Thursday, December 5, 2013

Top 20 Opening Lines to Songs (10-1)

Welcome back to the second half of the countdown of the "Top 20 Opening Lines to Songs". In part one there were the weirdos, the ragers, and the whispers, and part two isn't going to be any different. Here again you'll find some iconic lines intermingling with a few oddballs that deserve your attention. But before we dive back into the list, let's backtrack to numbers 20 through 11. If you haven't read the first half here, do that first and then reconvene for the final 10. With that said, let's get on with it. 

20. "Oceanographer's Choice"- The Mountain Goats
19. "Wouldn't It Be Nice"- The Beach Boys
18. "Criminal"- Fiona Apple
17. "Bastard"- Tyler, the Creator
16. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"- Neil Young
15. "Space Oddity"- David Bowie
14. "Imagine"- John Lennon
13. "Sympathy for the Devil"- The Rolling Stones
12. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"- The Beatles
11. "Buddy Holly"- Weezer

10. "Heroin"- The Velvet Underground
"I don't know just where I'm going."

I'll admit a small part of "Heroin"s appearance on this list is due to Lou Reed's recent passing. Still, if Lou had lived for another 100 years, this song would probably make the cut. Originally written by Reed in 1965, "Heroin" captures the spirit of a confused 23 year old kid. It's right there in the opening line, "I don't know". "Heroin" prominently figures into the equation of course, but the squelching guitar solos it inspires only obfuscate that original sentiment. A crestfallen Reed encounters "sweet girls with all their sweet talk" and wishes he was "born a thousand years ago today", but none of that wishing can stymie the uncertainty which plods right along with the strumming guitar. Even that aforementioned guitar part and John Cale's shrieking viola can't wrest the doubt out of Reed's mind. After the final ringing of arpeggiated chords, Reed delivers one final time "I guess I just don't know". The only thing he knows is that he knows nothing at all.

9. "Thunder Road"- Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band

"The screen door slams and Mary's dress waves."

 Just as in part one I wrote no lyrics list would be complete without an appearance from the Mountain Goats John Darnielle, the same can be said of New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen. The ultimate rock music champion of the working man, Springsteen's early narratives spoke of the glory of America. Not on some jingoistic, flag-waving level; in character studies. His first two records were littered with fortune-tellers waiting down on the pier, local jokers, and young romantics making love in the dirt. To Springsteen, the nation's greatest resource wasn't the golden valleys or the military might, the greatest resource was the people. Those people began wild and free, but by the time Born to Run rolled around in 1975, they were itching for something more. 

Springsteen's last ditch effort at stardom, Born to Run is rife with the desire to just pack up and leave, to put all your troubles in the rearview as you barrel down the highway at 90 MPH. The troubles hadn't reached the harrowing depths of Nebraska quite yet, though disappointment had crept in. In "Thunder Road" the ghosts of "boys sent away" haunt skeleton "frames of burnt out Chevrolets". The only praying is done in vain. There's a lone chance left. That waving dress of Mary's hangs out of reach, as the narrator pleads "don't run back inside". Soundtracking the couple's flight from a "town full of losers" is Orbison's "Only the Lonely", foreshadowing the darkness that loomed just over the horizon. The door flung wide open for Springsteen after Born to Run's success, while slowly closing on his characters.

8. "Anarchy in the U.K."- The Sex Pistols

"I am an Antichrist, I am an anarchist."

Anti-religion. Anti-government. Anti-capitalism. Anti-dinosaur-rock. An easier list to make for the furious and filthy Sex Pistols is what they actually stood for. The Ramones expressed the rebellious spirit of punk with "Blitzkrieg Bop", but this was something else entirely. Their rousing "hey-oh let's go" chant sounded tame compared to John Lyndon's caterwauling. Rebellion seemed real when the Sex Pistols emerged on the scene with "Anarchy in the U.K.". If Buckingham Palace had burned down on November 27th, 1976 (the day after the single dropped), authorities had the perpetrators' manifesto blaring over the airwaves. Lydon/Jones/Matlock/and Cook (Sid Vicious had a lone appearance on "Bodies") don't simply sound frustrated, they sound "pissed". You can picture a bloodlust overtaking Lydon's face as the band creates an unholy racket behind him. Passersby won't be spared, and forget the future, it's all a scheme. The band was living moment-to-moment and after three turbulent years that life came to an abrupt ended. More the anything, the band's short existence proved anarchy can't be contained.

7. " The Sound(s) of Silence"- Simon & Garfunkel



"Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again." 

