KB Panel Post: Songs That Tell Stories

Some of the greatest stories ever told are songs. The great thing about musical narrative is the added dimensions that the accompaniment and vocal performance bring to the story. The range of emotions and intensity of feeling that these elements bring are enormous relative to what words alone can convey. A merely sad story can become devastating when accompanied by sad piano chords. A sunny hook can brighten the mood instantly. A thunderous guitar riff can put the fear of the devil in you. And a great vocal performance can touch your soul.

As with the last KB panel post, several people were asked to share a favorite narrative song. The responses are posted below and the songs are in the radio.blog.

Tom: “The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell

I’ve often heard Joni Mitchell’s lyrics derided as high school-level poetry. Well I must have a high school-level appreciation for poetry because I find her early lyrics, especially those on her classic album Blue, endlessly moving. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” tells about the narrator’s encounter with an old friend in a dark cafe sulking about how life is inevitably disappointing. Richard is a romantic who is feeling cynical and bitter because his life with a figure skater wife and all the trappings of middle class prosperity isn’t what he had hoped for. But true romantics die hard and in the end Richard sees his dark cafe days as a cocoon out of which he’ll someday emerge:

All good dreamers pass this way someday
Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes
Dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away

Mitchell’s piano accompaniment is gorgeous.

Susan: “Red Army Blues” by Waterboys

This song is melodramatic, cheesy, and heart-wrenching: everything an epic storytelling song should be. It’s about a young Russian soldier who serves in World War II. There’s a lot of great lines in it, like: “I saw my first American, and he looked a lot like me/Had the same kind of farmer’s face/Said he come from some place called Hazard, Tennesee.” My favorite lines are in the last verse: “Used to love my country/Used to be so young/Used to believe that life/Was the best song ever sung.” Full lyrics here.

BTD Greg: “Up The Junction” by Squeeze

“I never thought it would happen/With me and the girl from Clapham.” This is pop songwriting pared down to its bare essentials: boy meets girl/boy loses girl, all verse, no chorus, done in rhyming couplets and it’s all over in a little more than three minutes. And with a nice pop tune holding the whole thing together. Squeeze was the first concert I drove myself to see. I saw them a few more times after that, and they always put on a good show. This song typifies their East-London-working-class-down-and-out-pub-rock persona. I’m not sure there are too many other bands that could pull off this sort of thing half as well.

HP: “25 minutes to go” by Johnny Cash

What makes this song truly great is the setting in which Johnny Cash sang it on his “Live at Folsom Prison” album. The song, written by Shel Silverstein of all people, is a timeline of the final minutes of a man scheduled to hang for his crimes. Bizarrely, it is an exuberant, hopeful, raucous ditty. The lyrics are simple, silly really, but they perfectly capture the mindset of someone facing imminent death.

Well I sent for the governor and the whole dern bunch with 21 minutes to go
And I sent for the mayor but he’s out to lunch I’ve got 20 more minutes to go
Then the sheriff said boy I gonna watch you die got 19 minutes to go
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye got 18 minutes to go

In the recording, the inmates scream and holler at this line. This criminal’s death is played for laughs, but it is a joke that Cash’s audience gets.

Supergenius: “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead

I’ve heard that every performance by the Dead has a very tight narrative structure, but the same can be said of their songs, too. Friend of the Devil is a quintessential Western vagabond story told in psychedelica, as the drifter recounts his life and wanders from place to place, pursued by past loves, the police, and the Devil himself. It’s a great mix of regret, longing and restlessness that define the Dead and that define the West.

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43 thoughts on “KB Panel Post: Songs That Tell Stories

  1. That other great Cash/Silverstein song, “Boy Named Sue,” is one of the classics. It makes me smile every time I hear it.

