“Closing time, one last call for alcohol/So, finish your whiskey or beer/Closing time, you don’t have to go home/But you can’t stay here.” You couldn’t go a week in 1998 without hearing Semisonic’s second big single. It was nominated for Billboard Music Award for Modern Rock Track of the Year. One wonders if the people who nominated it knew it was about drunks in a bar, it was about a baby. My name…
There came a time in the early 90’s when the band REM challenged themselves to do an album with a faster, harder sound and only electric instruments–no acoustic guitars, no mandolins, which they were fond of, no nothing. Whether or not that was really a challenge, you couldn’t argue with the results, 1993’s Monster. The first song on the album and the first single released, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is exactly the sort of thing we’re talking about today–the strange and surprising origins of songs.
Back in the days before on-demand digital video, back even before the wide proliferation of cable TV, the nightly news on the big three networks was what you watched. It was Peter Jenning, Tom Brockaw, or Dan Rather, the latter of which was walking to his apartment along Park Ave in NY on an October night in 1986. He also have a savage twitter game, but that’s neither here nor there. As he neared his building’s entrance, a pair of well-dressed men approached him. One asked, “What is the frequency, Kenneth?” Rather replied, “You must be mistaking me for someone else . . .” Hopefully it was all he meant to say, because it was all he got to. The man knocked Rather to the ground, kicked and punched him [sfx], all the while repeating the same strange question. The doorman and the building’s super heard Rather call for help and the assailants fled when the two rescuers arrived. The police took Rather’s statement, but they didn’t have anything substantive to go on. No one was ever arrested and no one could explain who Kenneth was or what the frequency might have been.
Sure it was weird, but people get mugged every day. Keep your hands inside the car at all times, because the truly bizarre is still to come. Eight years later, in 1994, a North Carolina man named William Tager took an assault rifle to the studio where NBC films the Today Show. He would later tell police that NBC had been monitoring him for years and beaming secret messages into his head. He’d gone down there to stop them, one way or another. A studio technician tried to stop Tager and was sadly killed, for which Tager would be sentenced to 15-25 years in Sing Sing. In prison, he told the psychiatrist something that was both a clear sign of delusion and an amazing story prompt — Tager was in fact a time traveler from 2265, from a world parallel to our own. He was also a convicted felon there and had been given the chance to test-pilot the dangerous time travel device, and his sentence would be lifted, if he lived. The authorities in the future had kept an eye on him via a chip in his brain. In one session, Trager confessed to the attack on Dan Rather because he had mistaken Rather for the Vice President of his future world, Kenneth Burrows. Rather confirmed from a picture of Tager that that was the man who attacked him.
That’s still not the weirdest part. In 1995, two years after REM’s album Monster came out, smack between Tager crime and his conviction, Dan Rather joined the band on stage in New York to “sing” along on the song. It’s in the show notes; you be the judge. It’s definitely cringey. REM singer Michael Stipe described the incident, “It’s a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media-hyped and just plain bizarre.” The mugging, that is, not the singing.
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If you find yourself falling apart whereas once upon a time, you were falling in love, then there’s nothing I can do, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”… is about vampires. Big-haired balladeer Bonnie Tyler’s mega-hit was originally supposed to be a “vampire love song,” according to its composer Jim Steinman. He was working on Dance of the Vampire, a musical adaptation of the OG vampire movie, Nosferatu, because I don’t know about you, but when I picture Max Schreck’s bald pate and pointy front teeth, I feel like breaking into intensely choreographed song. Of course, if anyone could pull that off, it would be Steinman, who in 1977 gave the world Meat Loaf’s debut album, Bat Out of Hell. The title track from that album so impressed Tyler that she asked her label to connect her with Steinman for a collaboration. Steinman took a half-finished song he was calling “Vampires in Love” and presented it to Tyler and the rest is music history. Incidentally, Steinman’s Nosferatu music didn’t come to be. You might say, it never saw the light of day [sfx rimshot or CSI]. Instead, Steinman did see the creation of another vampire musical, 2002’s Dance of the Vampires and he opens the second act with Total Eclipse of the Heart. By the by, if you’ve never seen the literal music video for Total Eclipse, you are going to be so glad I put it in the show notes [make social media posts of show notes links].