Some time back in my "I hate everything" high-school days, I can recall an afternoon spent cooped up in my room as a particularly dour playlist wafted out of my computer speakers. Apparently "fed up" with such wallowing music, my father poked his head in and politely asked "don't you have anything less depressing to play?" I nodded and then clicked on "The Sound of Silence" to let it play. When that bone-chilling opener wafted into the air, my dad rather comically said "that's better". Knowing little of Simon & Garfunkel's discography, I can't blame him for the mistake. Delivered in an angelic whisper, nothing about Simon's calm voice suggests unfathomable pain. Darkness isn't some stranger or a mere acquaintance; it's an "old friend". It's sought out as if there's nothing else.

Written in part as a recollection of the still fresh Kennedy assassination, Simon penned the opening line after fumbling with his guitar in his bathroom with the lights off and the faucet running. And out of that innocent moment came the song the duo would refer to as "more than either of us expected." Despite such profound despair, where silence grows like cancer, a reworked full-band version of the song found a home on commercial radio. So popular was "The Sound of Silence" that when director Mike Nichols and editor Sam O'Steen needed a song to illustrate Benjamin Braddock's post-college existential dread in The Graduate, they turned to the track. As Braddock wearily rode the automated walkway, the silent raindrops of the track pitter-pattered. Surrounded by fellow travelers, it was clear he was all alone. And in the madcap party scene, Braddock's experience reflected the song. He attempted to share his plans, only to be cut off by talk of "plastics". He was talking, but no one was listening.

6. "F*** tha Police"- N.W.A.

"F*** the police coming straight from the underground, a young n**** got it bad cause I'm brown."

Call order in the courtroom all you'd like, nothing about this protest track is civil in its disobedience. In all of rap music, few statements have ever been so effusive and damning as the opening line of the seminal "F*** tha Police". 1988 in hip-hop was a year defined by the righteous anger of Public Enemy and their desire to "Bring the Noise". Nothing about "F*** tha Police" is righteous or holy. The Compton crew doesn't want to see abusive cops off the force; they want them led to slaughter like pigs. The song was the embodiment of the 1968 Kerner Commission which warned "our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white-- separate and unequal".

Critics of the song and the album as a whole came out in droves. Finally they had their hip-hop boogie man. The F.B.I. wasted no time in condemning the group for "encouraging violence and disrespect towards law enforcement". Assuming these are just local hoodlums is a tremendous mistake. Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E are hip-hop journalists; giving a first-hand account of what they've seen. One of the Society of Professional Journalism's tenets is to expose unethical practices, and when Ice Cube recounts being stopped simply for "being brown", he's performing his journalistic duty. Many journalists themselves had failed to report on the police state that been allowed to grow in inner-city L.A., resulting in thousands of arrests. Instead, they opted to pigeonhole Straight Outta Compton as a racist/sexist/violent diatribe. N.W.A.'s vindication came in 1992, when seemingly everything they predicted came to pass with the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots. After that, if you still scoff at their press credentials or the profanity laced APB they put out, you might just be the "redneck, white-bread, chicken-s*** motherf***er" Dre warned of.

5. "Hurt"- Nine Inch Nails

"I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel".

Welcome to the downward spiral or better yet, the bottoming out. Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor's second album as Nine Inch Nails was an audible suicide watch and closer "Hurt" became the flat-lining. This isn't a suicide that burns away, that wouldn't be punishing enough. It's a self-inflicted bloodletting where every droplet pouring out should signal the end, but doesn't.  Here we have immolation that refuses to cease.

Even for Reznor's nihilistic catalog, "Hurt" is oppressively bleak. Putting "Hurt" on ensures you'll drift into dark thoughts no matter what your disposition is. That said, "Hurt" is in no way relatable.We're given a narrator who wants nothing more than to shuffle his mortal coil and cruelly he's the last one bound to it. Every familiar face he can remember slowly fades from memory. Drugs masquerade as an escape, but in turning to the needle, the narrator further digs further into an "empire of dirt". Now the pain he chased as sweet release is gone, numbed by the heroin coursing through his veins. A lone clatter of noise can't snap the subject out of it and the final seconds of "Hurt" float on in ambient feedback. Feeling nothing at all is the worst thing in the world, but not for reasons you'd think.


4. "Travelin' Band"- Creedence Clearwater Revival

"737 coming out of the sky."

