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I was driving home from Milwaukee yesterday, rocking out to the plethora of songs on my iPod (and by rocking out, I mean "singing along with Springtime For Hitler from The Producers) and on came the song Lily, Rosemary & The Jack of Hearts by Bob Dylan. You, like me, probably know the song by heart:
So I was then singing along with that, and I began thinking (always a bad sign) and what I began thinking was everyone is always thinking about what their life would be like as a movie, and who would play them, but nobody ever thinks "what would my life be like if it were a song by Bob Dylan?"
Nobody until me that is. Then I broadened out my thinking -- in part because I had nothing else to do, since I'd already eaten the apple I'd brought along for a snack -- and wondered what would my life be like if it were a song by some other guys who write songs about people?
And then I thought I bet that'd be a good way to waste about 3 hours at work tomorrow morning while also listening to cool music.
And, voila, here we go with:
The Best Versions Of My Life, According to Singer/Songwriters.
I'll start with the guy who is the undisputed king of songs about people, real or imagined, Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan has written songs about people ranging from the aforementioned Jack of Hearts to Arthur McBride to someone named Angelina (twice!) to John Wesley Harding to even more, including singing with the Traveling Wilburys about someone named "Margarita."
Representative Song: "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Johnny mixes up medicine while Bob Dylan stands on the pavement thinking about the government, then various surreal things happen.
What Bob Would Probably Do With My Life: Dylan's songs tend to go one of two ways: exciting short-stories about interesting people, or weirdly-rambling cautionary tales about people mixing it up with the girl by the whirlpool. Since I've never robbed a stagecoach or been a Master of War, but instead ended up practicing consumer law my life would probably end up a hodgepodge of images with Dylan making a cameo appearance in the song, probably about the way the legal system messes up people's lives, a la the Hurricane. You'd listen to the song and think Now there's a guy who really took on corporate America, sometimes for as much as 5 hours a day when he finished surfing the Internet.
Then again, he might just try: People forget that Dylan once rapped -- so maybe Bob would turn my life into a free-flowing stream-of-consciousness rhyme with some fresh beats underlaying it...
Or I could have my life done up by Tom Petty, who also has written many a biographical song. The American Girl, the person who wanted to be a rock'n'roll star, the girl who's a good girl in Free Fallin' all help populate Pettyville, which now could have Population: me.
Representative Song: Before he went all mello lately (was it all those dances with Mary Jane?) Tom was a rocker, and nothing rocked out more than American Girl, which he liked so much he released it twice:
What Tom Would Probably Do With My Life: Tom's songs are all about how things that seem really great and heartwarming and nice and American are, in fact, horrible and awful and heartbreaking. Seriously -- go listen to one of them. Like this one:
Which, I'll note, I can play on the guitar. But I can't hit the high notes. Not anymore.
So Tom's song about my life would probably emphasize the hopes, the promise, the ideal road laying out before me when I was a young guy of 18, heading off to college, carrying my parents expectations of becoming first a doctor and then the president, and then winning a Nobel Prize or something. (You know -- a common American story.) Then it would take a jarring turn midway through, hit some minor chords, and I'd go to law school. The video would finish with a shot of Mom and Dad looking at my yard and saying "Couldn't you at least mow it once in a while?"
Then Again, He Might Just Try: Tom was in a band for a while there called "Mudcrutch," or is in a band called "Mudcrutch." It's not clear to me, since Wikidiotpedia (and here's why that name is so true) says that Mudcrutch is "best known as the forerunner to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," but also says... in the same sentence... that the debut album by Mudcrutch was released in 2008, which is something like thirty years after the debut album from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
So if Tom didn't go the Man, You Really Let Your Parents and America Down route with my biographical song, he might, I guess, try bending space and time back on itself to release a forerunner song 30 years after the thing it's supposed to be forerunning.
Hey, how about Paul Simon, who's written a song or two about a person or two? Him and Julio, Him and Garfunkel, him and the 59th Street Bridge... I might have to meet him first, but Paul might be able to do my life justice.