If you don’t like vampires, how about Frankenstein? And yes, I’m using the name Frankenstein to refer to the creature, it’s a patronym, come at me bro. Aerosmith’s 1975 “Walk This Way” was inspired by a gag from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, the bit where Marty Feldman hobbles down some stairs with a tiny cane. Guitarist Joe Perry had settled on the riff and singer Steven Tyler was only just starting on the lyrics when the rest of the band began campaigning for the song to be called “Walk This Way,” and they eventually won Tyler over. Of course, if you pay the slightest bit of attention to the lyrics –and isn’t it funny how you can sing along with something for decades and never do that?– you’ll notice it’s not about classic comedic gags, but it a sexually-charged raunch fest right from go. And now presenting my favorite Aerosmith anecdote. I’m not saying the boys in the band used to do a lot of drugs, like, a lot a lot, but Steven Tyler once heard the song “You See Me Crying” on the radio and and said to guitarist Joe Perry, “We should cover this, who is it?” Perry replied, “That’s US fuckhead! It’s that song you made us get a 109-piece orchestra for!” Hold up, here’s a thought. Walk This Way came from Frankenstein, it came out in 1975, then died away, then was resurrected in 1986, with its original parts stitched together with new ones, that being Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, which introduced rock fans to hip-hop and rap, introduced hip-hop and rap fans to Aerosmith, and gave Aerosmith a boost into the MTV generation.
The most common theme of all for song-writing is probably love–yearning for love, finally finding love, losing love, the love that dares not speak its name, which is incidentally what Little Richards’ Tutti-Frutti was about, and sometimes it’s a love that only one half of the duo is feeling, or even knows about.
It’s been used in movies like Mean girls and TV shows like The Simpsons and Veronica Mars, it’s popular for movie trailers. Who doesn’t love the rock-heavy beat and powerful vocals of geminist anthem “One Way or Another” from Blondie? Debbie Harry even performed it on The Muppet Show. And it’s about a stalker, from the stalkers point of view. [sfx music] “I was actually stalked by a nut job, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event,” Debbie Harry told Entertainment Weekly. It was Harry’s way to get a little revenge, but she knew she had to keep it light at the same time. So light, that we sing along and never really listen to ourselves saying “One day, maybe next week, I’m gonna meet ya’, I’m gonna meet ya’, I’ll meet ya’. I will drive past your house and if the lights are all down, I’ll see who’s around.”
You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you. If you’re Pattie Boyd, there is a much higher than normal chance that a song recorded by an established musical artist *is* about you. Not obscure songs either, stuff that charted, songs that listeners of a certain age know by heart. They’re not break-up songs, either. That’s a key distinction. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in popular music with more songs written about them. So who is this muse, this inspiration?
Born into a military family in 1944, Boyd’s childhood bounced from Somerset, England, to Scotland, back to England, to Kenya, then to Nairobi, then back to England, where she was educated at a boarding school, which I’m going to assume was quite stuffy and boring by comparison. Boyd herself said she didn’t date as a teenager because of it. At age 18, she began modelling, at the suggestion of a client of the salon where she worked as a shampoo girl. She was an immediate success, appearing in Vogue, Vanity Fair, fashion spreads in major newspapers, and according to one account, even influenced Twiggy, the waify thin model who made life miserable for the curvaceous women who’d been the standard for, like, ever. Boyd was described as the embodiment of the “British female ‘look’ – mini-skirt, long, straight hair and wide-eyed loveliness.”
The director of a TV commercial Boyd was in cast her in the Beatles’ fil A Hard Day’s Night, where she met, among others, my father’s father Beatle, George Harrison. They quickly became an item; dating one of the biggest rock stars in the world certainly didn’t hurt Boyd’s modeling career. (Why is it always rockers and models?) The pair were the pinnacle cool, even more than the other Beatles and their partners. Boyd even began writing a column for 16 magazine, to keep the little Yankee birds up to date on London trends. Boyd and Harrison were officially engaged for one month before marrying in January 1965. She shared her new husband’s interest in eastern mysticism and went with the band to India. In the five years that their marriage overlapped with the Beatles being together, she inspired Harrison to pen five songs — “I Need You,” “If I Needed Someone”, “Love You To”, “Something” and “For You Blue.” “I Need You” was only the second song written by Harrison that made it onto a Beatles album, which was 1965’s Help! Harrison grew as a songwriter between Help! and 1969’s Abbey Road, writing increasingly about social issues, but “I Want to Tell You” was about “the avalanche of thoughts that are so hard to write down or say or transmit.” “Something,” which was written during the creation of the White Album, has been covered many times. According to Boyd’s memoirs, Wonderful Tonight, Harrison’s favorite cover was James Brown’s, but her favorite version was the one George played for her in their kitchen.
Sweet as that was, nothing lasts forever and the couple began to grow apart–they’d been unable to conceive, but Harrison wouldn’t consider adoption; Boyd returned to modelling, but it conflicted with Harrison’s spiritual beliefs. In 1973, Boyd began an affair with Ronnie Wood, then the guitarist for band Faces. This tumultuous time not only prompted Harrison to pen yet another song about Boyd, “So Sad,” but Boyd inspired Ronnie Wood to write “Mystifies Me” and “Breathe On Me” on two solo albums that came on either side of Wood joining the Rolling Stones. Boyd wasn’t the only one stepping out. Harrison had a penchant for extramarital affairs, but it was his tryst with Ringo Starr’s wife Marueen that really took the biscuit, and the couple had what Boyd’s solicitor praised as a sensible and ideally-handled divorce in 1977.
