Throwaway Lines Often Ring True

Ten song lyrics that remain open to interpretation

Ian Dury on the cover of the single for “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” (Image: Stiff Records)

We know many songs mean certain things when taken in their entirety.

We know what Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” concerns, what Mick Jagger’s saying in the Rolling Stones “Satisfaction,” what kind of teen angst The Who’s Roger Daltrey is singing about in “I Can’t Explain.” We listen to songs and opine, internally or externally, that it’s about something. At least a song with lyrics. 

Often, a song can (and should) mean different things to different people. Everything’s open to interpretation and in Lester Bangs’s famous declaration (and I’m paraphrasing): “A song means what you want it to mean.” I’m not quite sure I buy that – there were skinheads who took Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor” literally and some interpretations you’ll find online seem wildly off-base – but I think we can agree here that there can be a myriad of valid interpretations.

But besides the song, what about specific lines, some taken in context and some out of context? Those can have especial impact, too. Some are heat-seeking zingers wrapped into a chorus; others lay low, buried in a verse – some of these lyrics that stick are not even the main thrust of the song, but a bit of wit or insight that lodges in your brain. And, furthermore, those stray lines can influence and affect your way of looking at life, or as Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle suggests in “Harmony in My Head,” the obviousness of “life’s little ironies.” An awakening of sorts.   

The late, great critic Ellen Willis wrote a sharp essay years ago about discovering she wasn’t allowing just rock ‘n’ roll songs shape her more worldview. That eureka moment she had that you could gather insight from other sources, like, say books. Seems obvious, maybe, but it struck a chord – there’s plenty of outside sources to process and plenty of wisdom outside the world of music. Hopefully, nobody gleans all their emotional or philosophical outlook from rock lyrics.

But it’s fair to say, in my case at least, certain lyrics from over 50+ years of listening have leapt out and become internalized, a part of who I am. I might spout them on odd occasions, appropriate or not. These lyrics may have crystallized thoughts I’d had already but never been able to unearth or express. Or they have provoked deeper thought on an idea you already had kicking about. They may have solidified an idea and given you a boost: “Someone else – a rocker I respect, no less! – feels the way that I do now.” (Uh-oh, I think I just scraped up against Oasis’s “Wonderwall.”)

I’m guessing you may have your list, too. (Or you may start one after reading this.) Given the time and space, I could probably drop a few dozen more that have made a difference, but for brevity’s sake, here are a current top ten.

 

1. “They will try their tricky device/Trap you with the ordinary” – Ian Dury and the Blockheads, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.”

About conformity and how it’s forced upon you, the trickiness society employs and the trap it sets. Be aware, always, of the ordinary, the routine expectations, and don’t settle for it. It’s a pressure we all face. Dury was a clever bastard and he nailed it here.

 

AUDIO: Ian Dury and The Blockheads “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”

 

2. “Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown/Waiting for someone or something to show you the way” – Pink Floyd, “Time”

I got Dark Side of the Moon when I was a junior in high school and took to it immediately. It expanded my mind, immeasurably. (Sure, there was pot, it wasn’t all about that.) There are numerous themes running through the album, but one thing that kicked in most deeply was this fear. Of inertia. Of never leaving the home town. Of doing what so many older friends had done, becoming “townies,” working whatever job and staying local. Of being afraid to strike out on my own.

 

AUDIO: Pink Floyd “Time”

 

3. “In the morning, things that you worried about last night/Will seem lighter” – “For Your Pleasure,” Roxy Music.

This got to me many years ago and helped soothe my thoughts during many a troubling night. And Bryan Ferry was right. Most of the time, those things that perplexed or depressed you in the wee hours, tended to dissipate about the dawn of a new day. Not always, but often.

 

AUDIO: Roxy Music “For Your Pleasure”

 

4. “Anyone who played a part wouldn’t turn round and hate it’ – “Sweet Jane,” Lou Reed/Velvet Underground.