Representative Song: It's hard to pick out just one, but since when have I shied away from a challenge, especially if that challenge keeps me from having to answer my office phone?
Everyone who's anyone would probably go with The Boxer as an epic tale of some guy's life or something, but I'm gonna mess you up and go with the girl that had diamonds on the soles of her shoes:
Nice, huh? I once taught myself all those African words at the beginning of the song. I don't know what they mean, but I knew 'em all. It begins awoo tri-you-lang-you-lang on john.
What Paul Might Do With My Life: There's two keys to a Paul Simon autobiographical song: One: home in on a specific detail about that person's life to make it an extended metaphor of, well, everything. A specific detail like how diamonds on the soles of someone's shoes could show their entire attitudes towards life and relationships, or how someone's being old may just relate, somehow, to the entire universe (as on "Old") or how someone might hear loud music from next door and remember their whole life:
I know that wasn't Paul Simon doing "Late In The Evening" but it was cool, wasn't it?
Step Two of a Paul Simon song is find the next kind of quirky music that America hasn't heard much of and ride it to fame and fortune. From the New York ska of Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard to Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland to that stuff on "The Rhythm of the Saints," Paul Simon has been a one-man imperialist force, co-opting world music to his own ends in a way that Peter Gabriel can only envy.
So my life via a Paul Simon song would pick out a specific detail about me, and set it to the next music. Let's just assume it would be a rock-inflected Polka with a male voice choir backing him up, and that the entire song would be about my Darth Maul tie.
Then Again, He Might Just: Sometimes, Paul got away from metonymy and went for a synechdoche, instead. (God, I hope I'm using those right or Mr. Schaeffer, my old English teacher, will have my head.) I mean to say, sometimes he dropped focusing on details and went for the big metaphor, like he did on the allegorical tale Pigs, Sheep & Wolves, which I think was a commentary on the legal system. Or maybe on meat. I'd love to show you the song, but the only video I could find is a terrible one on Youtube. People, if you watch your video and the sound is terrible, don't post it.
If you want to try to listen to it anyway, click here.
So Paul might just couch my entire life in a fable about animals. If so, I hope he chooses Vampire Duck.
And, finally, no roundup of biographical singer/songwriters would be complete without Johnny Cash, who treated us to musical bios of drunken Ira Hayes, a Boy Named Sue, and Jesus:
Heady company to be in. But I think my life stacks up favorably to my cohort. Or at least to Sue and Drunken Ira Hayes. Jesus has a better resume than me.
Representative Song: While Johnny sang about others sometimes, he mostly sang about himself, so at first, I struggled to decide which song best shows how Johnny would describe someone else's life. Then I remembered Sam Hall:
That is awesome. I love the cackle! Even better, on the later version, Johnny repeats the phrase: "Damn Yer Eyes!" I use that in meetings now at work.
What Johnny Would Do With My Life: Johnny was at his best when singing about scoundrels: guys who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or who beat people up because they were named Sue, or who told their wives that they were going out for the paper and would be back by noon, but they were lying and instead of getting a paper and coming back, they wandered through some kind of wasteland, maybe metaphorically:
So to get into a Johnny Cash song, I'm going to have to have done something bad and the world's going to know. This is tough for me, but I'm going to make a confession here, and hope that society will forgive me:
When I was about 8, my brother and I went to the mall with my Mom. Usually, we'd just wander around and look at the stream that ran through it and the goldfish that were in the stream. But on this particular occasion, we found ourselves at the "Marshall Fields" candy counter, and there on the counter was a package of candy.
We thought it was samples, and we took them... a lot, eating some and putting some in our pockets. We were headed back out to the mall proper when...the long arm of the law got us. A store security guard stopped us and told us that we'd been shoplifting and we were in a lot of trouble.
There. Now you know. Take it away, Johnny. Let's hear The Ballad Of the Unrepentant Candy Thief.
Then Again, He Might: When Johnny wasn't singing about desperadoes on the run through Mayfair Mall with pockets full of Frango Mints, he borrowed from other songwriters and sang of... well, death and pain:
So I'm really hoping he'll stick with the candy-stealing thing.
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