Jumping back into the late 60’s, Harrison had become close friends and jam buddies with Derrick and the Domino’s guitarist/singer Eric Clapton… who fell madly in love with Boyd. He was so enamoured with his friend’s wife that he, I guess, went for the next best thing and dated Boyd’s sister Paula for a while. Clapton, too, wrote songs about Boyd, including one with one of the most iconic riffs ever [sfx music]. The name Layla comes from a Persian story of a man driven to madness by unobtainable love, which handily obscured the fact that he was singing about his good friend’s wife. I’m going to risk dividing the room here, but pop over to our social media and look for a poll on whether you prefer the original or the MTV Unplugged version. My dad really didn’t like the Unplugged version, and I agree that the more rocking riff is superior, but I think the Unplugged is better overall, if for no other reason than it has the decency to end. The original is like a Stephen King novel–it was really good, but it goes on well beyond where it should have logically ended. Fight me. Boyd rebuffed Clapton’s attention, so he went off the sulk and do heroin for a few years, as ya do. Once he got clean in ‘74, and Boyd’s marriage was on the rocks, he set his cap for her again, but this time, she said yes. Boyd and Clapton would marry in 1979 and became the still-on-good-terms Harrison’s “husband-in-law,” which is freaking adorable and terribly well-adjusted.
What was not adorable was the alcoholism both Boyd and Clapton subsequently descended into as they struggled with marital woes, infertility, and miscarriages. Oh, and Clapton’s repeated infidelity, which left Boyd to speculate that Clapton had really only wanted her because Harrison had her and his competitive nature just wouldn’t quit. They were divorced in 1989. During the good times, though, Boyd inspired Clapton to write “She’s Waiting,” “Bell-bottom Blues,” and the far better known, but in this reporter’s opinion something of a snooze fest, “Wonderful Tonight.” In her book, Boyd recalled one evening when she kept Clapton waiting hours while she tried to decide what to wear for a night out, during which he was killing time with his guitar and came up with the chorus. One does hate to reinforce tired old gender stereotypes, but if you’re taking so long to get ready that your partner has time to write a song about it, just wear the first outfit, I’m sure it was fine. Even after the divorce, Boyd was still his muse, leading to the torch song “Old Love.” In a 2008 interview with The Guardian, Boyd said she was not a fan of the song. “The end of a relationship is a sad enough thing, but to then have Eric writing about it as well. It makes me more sad, I think, because I can’t answer back.”
Tragedies, especially personal tragedies, are fertile ground for song-writing inspiration, and it can act as a form of therapy to help the writer work through their grief. You are probably aware of the heart-rending accident behind Eric Clapton’s 1991 hit “Tears in Heaven.” A janitor had been repairing a window in Clapton’s 53rd-floor hotel room when four year old Conor slipped beneath the adults’ attention, as children sometimes do, and fell. In my research, I learned that Clapton wrote another song for Conor, 1997’s Circus, about how he had taken Conor to the circus the night before he died, the night where Clapton had vowed to himself that he’d be a proper father. As some of you know, I’m on hormone replacement therapy, so I’m gonna go cry like a little bitch for a minute, brb.
These songs have the decency to sound sad when they’re about sad things, but a lot of pop songs are deceptively catchy and sing-along-able. Take Led Zepplin’s “All My Love,” which is definitely not in my top ten from the band, but I can’t dunk on it, because it wasn’t written to or about a romantic partner, but Robert Plant’s son, Karac, who died of a sudden illness at age of five. “I think it was just paying tribute to the joy that (Karac) gave us as a family and, in a crazy way, still does occasionally,” Plant said in an interview. Two years later, Plant’s wife Maureen gave birth to another son, Logan, who the singer says was so similar to Karac that sometimes the “two images are blurred.”
For better or for worse, no pun intended, I find myself married to a Parrothead, the eponym for fans of Jimmy Buffet. While I agree with their stance on cheeseburgers in paradise, I have to wonder how many are interpreting his biggest hit, Margaritaville, the way Buffett intended it. It may conjure images of a long, lazy, lushy vacation, but it’s actually about a man who’s given up on life and is drinking himself to death after a failed relationship. Hence the narrator’s description of himself as “wasting away” and his slow realization that he’s ultimately brought the situation on himself as the lyrics change from [sfx music] to [sfx music]. Bonus fact: the expression “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” also the title of an Alan Jackson song written with Buffett in mind, was originally coined by classic comedian Red Skelton in 1959.