It made me think that certainly, there had to be satisfaction in mastering a part – in a play, in a band, in whatever you do in your day-to-day routine even – and trying to better it time after time. But wasn’t there also, sometimes, a sense of creeping drudgery, of Groundhog Day-like monotony? Oh, this again? Didn’t even the best parts have a shelf-life? You’d been there and done it, and here you were doing it again.

 

AUDIO: The Velvet Underground “Sweet Jane”

 

5. “I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor and when I die, I expect to find him laughing– “Blasphemous Rumours,” Depeche Mode I moved away from the Catholicism I grew up with when I was in my mid-teens and have identified as agnostic-verging-on-atheist for decades. But when the notion of “God” creeps into my mind – it’s hard to drum this completely out – and you think maybe he’s up there, this is what I think may be doing. You know, considering how it ends for us all. 

 

VIDEO: Depeche Mode “Blasphemous Rumours”

 

6. “Throwaway lines often ring true” “Out of the Blue,” Roxy Music (again, sorry). Kinda meta. I’m not certain if it’s throwaway line in the song, but if so it’s a clever use of such and it made me think about my own throwaway lines or those tossed my way. There often was deeper meaning or more emotion that was conveyed on the surface. Because the thought was couched in unimportance, we said it (or received it) without much thought. But step back a bit and you realize: Yes, Ferry’s right again.

 

VIDEO: Roxy Music performs “Out of the Blue” at the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert

 

7. “And just when I think that I’m free of you/I keep seeing the things that remind me of you/And just when I think you’re out of my head/ I hear a song that you sang or see a book that you read/Then you’re in every bar, you’re in every café/You’re driving every car, I see you every day/But you’re not really there ‘cos you belong to yesterday” – “No More Looking Back” – The Kinks  

Okay, this is more that a snippet. The song is a buried album track, but one of the Kinks’ best songs of the ‘70s and overall, it’s about fighting that urge, the ineffable pull to back to a place, time or lover that made you happy – and exists now only in your head. It’s a strong temptation and it’s never been so evocatively put as Ray Davies does here.

 

AUDIO: The Kinks “No More Looking Back”

 

8. “Backwater, there were six of us, but now we are five/We’re all talking to keep the conversation alive” – Brian Eno, “Backwater”

It’s the second line I’m talking about; the first is a set-up. How often you been at dinner or at a party and, agonizingly bored (but inherently polite), you engage it low-level banter for the sole purpose of … keeping the conversation alive. I’d never thought of it quite that way until I heard Eno’s bit of wit back in the early ‘70s – and Lord knows, there’s much more (Eno wit) where that came from. 

 

AUDIO: Brian Eno “Backwater”

 

Whispers in the shadows, gruff blazing voices…

 

9. “Hating, waiting/’Hey boy’ they shout, ‘Have you got any money?’/And I say, ‘I’ve a little money and a takeaway curry/I’m on my way home to my wife/She’ll be lining up the cutlery, you know she’s expecting me” – The Jam, “Down at the Tube Station at Midnight”

The vivid song, which still brings little chills, casts Paul Weller as this victim, alone on a subway platform, accosted by thugs, ultimately mugged, with the scumbags grabbing his keys – and maybe headed to his home to accost his wife. Thankfully, I’ve not been in that situation, much as Weller’s song puts me in the thick of it. The “home to my wife” line that resonated one night, as I was alone and taking the subway home: I was indeed going home to my wife. I got married rather late in life, I suppose, and it was the first time this song entered my head after I’d been married. And it made me well up with tears. As I later told my wife.

 

AUDIO: The Jam “Down at the Tube Station at Midnight”

 

10. “Not the best of men, but ours.” David Bowie, “Cygnet Committee”

The song, reportedly, is about some massive betrayal young Bowie encountered, from someone (or some body)) he trusted. This little line stood out for me in the midst of that epic whirlwind. We’ve all had those people in our circle (or corner, if you wish), someone you realize is deeply flawed but, yet, is (or seems) supportive, helpful. Maybe it’s a temporary thing and maybe the worst will come, but you value – with some trepidation – the connection.

 

AUDIO: David Bowie “Cygnet Committee” 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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