers a bottle of beer that is pregnant with meaning for him. It isn’t exactly clear what drives this mounting uncertainty, but it chills him to the bone. He heads for the living room to watch some TV, all the while haunted by the unwanted feelings that morph and mutate in the back of his mind. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that an overwhelming sense of loss is behind his apprehension, wrapped up in the failed relationships with the father figures in his life. And behind it all is the presence of alcohol which fuels his growing sense of dread. “Say It Ain’t So” is an amazing song and it would make a great short story.
Read the lyrics for “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer right HERE.
It’s a testament to Warren Zevon’s lyrical and musical genius that a song about a junkie in free fall could be so romantic. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a version sung by 70s pop idol Linda Ronstadt. But this is more than just a junkie love story, it’s also an ode to a bygone Los Angeles that still exists if you squint your eyes and go in search of giving up. Kinda puts you in the mood for Pioneer Chicken and somebody to hold you tighter while you shiver and shake through the night. For those reasons and so many more—including the line about pawning a Smith-Corona typewriter in order to go score (or was it a Smith & Wesson?)—”Carmelita” is probably one of the best short stories I’ve ever listened to.
Lucky for us, there are two versions. Which is your favorite?
Read the lyrics for “Carmelita” by Warren Zevon right HERE.
I’d already explored the Johnny Cash catalog by the time I heard the album Tender Prey by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Cash songs like “25 Minutes To Go” and “Folsom Prison Blues” were early favorites, but even those criminal tales couldn’t prepare me for the viciousness of Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.” I must have listened to that song a thousand times since then and always come away with a slightly different understanding of the narrator’s take on redemption. Then I heard the Johnny Cash version of “The Mercy Seat” around the turn of the century and everything made sense.
Our narrator is a death row inmate in his final hours. The story is littered with powerful imagery that alternately portrays the electric chair as both the end of his suffering and the throne of God. Religious themes and struggles with morality drive the narrative forward as he constantly asserts his innocence and claims that he’s “not afraid to die.” It isn’t until the last line of the song that he admits he “told a lie,” leaving the listener to weigh the evidence and decide if it’s a confession, or if he’s simply done with all “this measuring of proof.” Powerful stuff and a great sort story.
Read the lyrics for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “The Mercy Seat” HERE.
I’m a writer and a music fan, so I often think of the lyrics to my favorite songs as short stories. A couple of the best elements are usually there—from isolation, desperation and validation to heartbreak, betrayal and revenge. Some songwriters create easy to follow narratives, while others make you tease the story out. Great songs can make us imagine exactly what the songwriter envisioned, but it’s more fun to create our own version of the story as we listen.
Lately I’ve been digging deeper with daily posts that re-imagine lyrics through the lens of short fiction. I can’t promise that I’ll keep up this pace, but I’m having fun for now. I call the series “Short Story in a Song.” Here are the first fifteen:
Sugarcult came out of the impressive Santa Barbara music scene that has given the world everything from Toad The Wet Sprocket, Ugly Kid Joe and Dishwalla to Nerf Herder, Snot and Lagwagon. Not bad for a quiet little beach town best known for its Spanish mission and million dollar real estate. And although Sugarcult was a great pop punk act in its own right—touring the world with bands like Blink-182 and Green Day—a few members also went on to create music with other bands as well. Before he produced radio hits for alternative rock bands like Neon Trees and Walk The Moon, Tim Pagnotta was Sugarcult’s lead singer and main songwriter. The line up also featured guitarist Marko DeSantis (Bad Astronaut) and bassist Airin Older (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros). That’s a talented bunch of musicians.
Sugarcult has several tortured teen anthems to choose from, but when it comes to songs with a story to tell I’ve always loved “Los Angeles.” Although it shares a title with the classic X song, this mid-tempo rocker has its own take on the love/hate relationship that so many people have with the City of Angels. Our narrator is burned out on the fast-paced, hollow lifestyle and desperate to make a change. He’s caught between hating everything about this town and still chasing after his Hollywood dreams. It’s the perfect song to blast while flying down the freeway in the middle of the night, and a cautionary tale about what it takes to make it in LA.