If we’re contrasting the sound of a song with its supposed message, the award for greatest cognitive dissonance induced has to go to the trio of Hanson brothers and their wonderous one hit, “Mmmbop.” Hold the damn phone, you might be saying, what hidden meaning could that song possible have? I’ll confess, I couldn’t recite a single lyric outside of the chorus even at gunpoint, so it’s a good thing someone did the research. According to Zac Hanson, the youngest of the three, who was *11 when the song came out, “MMMBop” is really about the “futility of life.” This was either a really depressing child or his older brother Isaac wrote it. Isaac was 16 and you know how dramatic teenagers can be. Why else would the lyrics say things like “You have so many relationships in this life/Only one or two will last/You go through all the pain and strife/Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast.”
[segue] In the summer of 1998, you might have caught yourself driving with the windows down, singing along to Fastball’s single “The Way,” with a big smile on your face. [sfx music] It sounds like my first honeymoon, when we didn’t have much money to do anything, so we hopped in a rented car, picked a cardinal direction, and just went. The song was about a married couple, but not a happy road trip. It’s actually about the disappearance of an elderly Texas couple, Raymond and Lela Howard, who headed out one night to attend a local fiddling festival and never came home. Raymond had recently suffered a stroke and Lela had begun showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Two weeks later, police found their Oldsmobile in Arkansas, hundreds of miles from their destination, at the bottom of a cliff. The pair died in the crash. Officials speculated the couple may have become lost and/or the driver disoriented and they just kept going the wrong way and eventually drove off the road. Wow, you’re thinking, what a darkly insensitive thing to write commercial music about. The victims’ family must have been outraged. Actually, they were touched by what they considered a tribute to their pater and mater familias. One of their grandsons told the local news, “I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that for my grandma. Powerful, very powerful.” So at least you can feel good about *that part of it.
Let’s raise the tone back up a bit. Sometimes hit songs come from deliberate effort and sometimes, they just … happen. A little throw-away bit of nothing inspires a song that spends weeks on the hit parade. If you owned Paul Simon’s self-titled solo album, you will have heard the song “Mother and child reunion.” That sounds sweet, doesn’t it? That’s a negative, ghost rider. According to a Rolling Stone interview, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.'” Then, the family dog died, and Simon slapped that schmaltzy moniker on the result.
When songwriter Desmond Child was brought in to help Aerosmith write some new songs, the band was mostly cold to him, not being big on outside writers as a concept. Except singer Steven Tyler, who showed Child a song he was writing called “Cruisin’ For The Ladies.” Child was not impressed with it. To try to win his audience back, Tyler told him the original title was “Dude Looks Like A Lady.” He’d been at a bar when he looked over and saw the teased to Jesus locks of some knockout blonde…who turned out to be Vince Neil from Motley Crue. The band was initially concerned that the title could be offensive to the LGBTQ community. Child replies, “I’m gay, and I’m not insulted. Let’s write this song.” And in case you’re curious, Vince Neil did eventually learn that the song was about him and, according to Child, had a good laugh about it.
It’s got both an iconic guitar solo and a keyboard solo, both played by Eddie Van Halen, it was the lead single from Van Halen’s hit album 1984…[sfx music containing “Jump”]. Front man David Lee Roth’s antics cemented the spandex-loving 80’s aesthetic in the video for the song he wrote…after watching the news one night. There was a story about a suicidal man standing on the top of a building and threatening to jump. Roth recalled. “He was about to check out early, he was going to do the 33 stories drop. There was a whole crowd of people in the parking lot downstairs, yelling ‘Don’t jump, don’t jump.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Jump.” I would ask what the hell is wrong with David Lee Roth, but you didn’t sign on for a three-hour show.
REM’s painfully upbeat song “Shiny Happy People,” featuring Kate Pierson of the B52’s, must have a painfully upbeat origin, right? Your optimism is adorable. The repeated-ad-nauseum title comes from the translation of a Chinese propaganda poster from the era of Chairman Mao, which read, “Shiny happy people holding hands.” The song came out less than a year after the infamous protests in Tiananmen Square where an estimated 2,600 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed. But, it’s a bop, am I right. And that’s…
Closing Time really *sounds like it’s last-orders at the pub, but Singer Dan Wilson wrote this song for his daughter, who was born 3 months premature. He kept the real meaning hidden, so his bandmates wouldn’t complain about playing a song about a baby. “Millions and millions of people bought the song and heard the song and didn’t get it,” he once said during a show. “They think it’s about being bounced from a bar but it’s about being bounced from the womb.” Remember…Thanks…