    Some other runners up for me:
    Bob Dylan—“Tangled Up in Blue”
    The Decemberists—“The Sporting Life,” “The Mariner’s Revenge,” and half a dozen others.
    Wilco—“Hell is Chrome”

    And a couple of murder ballads:
    Sting—“I Hung My Head” (the cheese!)
    Uncle Tupelo—“Lilli Schull”

  2. It was really hard for me to use just one. The other big contender for me was Suzanne Vega’s “The Queen and the Soldier.” I think I actually have the lyrics to that one memorized.

  3. One of my favorite story songs has always been Camouflage by Stan Ridgeway… see lyrics here: http://www.lyricsvault.net/songs/7319.html

    What else? Off the top of my head…

    1963 by New Order
    Love Vigilanties by New Order
    Big Joe and Phantom 309 by Tom Waits
    Babooshka by Kate Bush
    It’s A Mug’s Game by Soft Cell
    Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies
    Drive, She Said by Stan Ridgeway

  4. I came close to listing the Hold Steady’s “Chillout Tent,” but I went with the Dead itself. Post’s been updated for my addition.

  5. My all time favorite story song is Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. And Thanksgiving is the best time of year to listen to it.

    “We all stood up, and Obie stood up with the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures, and the judge walked in sat down with a seeing eye dog, and he sat down, we sat down. Obie looked at the seeing eye dog, and then at the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and looked at the seeing eye dog. And then at twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one and began to cry, ’cause Obie came to the realization that it was a typical case of American blind justice, and there wasn’t nothing he could do about it, and the judge wasn’t going to look at the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.”

  6. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is a classic story song.

    The more I think about it, just about any artist/group I can think of that I like, has written one or more story songs. I’m having a hard time coming up with one that has not written a story song. The Smiths are challenging me a little bit, but I’m confident there are some story songs in there and there are a bunch that are story-ish, if you can say such a thing.

  7. I must chime in on one of my favorite bands, The Drive-by Truckers. I can’t choose just one song either:

    “Sinkhole” (Foreclosure of the family farm)
    “The Deeper In” (Incest)
    “My Sweet Annette” (A groom elopes with his bride’s maid-of-honor)
    “Loaded Gun in the Closet” (A wife who could do better)
    “Decoration Day” (Old family rivalry. Scorching coda)

    http://www.drivebytruckers.com/lyrics_dd.html

    All of these songs are from their album Decoration Day. I could go on about DBT. Nobody chronicles the south better, except for maybe Borat.

    Also, I must give a mention to Ron Sexsmith’s “Strawberry Blonde”. A perfect folk-pop song about a little girl and her addled mother. Economical and catchy – without an ounce of fat lyrically or musically. Heartbreaking, but with a redemptive twist at the end like many of Sexsmith’s songs.

  8. Billy Bragg’s got some great story songs. “Everywhere” about two friends, one Japanese and one British/American separated by WW2. “The Short Answer” about a girl named Mary. There are several.

    Nick Cave also has some great story songs. Nearly all of his “Murder Ballads” are great.

    For pure cheese, what about “The Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers. Or “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Vickie Lawrence. Or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by, who was it, Charlie Daniels?

  9. It’s a thread of snapshots more than a real story, but I love Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

    Low hum of voices in the front seat
    Stories nobody knows
    Got folks in Jackson we’re going to meet
    Car wheels on a gravel road
    Cotton fields stretching miles and miles
    Hank’s voice on the radio
    Telephone poles, trees and wires fly on by
    Car wheels on a gravel road
    Broken down shacks engine parts
    Could tell a lie but my heart would know
    Listen to the dogs barkin in the yard
    Car wheels on a gravel road
    Child in the backseat about four or five years
    Lookin out the window
    Little bit of dirt mixed with tears
    Car wheels on a gravel road

  10. “Faroeste Caboclo” is a great epic. I actually considered translating the lyrics and posting the song but it’s way too long.

  11. I guess I’m more mainstream in my listening than some, but I think Dan Fogelberg’s “Auld Lang Syne” is a great story-telling song.

