Music

Songs w/ Substance #8 – John Prine – “Lake Marie”

Lyrics: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnprine/lakemarie.html


Every place has a history. Every river, hill, valley, and tree has bared witness to an endless array of mankind’s collective moments.  Thanks to the diversity of the human experience, that history rarely has a coherent narrative—it is a random collection of happenings that may share nothing in common other than a pair of geographic coordinates that mark the place in which those happenings unfolded.  Nevertheless, part of the same narrative those happenings remain, and it’s up to us to decide what that narrative means.

No song in the history of music better illustrates this phenomenon than John Prine’s “Lake Marie”. The lyrics recount a history—part-actual and part-fictional—that describe a few of the events observed by the lake’s “peaceful waters”.  These events include a tale of two abandoned babies that gave the real-life Wisconsin lake its name, a fictionalized but highly-believable story of a struggling marriage seeking to find salvation in the fond memories formed on the lake’s shorelines, and a pair of mutilated, murdered bodies discovered in the forest that surrounds the water.

The disconnectedness of these events is challenged at the end of the third verse, when the song’s narrator, who is learning about the area’s latest double-homicide through the “TV news”, connects those murders back to the marriage that he could not save.  He finds in those murders an unmistakable symbolism of his own lost love that had been “slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.”  To the narrator, Lake Marie is a place of unfulfilled promise—a love set to the soundtrack of “Louie, Louie” that could not endure the test of time…A serene and secluded body of water that could not hide from nor escape the world’s ugliness.

John Prine once said that, in his songwriting, he likes to “try to look through someone else’s eyes,” and give his audience “a feeling more than a message.”  “Lake Marie” is reflective of that effort.  It’s a song about a certain place with a certain story, but it’s also a song about all of the places that us humans name, occupy, and experience.  It’s a song about the public history for which a place is known, but it’s also about the more intimate connections that form between that place and certain individuals.  It’s a song about the different meanings that we attach to a place depending on that place’s significance in our own stories—both for better and for worse.

We all have our own Lake Marie’s.  They’re the towns where we grew up and the parks and playgrounds where we made our first childhood memories.  They’re the buildings of education and employment that shaped and molded us into the people that we are today.  They’re the various scenes and settings that have played host to our lives’ greatest triumphs and tragedies, and the personal relationships that we have formed with those places as they become a part of our history and we become a part of theirs.  That’s why in John Prine’s song, even if we don’t know Lake Marie personally, we all know how Lake Marie feels.  Aah baby, we gotta go now.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below

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Music

Songs w/ Substance #7 – The Handsome Family – “So Much Wine”

Lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/handsomefamily/somuchwine.html

Some songs find a way to say the least profound things in the most profound ways.

It’s no secret that people use alcohol as an escape—a tool for a temporary departure from whatever reality they wish to leave behind.  It’s also no secret that alcohol often fails to offer a real remedy, and instead, serves to compound the problems facing the person on the other end of the bottle.

Countless songs have been written about the struggle against alcoholism.   Many of these songs are deeply personal and powerfully depressing, lending credence to the idea that, sadly, tortured artists are often the greatest artists.

The Handsome Family has a bit of “tortured” to them.  One commentator described their music as “a safe place to express terrifying things.”  Perhaps this explains why their song “Far From Any Road” was chosen as the theme for the eerie HBO series True Detective.

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“So Much Wine” isn’t all that terrifying, but it is ugly.  The lyrics tell a story of a plastered significant other who spends her Christmas chugging wine, wrecking shit, and passing out on the floor (been there).  The verses describe the events as they unfold, while the refrain contains the advice that the singer whispers to his drunken companion.  The advice itself isn’t all that revolutionary:

Listen to me, Butterfly,

There’s only so much wine

 You can drink

 In one life

But it will never be enough…

But what gets me about this song is not what the singer says but the way that he chooses to say it:

…To save you from the bottom of your glass.

To save you from the bottom of your glass…What a gorgeous way to say something so depressing.

To me, that single line showcases the immense power that music has to shine light on the darkness.  It can take a depressing topic like alcoholism—a disease that has painfully affected nearly every person on the planet either through their own struggles or the struggles of a loved one—and turn it into something beautiful.  The beauty, in this case, lies not in the disease itself, but in the truth that’s expressed about the disease, so plainly and so simply.  Alcohol may seem to offer a temporary solution to whatever it is you are hiding from, but once the glass is empty and the buzz fades, the whatever still remains. Accompany that truth with a melody, an acoustic guitar, and a harmonica, and it’s almost enough to make you cry.

