List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 2

2. Christmas In Cape Town—by Randy Newman.

This is possibly the darkest, ugliest song that Randy Newman has ever written, and he’s written some ugly ones.

Consider yourself warned: Listen.

The thing you have to understand about Randy Newman, though, is that he often writes songs from the viewpoint of despicable characters—polar opposites from the way he feels—to get his point across.  This song, about a bigoted white South African who sees his country going through changes he doesn’t like, could not be more bleak. The protagonist describes the locals lining up for work at the diamond mine: “They were staring at us real hard with their big ugly yellow eyes. You could feel it. This time you could feel it.”

“What we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” he asks at the end.

The song reeks of desperation.

Which will seem strange, when you consider what I associate it with in this list of “story songs.”

On September 22, 1984, I ran in the Busch Stadium Run in St. Louis. It was a 10K (6.2 miles) that wound through the streets of downtown, starting outside the stadium and finishing inside on the field near second base. Another twist on this race was that it had a staggered start; the very old and very young would start first, and then, in 30-second increments, other age groups would start, women before men, until it was the mid-20s guys like me starting last; the idea was that, in theory, everyone would have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first. The upshot was that for me, young and healthy and in shape (those were the days, eh?), I was starting at the back of this pack of hundreds of people, and so for the entire race, I was catching people and passing them. For a runner in a race, that’s almost the perfect definition of fun.

Like most runners, before a big race, I’ll generally focus on a particular song, and listen to that song right before the race so it’s still in my head while I’m running. Now, there’s no way that I would have picked a song like Christmas in Cape Town for that purpose. What probably happened was that I was planning on running to Newman’s  “I Love L.A.,” a considerably more upbeat song, which is the first track on the album Trouble In Paradise. But something happened; either I lingered in the car a little too long and the cassette went on to the second track—which is Christmas in Cape Town—or I just made the jump in my mind. In any case, as I ran the race, it was that darkest-of-dark songs that was playing in my brain.

To add to the mood, it was raining; that was one of the few races I’ve taken part in that was actually run in a steady downpour.

But here’s the thing: after I’d watched all the older and younger and female-er runners start ahead of me, and I got to start with all of my prime-of-life compatriots, something clicked. Suddenly, I was really enjoying myself. And Randy Newman’s song, although dark in tone, seemed somehow to be the perfect tempo for my mood. I started reeling in the runners ahead of me, a dozen at a time. The rain? Sure, I was wet. But once I was wet, I wasn’t getting any wetter, so why not just keep running?

And the running felt great. Joyous, really. Puddles, crowds: nothing bothered me as I glided through the St. Louis streets on my way back to the stadium. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 25 years old, I really was in the athletic prime of my life. Actually, that day, I probably did realize it. I finished the race in 38:05, which was probably a minute faster than any previous 10K I’d run up to that point, and it still stands as my fastest 10K ever.*

So now when I hear the song Christmas in Cape Town, I’m not thinking about South Africa or Apartheid. Definitely not about Christmas. I’m thinking about that long-ago September morning, when nothing was slowing me down.

List: Top Five Story Songs—No. 5

“You see, I knew that song so long before we met,
that it means so much more than it might”
—Elvis Costello, King Horse

Elvis is onto something here, I think. There are certain songs that take on meanings that are far beyond whatever the songs are “about.”

Surely everybody has their own songs like this, songs that call up their own associations, their own stories, when you hear them. Here, with the usual caveats, are some of mine.

And I’m going to abandon the regular format for this list, since a couple of these are going to be long enough that it would be a nightmare to have them all in one post. So, for the next five days, it’ll be one Story Song a day on Shoulblog. Starting with Number…

5. For What It’s Worth-Buffalo Springfield.

Of the five songs you’ll see on this list, this is probably the only one that most people will recognize. For my part, I knew of the song for years before I ever heard the Buffalo Springfield version. In those days, as a little kid, my exposure to music was mainly from my older brothers, Phil and Jim. I had a little transistor radio, but I would have mostly listened to sports on it, more than music. My brothers were six and eight years older than me—a whole generation, at that age—and what little I knew about music, I learned by hearing from them.

One summer, while we were on our annual vacation at Gull Lake in Minnesota, we were hanging out on the porch of the cabin we stayed in — it was the three of us, plus our cousin Bruce. Jim had a guitar, as he usually did in those days. After a while, he started playing this song, which I’d never heard before. Phil and Bruce joined in vocals. I contributed by turning on a cassette tape recorder we had. There was a fly in the room; Phil or Bruce tried to slay it by clapping his hands at it, and the clap turned out to be right in time with the song, so he kept clapping.

And that, for me was the definitive version of the song. I held onto that cassette for a long time, and it was years before I heard the actual original. That tape is long gone now, of course, but still, today, when I hear Buffalo Springfield’s version on the radio, it takes me back to that decades-ago night at Gull Lake.

“Stop, hey, what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s goin’ down…”

*****

A note for the ya-learn-something-new-every-day-from-Wikipedia file: I had always thought this song was written in reaction to the Kent State shootings. In fact, it was written about protests of a local curfew in Los Angeles in 1966—a full four years before the Kent State tragedy.

Lyrics In Exile

One of my favorite lines from a music review comes from way back in 1977, after Linda Ronstadt released the Simple Dreams album. About her version of the Rolling Stones’ song Tumbling Dice, the reviewer wrote something to the effect that “the lyrics meant so much more when when we couldn’t understand them.”

I’ve thought about that line a bit lately, as Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ album where Tumbling Dice appeared, has been in pretty much constant play in my car for the last few weeks. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it has been at least three decades since I last gave Simple Dreams a spin.)

The lyrics throughout Exile on Main Street are for the most part unintelligible, even more so than on most Rolling Stones albums. But for me, they gain more and more meaning every time I listen to the disc. It is by far the most deeply felt album they put out, but that comes through more in the music than in the words, such as they are. It is impossible to listen to Let It Loose, for example, and be unchanged by the experience. But I’ll bet I couldn’t tell you half the lyrics to that song … let alone what it’s “about.”

I’m more or less a word guy. I spend a lot of my life either writing, reading or editing. But oddly enough, song lyrics generally aren’t that important to me. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure them out, and even if they are printed in the album notes or somewhere, it’s rare that I’ll actually go and read them. If there’s a song I like, it’s almost always because of the music, not the words.

So in general, I’d have to agree with that reviewer from three-plus decades ago; sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough alone.

*****

A very personal postscript: in December of 1977, I came home for winter break after my first semester of college. My brother Jim came home as well, from wherever he was living at that time. We had a cheap old stereo, but little music to speak of. Our other brother, Phil, who was by then living in an apartment, let Jim pick out a few albums for us to listen to during the break. Exile on Main Street was one of them, but they also included such other classics as Who’s Next, Songs in the Key of Life, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, and a few others. I was vaguely familiar with some of them, but most of what I had been listening to in those days was stuff like Boston, REO Speedwagon, the aforementioned Linda Rondstadt, etc. That handful of music courtesy of my two older brothers brought about a lifetime change in my listening habits. Each of those albums would be included on any list I would make of the greatest records of all time.  I latched onto Who’s Next, of course, and it instantly became my favorite album … and still is. I’m certain I didn’t care for Exile on Main Street that much at the time; it’s not a record that allows itself to be discovered easily. But over time, the music becomes more and more  a part of you, no matter what the words may say.