    I once had some high school English students listen to it (I was subbing the week they learned about imagery in writing) and I had them write detailed descriptions of how they imagined the scenes that unfolded (what were they wearing, what color was their hair, what was in the frozen foods section, how heavy was the snowfall, etc.) It worked really well.

  12. Agreed re: Stan Ridgeway. Old 97’s has this gem, a story in a story, that I particularly love:

    “504”:

    I was playing every Monday on Burgundy in some shitty little bar
    I was working on a novel called New Orleans Ain’t No City – It’s a Scar
    The heroine does heroin, the hero wears his hair just like The King
    He says, “It ain’t my job to sweet talk you. My job’s just to sing”
    I was loved once by a woman, she don’t love me anymore 504 504
    And I won’t never know no woman like the one I’d known before 504 504
    And she don’t love me anymore
    Well the hero wears a hair-net,
    from the outset he drinks Jax beer from a can
    He says, “There’s something ’bout this city always gets me
    I’m a sentimental man”
    Well the heroine plays violin and reads her Elmore Leonard everyday
    She’s the one that finds the body, he’s the one that gets away.
    I was loved once by a woman, she don’t love me anymore
    504 504
    And I won’t never know no woman like the one I’d known
    before 504 504
    And she don’t love me anymore.
    You know she had me singing gospel out in the kitchen on
    the floor
    504 504

  13. I had almost completely forgotten about one of the more interesting story ‘songs’ I ever heard. It’s called “No Anchovies Please” by the J. Giles Band. Actually, this might be more of a narration than a song, but here are the words:

    This is the story of a young couple in Portland, Maine. While waiting for her husband Don to return home from work, she reaches for a can of anchovies. As she spreads the tiny fish across a piece of lettuce, she notices a small note at the bottom of the can. Written on it is a
    telephone number. Curious, she dials, and is told, “Don’t move, lady, we’ll be right over.” Placing the phone back on the hook, she turns to see three smartly dressed men standing in her kitchen doorway. Before she realizes
    what is happening to her, she is rolled tightly in long sheets of cellophane, transported to an international airport, and placed on a waiting jet-liner. All this being too much for her to comprehend, she passes out. Upon awakening, she finds herself in a strange, foreign speaking nation (“Dalas nekcihc dna tihs nekcihc neewteb ecnereffid eht wonk ot suineg a ekat t’nseod ti.”). Alone, fearing her escape impossible, she seeks comfort
    in the arms of a confidential agent. With the trace of her kiss still warm upon his lips, he betrays her to the hands of three scientists who are engaged in diabolical, avant-garde experiments previously performed only on
    insects and other small, meaningless creatures. Using her as their subject, they are delighted with the results. For the first time, a human being is transformed into a (“shhh… it’s secret”).

    Meanwhile, back in Portland, Maine…
    Her husband Don, now chain-smoking 40 packs of cigarettes a day, sits at a local bar and has a few beers with the regulars. Bored, everyone’s attention turns to the television set that just hangs from the wall. (“Welcome to Bowling for Dollars”). Suddenly, crazy Al says, “S-say, Don, there sure is something familiar about that bowling ball.” To which a terrified Don replies, “Oh my God! That bowling ball! It’s my wife!”

    And the lesson we learn from this story is, next time you place your order, don’t forget to say, “No anchovies please.”

  14. I’ve heard that every performance by the Dead has a very tight narrative structure, but the same can be said of their songs, too. Friend of the Devil is a quintessential Western vagabond story told in psychedelica, as the drifter recounts his life and wanders from place to place, pursued by past loves, the police, and the Devil himself. It’s a great mix of regret, longing and restlessness that define the Dead and that define the West.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! You could also add Dire Wolf, Black Peter, Terrapin Station, and about 20 more to the list.

