Get Your Premium Membership

Five Truly Great Song Lyrics

Written by: J P Marmaro

Great songs often have less-than-great lyrics.  But some lyrics can be taken as poetry irrespective of the music. Here are a handful of songs whose lyrics, I deem, can be adjudged as truly great poetry, not only for what they say, but from a technical standpoint as well. Each lyric is followed by a brief commentary.

 

  1. I AM A ROCK by Paul Simon

A winter’s day

In a deep and dark December—

I am alone

Gazing from my window to the streets below

On a freshly-fallen, silent shroud of snow—

I am a rock. 

I am an island.

 

I build walls,

A fortress steep and mighty,

That none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship— friendship causes pain.

It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

I am a rock,

I am an island.

 

Don’t talk of love—

Well, I’ve heard the word before!

It’s sleeping in my memory.

I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died—

If I'd never loved, I never would have cried.

I am a rock.

I am an island.

 

I have my books

And my poetry to protect me.

I am shielded in my armor.

Hiding in my room,

Safe within my womb,

I touch no one, and no one touches me:

I am a rock;

I am an island.

 

And a rock feels no pain.

And an island never cries.

 

COMMENTS: Of all Paul Simon’s many splendid lyrics, this is quite the finest: absolute perfection— one of the very greatest lyrics ever written.  It is gut-wrenching, like Sylvia Plath at her best… intellectual, angry, ironic, despairing yet defiant: the anthem of the wounded loner. And so beautifully crafted! Needless to say, the protagonist’s repeated assertions (I am a rock, I am an island) are not-wholly-successful attempts to convince him- or herself. 

 

  1. THAT’S THE WAY I’VE ALWAYS HEARD IT SHOULD BE by Jacob Brackman

My father sits at night with no lights on:

His cigarette glows in the dark.

The living room is still:

I walk by; no remark.

I tiptoe past the master bedroom where

My mother reads her magazines.

I hear her call, “Sweet dreams”,

But I forget how to dream.

But you say it’s time we moved in together,

And raised a family of our own, you and me.

Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:

You want to marry me? We’ll marry.

 

My friends from college, they’re all married now--

They have their houses and their lawns.

They have their silent noons,

Tearful nights, angry dawns.

Their children hate them for the things they’re not;

They hate themselves for what they are.

And yet they drink, they laugh--

Close the wound, hide the scar.

But you say it’s time we moved in together,

And raised a family of our own, you and me.

Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:

You want to marry me? We’ll marry.

 

You say that we can keep our love alive.

Babe, all I know is what I see:

The couples cling and claw

And drown in love’s debris.

You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds,

But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf:

I’ll never learn to be just me first, by myself.

Well, okay, it’s time we moved in together,

And raised a family of our own, you and me.

Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:

You want to marry me? We’ll marry.

 

COMMENTS:  Jacob Brackman collaborated with Carly Simon often, together creating a long list of fine pieces, Brackman writing the lyrics, Simon the music, after which Simon recorded them.  This was their first big success, and it is a surprisingly complex and erudite lyric for a top-ten hit.  The first stanza paints a strikingly vivid portrait of alienation and concession.  The protagonist’s father and mother are apart. The father is downstairs, sitting alone in the dark, smoking a cigarette, whose red embers are the only light in the gloom. When the protagonist goes past, he says nothing. It is a poignant image of alienation and hopelessness.  Meanwhile, the mother, ensconced upstairs, is indulging in a vicarious escapism, "reading her magazines”, and when then protagonist goes by, she says, rather perfunctorily, “Sweet dreams”—a stereotyped and trite response, and indeed something one would say to a child, not an adult.  While the father sits in mute despair, the mother is in an unreal escapist bubble-- they are miles apart, even though under the same roof.  The second stanza explores the protagonist’s contemporaries, and their anything-but-idyllic lives—their unhappiness and their feelings of failure, notwithstanding their doggedly going on with their lives.  In the third stanza, the protagonist considers the assertions made to her by her fiancé. Despite all the high-flown romanticizing, she has deep reservations, about the longevity of love, and about the subordination of individual freedom which marriage demands.   Still, as all the refrains show, the protagonist, albeit with clear reluctance, agrees to wed. A fine exploration of the expectations, and realities, of relationships. 

I should note that, though I have called the protagonist “she”, there is actually nothing in the lyric that would preclude the protagonist’s being male.  

 

  1. BOTH SIDES NOW by Joni Mitchell

Bows and floes of angel hair,

And ice cream castles in the air,

And feathered canyons everywhere:

I’ve looked at clouds that way.

But now they only block the sun:

They rain and snow on everyone.

So many things I would have done,

But clouds got in my way.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,

From up and down, and still, somehow

It’s clouds’ illusions I recall:

I really don’t know clouds at all.

 

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,

The dizzy, dancing way you feel

When every fairy tale comes real--

I’ve looked at love that way.

But now it’s just another show:

You leave ‘em laughing when you go,

And if you care, don’t let them know,

Don’t give yourself away.

I’ve looked at love from both sides now,

From win and lose, and still, somehow

It’s love’s illusions I recall:

I really don’t know love at all.