Read the full lyrics for Sugarcult’s “Los Angeles” right HERE.
Check out my podcast chat with Marko DeSantis about rock and reading:
“24 Hour Revenge Therapy” was my gateway drug to Jawbreaker. From there I quickly got hooked on “Bivouac” and “Unfun”. But my favorite album is probably the least popular with hardcore fans—”Dear You. It was the band’s major label debut and features slicker production than its three predecessors, but it also has some of my favorite Jawbreaker songwriting and hooks.
When you’re looking for lyrics that make for a fantastic short story, it’s hard to beat the teen angst of “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault”. If you partied your way through high school and college the way my friends and I did, you probably have a few memories like the one so perfectly described here. Our narrator is at a house party with other “bicycle messengers, punks and art school dropouts,” commiserating with a heartbroken friend over beers. Led Zeppelin’s blasting on the stereo when they spot the friend’s ex happily making out with another guy. The narrator watches as the friend and his ex get into an argument that only lasts until the cops show up, bringing the whole pathetic scene to a screeching halt.
Read the lyrics for “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault” by Jawbreaker right HERE.
I was a big Blur fan when Britpop happened in the 90s. I always preferred their precious take on The Kinks vein of British blues rock over Oasis’ fascination with Beatles-based psychedelia. Since then I have come to the conclusion that Supergrass was ultimately my favorite band from that era—who can go wrong with melding Bowie and The Stones? But none of those bands wrote the perfect Britpop short story song. That honor goes to Pulp in my book.
What starts off as a tale about an unlikely one night stand, quickly turns into a scathing indictment of class and wealth. Our narrator is a working class guy out on the town who encounters a young woman of means. She buys him a drink, expressing interest in sleeping with him to find out how the other half lives. He starts by taking her to a supermarket and asks her to wander the aisles pretending she has no money. She laughs him off while he explains that being rich keeps her insulated from the cold reality of a world that offers no relief beyond dancing, drinking and screwing. Sure, she could lay in bed with him watching roaches climb the wall, but if it got to scary she could always be rescued by her father—and that makes her a tourist.
Read the full lyrics for Pulp’s “Common People” HERE.
SoCal’s South Bay community (including Hermosa Beach) has long been considered the cradle of American hardcore. Once home to the legendary church immortalized in The Decline of Western Civilization, this laid back beach town has produced an endless flow of punk bands over the decades including the big four—Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Descendents and Pennywise. Formed a decade after their forerunners, Pennywise picked the flag up and continues to carry it around the world thirty years later with hard-hitting songs that are often about positivity and self-reliance.
“Date With Destiny” from their 1997 album Full Circle exemplifies the band’s sound, but the lyrics would make a great short story. Our narrator opens by describing a series of untimely deaths ranging from a plane crash to an earthquake. It’s clear that he’s having extreme thoughts about the nature of life and coming to grips with the inevitable demise awaiting us all. More than just a morose examination of mortality, our protagonist challenges us to examine the way we lead our lives. He asks what we would do if we only had one hour to live, ultimately pleading with us to live every hour like it was our last.
Read the lyrics for Pennywise’s “Date With Destiny” HERE.
My podcast interview with Pennywise lead singer Jim Lindberg:
Black Flag’s unrelenting sonic onslaught might make your ears ring, but the visceral anger and paranoid isolation will rattle your soul. It’s an unapologetic approach that’s evident in their earliest recordings, including the legendary “Nervous Breakdown” EP. Released at a time when Donna Summer, The Knack and Bee Gees topped the charts, this misanthropic slice of fury and confusion remains a blistering reprisal against all of mainstream culture. Forty years later, Black Flag continues to define the hardcore sound they helped create.
Which is why the straightforward lyrics of “Nervous Breakdown” would make such a great short story. From the opening line, our narrator declares himself a ticking time bomb. Fed up with the platitudes he hears from the people all around him, he pushes forward against the crowds that he’s grown to hate. But even in his apoplectic state, when all he wants is to end the misery, he cries out for help that he’s certain will never come.
In other words, Happy Monday!
Read the full lyrics for Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” HERE.