  15. Sheesh. 20+ comments in, and no Eagles yet?

    Let me say it, then:

    The Eagles, Hotel freakin’ California. My goodness. What planet am I on? Do I have to do everything? (We know that Steve’s tastes are questionable, but I expect better out of you, Matt and Danithew.) At least someone mentioned Tangled Up in Blue already.

    Also:

    Dan Fogelberg, Same Auld Lang Syne. Thank you, Chad, for mentioning this one. Susan: It’s the one that starts, “Met my old lover at the grocery store; the snow was falling Christmas Ee-ee-eve.” It has some nice lines, and a nice story.

    Don MacLean, American Pie. (Too metaphysical? Nah, there’s a story there.)

    The Eagles, Tequila Sunrise. Damn, that’s a good song.

    Skid Row, 18 and Life. 80s hair rock never gets enough respect.

    Billy freakin’ Joel, Piano Man. How much ^&*% story do ya need? Again, some of the great lines of the time. Damn, and double damn.

    Material Issue, Trouble. Just to prove that I actually do listen to that kind of stuff every now and then, ya know? Besides, it’s got some nice symmetry and repetition.

    Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer. My Lanta, 22 comments in and no one has mentioned Simon and Garfunkel. I should bow out before I start throwing things.

  16. I used to have “No Anchovies, Please” and “Alice’s Restaurant” memorized word for word. I’m pretty sure No Anchovies, Please is the last track on Freeze Frame. I have it on cassette.

    BTD Greg, now I’m going to have to dig out my old Squeeze stuff. Up the Junction is a great pick.

  17. Kaimi, I started to list all the story songs I could think of, and it got ridiculous. There are SO MANY. But since that panty twist is causing you to go into such a hissy-fit, I’ll re-visit the topic and list just some of the ones that I was listing earlier. Most of these artists have more than one (or even many) story songs. As a general rule, a great songwriter can’t have a full career without writing a story song at some point.

    Billy Joel – Scenes From an Italian Restaurant

    Sting – Synchronicity II

    Paul Simon – Graceland

    Pink Floyd – “The Wall” (viewing the album as one continuous semi-autobiographical song)

    The Who – Pinball Wizard

    The Beatles – Rocky Raccoon, A Day In the Life, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Eleanor Rigby

    Bruce Springsteen – Thunder Road

    Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side

    Talking Heads – Stay Up Late

    The Dead Milkmen – Bitchin’ Camaro

    Sheryl Crow – All I Wanna Do

    Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner

    A few have mentioned Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant – it’s almost Thanksgiving, so listen to it

  18. I’m going to pick nits and say that some of the songs being mentioned in the comments aren’t really “story” songs. To be a story, they must have a beginning, middle and an end. Many are simply character sketches (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

  19. Kaimi (#23)

    Hotel California, Piano Man, and The Boxer were three of the earliest story songs I can remember. All three mesmerized me as a kid.

    Other early story songs I remember well are Cat’s in the Cradle and Puff the Magic Dragon. Both songs saddened me.

    Speaking of sad (but beautiful) story songs, nobody has mentioned “Brick” by Ben Folds Five

    6am day after Christmas
    I Throw some clothes on in the dark
    The smell of coal
    Car seat is freezing
    The world is sleeping
    I am numb

    Up the stairs to her apartment
    She is balled out on the couch
    Her mum and dad went down to Charlotte
    They’re not home to find us out

    And we drive
    Now that I’ve found someone
    I’m feeling more alone
    Than I ever had before

    She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly
    Off the coast and I’m headed nowhere
    She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly

    Etc.

  20. BTD Greg, that’s a good point. I’m aware that some of the songs I listed have narrative qualities but are not really stories. Can’t really argue with you there.

  21. On the plane yesterday I hammered out a very quick translation…

    Caboclo Faroeste (Western Mistizo)
    Letter: Renato Russo
    Music: Renato Russo

    “He had no fear, João de Santo Cristo,”
    was what everybody said when he lost himseld.
    He left behind the slow starvation of the farm
    to feel in his blood the hatred that Jesus gave him.