 

Tears and fears and feeling proud

To say “I love you” right out loud;

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds—

I’ve looked at life that way.

But now old friends are acting strange--

They shake their heads—they say I’ve changed.

Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained

In living every day.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now,

From win and lose, and still, somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall:

I really don’t know life at all.

 

COMMENTS: Joni Mitchell’s lyric, performed perhaps most memorably in the cover by Judy Collins, first considers clouds, physical things yet evanescent, and looks at them positively and negatively, or perhaps better, naively and jadedly. This approach is then extended to love, perhaps the central human preoccupation, and finally to life itself.  In each case comes the realization that, for all our assumptions about these things, in the end, we really do not, and perhaps cannot, truly know them in any absolute sense. It is only in our perception of their “illusions” that we know anything about them at all. 

 

  1. OH, VERY YOUNG by Cat Stevens

Oh, very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancing on this Earth for a short while.

And though your dreams may toss and turn you now,

They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans

(Denim blue, fading up to the sky…)

And though you want him to last forever,

You know he never will (you know he never will)—

And the patches make the goodbye harder still. 

 

Oh, very young, what will you leave us this time?

There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind.

And if you want this world to see better days,

Will you carry the words of love with you,

Will you ride the great white bird into heaven?

And though you want to last forever,

You know you never will (you know you never will)—

And the goodbye makes the journey harder still.

 

Oh, very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancing on this Earth for a short while—

Oh, very young, what will you leave us this time?

 

COMMENTS: A lovely little lyric about the brevity of life.  In Stanza 1, the image of the father’s “best jeans, denim blue…” is followed by the wish that the father might never die, but that he undoubtedly will, “and the patches make the goodbye harder still”: the patches in those jeans, physical reminders of the father’s presence, will make the goodbye, his death, even harder to take. In Stanza 2, this is then applied to “you”, i.e., the “very young” addressee of the poem: “you want to last forever”—but it cannot be, “and the goodbye makes the journey harder still”, that is, the knowledge of our own mortality makes the journey— life-- even more difficult. 

 

  1. VINCENT by Don McLean

Starry, starry night—

Paint your palette blue and gray.

Look out on a summer’s day

With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.

Shadows on the hills--

Sketch the trees and the daffodils;

Catch the breeze and the winter chills

In colors on the snowy linen land. 

 

Now I understand

What you tried to say to me,

And how you suffered for your sanity,

And how you tried to set them free...

They would not listen: they did not know how.

Perhaps they’ll listen now.

 

Starry, starry night,

Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,

Swirling clouds in violet haze

Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of China blue.

Colors changing hue,

Mourning fields of amber grain,

Weathered faces lined in pain

Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.

 

Now I understand

What you tried to say to me,

And how you suffered for your sanity,

And how you tried to set them free...

They would not listen: they did not know how.

Perhaps they’ll listen now—

 

For they could not love you,

But still your love was true.

And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night

You took your life as lovers often do;

But I could have told you, Vincent,

This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

 

Starry, starry night,

Portraits hung in empty halls:

Frameless heads on nameless walls

With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget,

Like the strangers that you’ve met.

The ragged men in ragged clothes--

The silver thorn, a bloody rose

Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.

 

Now I think I know

What you tried to say to me,

And how you suffered for your sanity,

And how you tried to set them free:

They would not listen; they’re not listening still ---

Perhaps they never will.

 

COMMENTS:  I have left this song to the last to discuss; it is arguably the finest single lyric in the entire corpus of popular music.  Not only for its technical brilliance: it is also ravishingly, achingly beautiful, as well as hauntingly and profoundly sad.  A point of discussion (even controversy) is the interpretation of the refrain (They would not listen…), particularly, who the “they” mentioned in the song, are. I think that “they/them” refers to the artist’s audience: the ordinary people leading ordinary lives—it is “they” whom Vincent wants to set free, "they" whom Vincent loves. For Vincent’s plight is in fact the plight of all real artists: trying to reach, to touch, that audience, and finding that, for the most part, they are oblivious to Art and deaf to its entreaties.  In the end, they not only “do not know how” to listen: they in fact do not care; and almost certainly, for the most part, they never will.  Thus the song ends with what may be the most heartbreaking realization of all. 

The first two stanzas make reference to a number of van Gogh’s paintings: not only The Starry Night, but also Sunflowers and Wheatfield with Crows, one of his very last canvases, depicting the wheat field in which, soon thereafter, he shot himself.  Wheat fields themselves have a longstanding chthonic dimension (“mourning fields”); also, it is often remarked on that the road in the painting’s foreground disappears—comes to an end— in the middle of the swirling grain, above which are wheeling crows (themselves anciently associated with death).  In both the second and the final stanzas are references to the many (and often heartrendingly honest) self-portraits done by van Gogh.  

The lyric not only is crafted in beautiful and exquisitely poetic language, it also employs a number of classic poetic techniques, such as alliteration and internal rhymes. They may have awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature, but for my money, Don McLean’s work is much, much finer. Set side by side, Vincent is a far better poem than (say) Blowin’ in the Wind. In short, this song is unexcelled.