When I was younger, anytime I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival's effortlessly shuffling "Down on the Corner" I never had any idea what John Fogerty was saying in that bayou-affectation of his during the chorus. Hearing CCR's life-on-the-road chronicle "Travelin' Band" for the first time, I had no such problem. Even delivered in a snarl, it's clear what Fogerty is saying when the entire band screeches to a halt for the opening line. This isn't some idyllic picture of a band traveling through the countryside, peering out their bus windows and admiring the scenery. What we have here is pure chaos. That airline may as well be in freefall. "Hit something hard" you can picture Fogerty telling the doomed pilot. The livewire narrative presented here is less shuffling to the next gig and more sprinting. "I wanna move" Fogerty flatly declares. Tour-life can be hell and staying in one hotel room or city too long can become purgatory. You lose your luggage along with your mind. Fogerty captures this perfectly when he wails before a mid-song solo break that swelters as much as any CCR solo. The monotony of playing again Saturday night is getting to him and he's doing everything to rage against it. Rest assured, when that 737 touches down on the tarmac Fogerty will be the first one off the flight.


3. "Loser"- Beck

"In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey."

In the land of the non-sequiturs, this one reigns supreme. "Butane in my veins so I'm out to cut the junkie." "Get right with the Cheeze Whiz." "Saving all your food-stamps and burning down the trailer park." Trading "the cash for the beef for the body for the hate." Beck's 1993 hit single "Loser" stockpiles all of these bizarre utterances as some form of slacker currency. The delta-blues slide guitar riff screams product of the people. Beck though seems to have come from an alien race where everyone knows what "beefcake pantyhose is" and time is just a "piece of wax fallin' on a termite that's chokin on the splinters." To most listeners, he may as well being speaking the "Deutsches"  He's confessed to much of it being "accidental", but that chorus arrives too fully formed to have happened by chance. Any 90s kid knows at least one line of Spanish courtesy of this song, "soy un perdedor", translation: "I'm a loser." He cops to being less evolved than the rest of us in that opening line. But, what lower form of life would ever dream of blending laconic rapping, delta-blues, drum loops, and droning sitar together? "Daytime crap of a folksinger slob" this is not; Beck's on a whole other level. It's fine if none of this makes sense to you, just know "you can't write if you can't relate."

2. "Gloria"- Patti Smith

"Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."

Go and find a better line to open the first song on an artist's first album than this. I'll wait as long as you'd like and still you'll come back empty-handed. They don't exist. Smith may have fooled major-label Arista into thinking she had pop-leanings by including a doleful piano part, but that opening proclamation is pure punk-rock. She's been presented with a free gift and she outright rejects it. Dubbing yourself "Lucifer" or saying you're the "Antichrist" is so passé. Anyone who's picked up a Bible knows the devil and the Antichrist exist. Much rarer is the story of someone being completely skipped over by God's saving grace. Being the forgotten is much more memorable.

In being abandoned, Smith is free to do as she pleases. Now "anything's allowed" she relays in her Tom Verlaine yelp. If she's bored by the party she's at, she can leave to chat up the sweet young thing she spies "leanin on the parking meter." G-L-O-R-I-A remains her name. Van Morrison's original take had all the trappings of a sexually frustrated teenage boy waiting to end his dry spell and Gloria marked the end. To an ecstatic Smith, this urban Isis walking down the street is the beginning. She wants to take the big plunge with her when the jagged guitars are at their most fractured; "make her mine" in an eternal sense. It won't be easy, that "thick heart of stone" is wearing her down. Those sins she's made her own are a heavy burden. She'll be alright though; they're just rules and regulations after all.


1. "All Along the Watchtower"- Bob Dylan

" 'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief."

He started in the middle. Without any context, the Sphinx-like Bob Dylan drops us smack dab in the midst of the action. Instead of beginning at Genesis or working back from the Book of Revelation, he plunges us somewhere in Isaiah. Like the two lead characters, we're forced to fight our way out to find any meaning, its sink or swim from word one. The confusion they feel runs rampant in the mind of anyone trying to make sense of all of this. Where's all this confusion coming from? What has happened to cause such calamity?

One suggestion from the commonalities between the John Wesley Harding track and Isaiah is that Dylan's mysterious tale concerns the fall of Babylon. Our fabled leads are on their way back to tell the Israelites that a great evil is no more. Something about the conversation we're privy to says this is not the case. Nothing in their tones is the slightest bit celebratory. "There are many here among us that feel that life is but a joke" the thief relays in the second verse. There's no warmth in their souls, plowmen have dug up their earth and without any land they're trapped outside in the cold. Now outsiders, they can't trust anyone, least of all each other. A psychological danger lingering in the corner of their mind is far more worrisome than the growl of a wildcat. Meanwhile, Dylan's harmonica is setting us up for some grand conclusion. An unalterable fate neither of them can ever come back from. And then, he affixes upon a distant image "two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl" he hails in his nasal whine. Like that we're back at the start with the joker and thief and seemingly nothing has happened. In crafting this circular narrative, Dylan reminds us all we're doomed to repeat ourselves. There's no way out.


I hope everyone enjoined the list. If you think something is too high or too low or some grand omission was made, feel free to say so in the comment section.              

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