    As a child he only though of being a bandit,
    all the more when a soldier’s bullet killed his father
    he was the terror of his neighborhood
    and in school even the teacher feared him

    He went to church just to steal the money
    that the old ladies put in the altar box
    He felt that he was in fact unique,
    He felt that this wasn’t the place for him

    He wanted to leave to see the sea
    and the things that he saw on television
    He put together money to travel
    And made his own choice, choosing solitude

    Next two lines aren’t appropriate for a family blog and are left untranslated
    Comia todas as menininhas da cidade
    De tanto brincar de médico aos doze era professor

    At fifteen he was sent to the reform school
    Where where his hate grew in the face of so much terror

    He didn’t understand how life worked
    descriminated against because of his class and color
    Tired of trying to find an answer
    He bought a ticket and went direct to Salvador

    And arriving there he went to get coffee
    and found an ox-driver and struck up a conversation
    The ox-driver had a ticket
    And was going to miss his trip but João could take it:

    He said “I am going to Brasilia,
    In this country there is no better place,
    I need to visit my son,
    I’ll stay here and you go in my place ”

    And João accepted his proposal
    And in a bus entered the Central Plateau
    He was overwhelmed by the city
    Leaving the highway he saw the Christmas lights

    “My God what a beautiful city!
    In the New Year I’ll start to work ”
    He cut wood as a carpenter’s apprentice
    He earned one hundred a thousand a month in Taguatinga

    On Friday he went out on the town
    Spent all spend his hard earned cash
    and met many interesting people
    Even a bastard grandson of his great grandfather

    A Peruvian who lived in Bolivia
    who brought many things from there
    His name was Pablo and he said
    That he wanted to start a business

    And Santo Cristo worked himself to death
    but there wasn’t enough money to feed himself
    and he heard at 7 o’clock the news
    that always said the ministry would help

    But he was done with talk
    and decided to cast his lot with Pablo
    He went over his sacred plan one more time
    and without being cruxified he started the plan

    Soon all the crazies of the city
    heard the news
    “He’s got the good stuff!”
    And João de Santo Cristo became rich
    And put an end to all the dealers there

    He made friends, frequented the Asa Norte (North Wing neighborhood of Brasilia)
    and partied hard to free himself
    But along the way
    Under the bad influence of the city boys
    He started to steal

    He screwed up that first robbery
    and went to hell for the first time
    violence and rape of his body
    “You’ll see, I’ll get you!”

    Now Santo Cristo was a bandit
    Held in low esteem and feard in the Distrito Federal (another name for Brasilia, similar to DC for

    Washington)
    He had not fear of the police
    Army captains or dealers, pimps or generals

    It was when he met a girl
    that he repented of all his sins
    Maria Lúcia was a pretty girl
    And Santo Cristo promised her his heart

    He said that he wanted to marry
    And become a carpenter again
    “Maria Lúcia I will always love you
    and wnat to have a child with you”

    Time passes
    And one day a high class gentleman shows up at his door, with money in hand
    And he makes an indecept proposal
    And he wants a reply, a reply from João

    “I won’t put a bomb in a newspaper stand
    or a preschool
    This I will not do

    And I won’t protect any ten star general
    Sitting across the table with money in hand

    It is better that you leave my house
    Never trifle with a Pices rising in Scorpio”

    But before leaving, with hate in his eyes
    the old man says:
    “You’ve forfitted life my brother!”

    “You’ve forfitted life my brother!”
    “You’ve forfitted life my brother!”
    The words will enter the heart
    “I’ll suffer the consequences like a dog!”

