“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.
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.
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’m calling the series “Short Story in a Song.” Here are the first ten:
I got Wilco’s debut album, A.M., when it came out, but it wasn’t until they released Being There that I really sat up and took notice. There are a lot of great songs on this ambitious double album, including “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” “I Got You (At The End of the Century)” and “Sunken Treasure,” but nothing quite so anthemic as the opening track. Sitting somewhere on the angsty suburban continuum between The Replacements and Beach Slang, “Misunderstood” gives a sneak peek into the musical direction Wilco would later perfect on their breakthrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Our narrator is back in his old neighborhood, smoking cigarettes and wondering what happened to his music career. There are million dollar song ideas rattling round his head, but he’s convinced that nobody wants to hear them. Beat down and fresh out of inspiration, he falls back into comfortable addictions that deliver oblivion one house party at a time. Things have gotten so hopeless that he even starts to question his love of rock and roll—the one thing in life that always gave him hope. So don’t be surprised if you find him somewhere screaming at the top of his lungs, thanking each and every one of us for nothing at all.
If you asked me in the mid-90s what one band I thought was destined for indie rock stardom, I probably would have said Jonathan Fire*Eater. With great songwriting, a retro sound and an art-damaged vibe, this five-piece quintet seemed like the perfect New York response to the wave of Brit Pop crashing on America’s shores. Unfortunately, despite releasing a handful of solid albums and singles, the band broke up after their major label debut, Wolf Songs for Lambs. Bad news for their fans, but a phoenix soon rose from the ashes in the form of The Walkmen featuring three members of Jonathan Fire*Eater and two from The Recoys.
The Walkmen are an equally talented band with several impressive songs in their arsenal, but we’re here today to talk about “The Rat.” Propelled by a relentless drum beat that is truly impressive to witness live, the real energy in this track comes from the short story worthy lyrics. As the title implies, our narrator has leveled his disdainful gaze upon somebody that seriously betrayed him. Although it’s never made clear exactly who this backstabber is, it’s easy to imagine them as an ex-lover, a former friend—or both. Whatever the nature of their grievous transgression, it left our protagonist emotionally bruised and isolated from the world he once knew. Now the sinner has come crawling back and it’s tearing our hero apart.
Read the full lyrics for The Walkmen’s “The Rat” right HERE.
I never really stopped listening to Husker Du after I discovered the album “Metal Circus” in the 80s, but there were songs from their catalogue that I hadn’t paid close attention to for a few years. One of them was “Books About UFOs” from New Day Rising. I re-engaged with this track after watching the excellent Grant Hart documentaryEvery Everything a couple of years ago. It’s a tragedy that we lost Hart in 2017, but the existence of a movie that so perfectly captures his tremendous talent and unique worldview eases the sting a tiny bit. And, of course, his amazing music lives on.
“Books About UFOs” might be one of the best examples of how Hart managed to create such great punk and hardcore music by using a broader palette than many of his contemporaries. The narrator is obsessed with a girl whose eyes are always on the sky. It gives him the opportunity to study her the way that she does the planets. It’s the perfect celebration of long-distance crushes, but also pays homage to freaks who proudly wave their flags. I’d say that it might be the perfect Grant Hart song, but there are too many to choose from.
It’s hard to imagine a more influential LA punk band than X. With a sound that’s equal parts punk, roots rock and hard-driving rock and roll, X has been dodging easy classification since they burst onto the Hollywood scene 40 years ago. In that time they have released some of the most iconic songs this town has ever heard. One of my personal favorites is “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” from the 1983 album More Fun In The New World. Performed with acoustic guitars and a shuffling snare beat, the power in this song comes from the lyrics and the dual lead vocals by Exene Cervenka and John Doe.
“I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” also makes for a great dystopian short story. The action starts with our narrator having a debate with him/herself on a crowded city sidewalk. The world, as they see it, has become divided on every issue, with debate too easily giving way to violence. Wars break out, people starve, and chaos rules the day. But there’s nothing our protagonist can do despite a position of privilege, so s/he tries to force those thoughts away instead. This continued inaction fuels an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and guilt that the narrator eventually turns inward to examine his/her own helplessness in the face of obscurity.
Read the full lyrics for X’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” right HERE.
It’s Friday, so let’s focus on an 80s party anthem. Or, at least, that’s what it seems on the surface. Lurking beneath this upbeat ska classic is a scathing indictment of Cold War politics and the continued threat of global nuclear war. Despite the heavy subject matter, in the end this is a positive plea for the next generation to choose a different path than their parents did.
Released in 1985, at the heights/depths of the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher era, Fishbone states its case with a tongue-in-cheek opening salvo that makes it clear we’re all doomed. From there a narrative unfolds between young American soldiers, represented by “Johnny,” and young soviet soldiers, represented by “Ivan.” There is a never-ending war machine that needs more fodder and these are tomorrow’s heroes. The band pleads with Johnny and Ivan to party instead, because the seeds for world destruction have already been sewn and further fighting is pointless.
So, you know, start dancing before we all get turned into “pink vapor stew.” Wackado, wackado, wackado!
Read the full lyrics for Fishbone’s “Party At Ground Zero” right HERE.
One of my favorite rock docs is “Filmage” about the legendary SoCal punk band Descendents. It’s a thorough history of the band’s evolution that gives them credit for creating “pop punk” while outing drummer Bill Stevenson as the band’s mastermind. It’s also nice to see lead singer Milo Aukerman acknowledged as one of the best punk singers of all time,without making the film about him.And I love how the director explores ALL, the Milo-less band that has lived a parallel existence with Descendents since the 80s. So, if you’ve read this far and still haven’t seen “Filmage”—you totally should, bro.
Which is all fine and good, but we’re actually here to discuss a Descendents love song that would make a great short story. Driven by the band’s signature mix of straight-ahead punk energy and Beach Boys-worthy hooks, “Clean Sheets” is a devastating tale of betrayal and no-frills road life. In a little over three minutes our protagonist goes from falling in love and letting himself get comfortable, to getting destroyed by infidelity and moving on. He may smash a mirror with his fist in the end, but the moral of this story is clear—even punk legends get their hearts broken when they’re young.
Read the lyrics for “Clean Sheets” by Descendents right HERE.