    It wasn’t that Santo Cristo was sure
    His future was uncertain
    He didn’t go to work,
    He began to drink in the middle of his binge
    He discovered another working in his place

    He told Pablo that he needed a partner
    that he had money and wanted to arm himself
    Pablo brought the contraband from Bolivia
    Santo Cristo sold it in Planaltina

    But it happened that someone known as Jeremias
    A renowned dealer came on the scene
    He found out about Santo Cristo’s plans
    And decided that he would finish João off

    But Pablo brouht a Winchester 22
    And Santo Cristo already knew how to shoot
    And decided to use the gun only after
    Jeremias began to fight

    Jeremias, shameless pot dealer
    Organized Roconha and everybody danced to his tune
    Raped innocent girls
    And claimed to be an Evangelical but didn’t know how to pray

    And Santo Cristo hadn’t been home for a long time
    and the homesickness became too much to bear,
    “I’m leaving, I’ll find Maria Lúcia,
    It’s time were were married”

    Arriving home he cried
    and went to hell for the second time
    Jeremias married Maria Lúcia
    and gave her a child

    Santo Cristo had only hate in him
    and the he called Jeremias to a duel
    “Tomorrow at two o’clock in Ceilândia,
    In front of block forteen is where you’ll find me

    And you can pick you weapon,
    Because I’ll finish you, you pig traitor
    And I’ll kill Maria Lúcia too,
    That false girl to whom I vowed my love”

    And Santo Cristo didn’t know what to do
    When he saw the television reporter
    That announced the duel on TV
    Telling the time, place, and reason

    On Saturday then, at two o’clock
    Everyone went without delay
    Just to watch

    A man who shot him in the back
    And hit Santo Cristo
    And began to smile

    Feeling the blood in his throat
    João looked into the stands
    And saw the people applaud
    And saw the ice cream truck
    And the cameras, and the TV people that filmed it all

    And he remembered when he was a child
    And all he had lived until now
    And decided to enter the dance for the last time
    “My suffering has become a circus, here I am”

    And at that the sun blinded his eye
    And he recognized Maria Lúcia
    She brought the Winchester 22
    The weapon his cousin Pablo had given him

    “Jeremias, I am a man, something you are not
    And no, I will not shoot you in the back
    Look over here you shameless son of a bitch
    Take a glance at my blood,
    and come feel your pardon”

    And Santo Cristo, with the Winchester 22
    Put five shoting in that bandit traitor
    Maria Lúcia then repented
    and died together with João her protector

    The people declared that João de Santo Cristo
    Was a saint because he knew how to die
    And the bourgeois of the city didn’t believe the story
    That they saw on TV

    And João didn’t accomplish what he desired like the devil
    When he came to Brasilias
    What he wanted was to speak to the president
    To help all the people that

    Suffer

  22. There’s a beautiful, sad bachata song (spanish-language, merengue-like dance music) that was popular a few years back. It’s called Hoja en Blanco — “The Blank Page.”

    Here’s a quick translation:

    Him: It was impossible to get you out of my mind.
    It was impossible to forget that I once loved you.

    Her: So much time had passed since he day you left
    And I know, farewells are so sad.
    I never dreamed that the train would take with it
    The dreams and promises we shared in our youth.

    You kept you feelings in your suitcase
    Tried to comfort me, toldd me you loved me
    And then, I heard nothing more about your life
    I never knew if you were coming back some day
    Friends in town asked if you were returning
    And I cried, and couldn’t answer.

    Him: And then yesterday, I returned to my town
    And someone told me that you were married
    Look at me, and tell me that you’ve forgotten me
    And I’ll leave, with tears in my eyes.

    And I asked the moon
    And she turned away and tried to hide
    Even the moon knows that you loved me once
    Even the moon knows that you still do

    Chorus:
    Him: So fly away, fly another path
    Go and dream that the world is yours.
    Her: You can’t dream of me, anymore
    But I will be dreaming of you.
    (end chorus)

    Her: It’s so sad to tell you to forget about me
    That another love is in my life, I don’t love you

    Him: It’s too late, and I cant’ deny that I’m dying
    But my I can’t stop the words, telling you
    That I’ll dream about you forever when I close my eyes
    That my sad night songs will be for you
    That I’ll cry when I remember that I’m alone
    And you’re sleeping in another man’s arms.

    I wonder if you still reflect part of my life
    If in your memory, our love from so long ago still lives
    A man who has loved you since you were a girl
    Who cries because the love of his life married someone else.

    Her: It’s sad watching the train leave
    In it goes the best of your life
    Tell me why you left
    Why did you leave, and such pain left behind?

    Then one day I got a letter from you
    I wanted to read it, and it was a blank page
    And I didn’t know anything about you
    How is it that you can ask if I still love you?

    (Chorus)

  23. but Kaimi, you’re not making the connection here. Narrative songs =/= sappy songs. The storytelling element in the one you cite is a marginal element — the song isn’t about the story at all.

  24. BTD Greg (#28),
    The original title of the post was “Great Narrative Songs,” which is much broader and does include songs that don’t necessarly have the structure of a story but do narrate some event or occurrence. My pick, “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” doesn’t really fit as a story song I don’t think. It’s more of a kick-ass vignette song.

  25. Steve,

    Yeah, as I was doing my on-the-fly translation, I found myself thinking, this one does sound pretty lame in English, doesn’t it? Too many Spanish phrases translate easily into bland English (and the reverse). Well, listening in Spanish, I was kinda saddened by the blank-page ending.

    Okay, let me (try to) redeem myself with an Arjona song, if I can. Arjona is truly one of the masters of Spanish-language pop-rock. Great voice; catchy hooks; and above all, really good lyrics.

    This one is full of Spanish slang and is a pain to translate, but worth it, because it’s funny as hell.

    Arjona – The night surprises you

    She walked in to Don Pedro’s bar with her boyfriend at her side
    Black miniskirt, and a neckline that assumes a tan
    What are you thinking, girl, bringing your boyrfriend to these parts?
    At the bar, the bets were starting
    “A hundred says you can’t get her” said a guy at the bar
    And we shook hands on the bet

    There was a backstory that the guy at the bar didn’t know
    And that was that the supposed boyfriend was actually gay
    So I walked up to the queen, and proposed a deal
    seventeen seconds later, he was my co-conspirator
    I told him, that guy on the corner is gay, too
    And I pointed at the guy at the bar

    The night surprises you, like it surprised the guy at the bar
    He turned towards the bar, and my co-conspuirator was caressing his hand
    Meanwhile I had the open field and felt like Robert Redford
    But the story doesn’t end there.

    I threw her my best lines, complimented her clothes,
    Making macho gestures, ordering a drink,
    I told her the same thing as always, I’m falling in love,
    Come with me and let’s discuss it tonight as we sweat
    And she said, sorry, I’m not looking for a guy
    I’m into women.

    The night surprises you, like it surprised me when I tried
    You think you’re king of the world, and it leaves you with surprise on your face
    Meanwhile, my co-conspirator was still pursuing the guy at the bar
    And the story doesn’t end here.

    So, she hooked up with a girl there, and my co-conspirator took off with one of the waiters,
    I had another tequila, and the guy at the bar filled up the ashtray
    And we swore not to bet any more on uncertain loves
    And here, the story ends.

    Hmm, not all that pleased with that translation either. A lot of the really funny lines just don’t sound as funny in English, or require lots of words. “a neckline that assumes a tan” for instance, which is a great image,is way too wordy in English; it’s a much smoother three words in the song.

  26. Why am I not surprised that “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman hasn’t come up yet?

    It is one of the most ubiquitous “story” songs found in pop culture and yet (perhaps because it was ubiquitous — but I wonder if there are other factors) I’m totally sick of it.

  27. We were talking about this and can’t come up with much better than Rocky Raccoon although I think A Boy Named Sue is up there. I like the way in Rocky that the hero ends up dead!

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