Like most songs, “So Much Wine” can speak to different people in different ways. For those who struggle with alcoholism, this song can offer both company and comfort, reassuring the struggling that they don’t struggle alone.  For those who have overcome alcoholism, this song can offer redemption and a reminder of the journey that led to sobriety, and hopefully, a more meaningful existence.  And for those who don’t struggle with alcoholism but still like knocking a few back, perhaps this a song to ironically enjoy a glass of wine to.  After all, music always plays better to the tuned up ear.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

 

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Music

Songs w/ Substance #6: Eels – “Line in the Dirt”

Lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eels/alineinthedirt.html

You don’t need to be in the midst of a break-up to enjoy a good break-up song. I’ll rock out to Motley Crue’s “Don’t Go Away Mad” or Alannis Morisette’s “You Outta Know” any day of the week. But it does take one hell of a break-up song to reach down and rattle you the way a real break-up can.

In Eel’s “Line in the Dirt,” singer/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett doesn’t try to create some sappy dramatization of departed lovers. This break-up is real, raw, and reflects the idea that life is never quite like the movies, not even the sad ones. There are no grand crescendos or culminations, just a last fleeting gasp of a relationship that has been fading for some time. The falsetto whimper when “she says that I don’t want to be alone, but I think that you do,” possesses a sadness so palpable that it can bring you to your knees—a line sung so tragically that it can make you feel alive.

The song doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for hope, and it shouldn’t. Break-ups hurt and don’t often leave you in a very hopeful place. He “drew a line into the dirt, and dared her to step right across it, and she did.” Now it’s over. Now what’s next?

Yet, in some ways, the song still comforts. It comforts in the sense that whenever we are sad or lonely or hopeless, we know that we’re not alone. Suffering is a part of life, and sometimes music can alleviate that burden by reminding us that that suffering is shared. He may be “driving straight into the night,” but if he drives for long enough, he’ll eventually reach the dawn. Hopefully the radio is blasting some good break-up tunes to keep him company until he gets there.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Music

Songs w/ Substance #5: Josh Ritter – “The Curse”

Not every song with substance needs to have some deep, coded meaning or take a righteous political stand. Some times a good song just tells a good story

In his song “The Curse,” the storytelling skills of singer-songwriter Josh Ritter are on full display. Perhaps there is some metaphorical symbolism embedded in the lyrics, but I tend to think that anyone who finds any is probably overthinking it. To me, this song is nothing more than a beautifully creative love story about an archeologist and the mummy she unearths and revives. If there is any deeper thinking required, it probably revolves around the question of who is actually “cursed”—the mummy who appears to be trapped in some kind of inescapable purgatory between living and dead, or the woman he once loved, who has since become “just one more rag now he’s dragging behind him.”

What’s for sure is that Ritter is an absolutely masterful songwriter. He hasn’t gotten a ton of mainstream love over the years, but if that recognition ever comes, a lot of music fans will be spending a lot of time digging through Ritter’s lengthy discography, uncovering all the buried treasures so underappreciated in their time. Perhaps this heartwarming waltz will be one of them.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Music

Songs w/ Substance #4: Rage Against the Machine – “Maggie’s Farm”

 

I’m going to start this post off with a statement that, in certain rock-n-roll circles, might be labeled as blasphemous: “Maggie’s Farm,” by Rage Against the Machine, is the single greatest cover song of all-time.

Bold, I know.

I understand why other rock-and/or-rollers might disagree. It could easily be argued that “Maggie’s Farm” is not even the greatest Bob Dylan cover of all time, let alone the greatest cover. Rolling Stone magazine essentially made that argument itself when it snubbed the song in their top-10 list of Dylan covers—a list that understandably culminated with Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” But while that and other songs on the list would admittedly check more boxes in any attempt at objective analysis, good music is a subjective phenomenon, and there’s still no other cover that I’d rather hear blasting through the speakers of my Ford Fiesta than Rage’s version of “Maggie’s Farm.”

Rage is the perfect band for Songs w/ Substance. Their music oozes substance—radical substance—and “Maggie’s Farm” is no exception. The song is the last track on their 2000 Renegades album, an all-covers release in which the band pays homage to the musical revolutionaries that came before them, refurbishing some old classics in their unique thrash-metal style. It shouldn’t be surprising that a “renegade” like Bob Dylan made the cut.

There are several interpretations of the lyrics that Dylan wrote for “Maggie’s Farm.” Some think that is a personal narrative about Dylan’s gripe with the record industry. Others say it’s a more generic hymn about the evils of capitalistic exploitation. But no matter who or what Dylan was trying to take on with these lyrics, there’s no doubt that the song carries a message of empowerment. Be it a struggling musician, a factory laborer, or a campesino on a hacienda, this song is an anthem for the downtrodden who have the courage to rise up, break free from their chains, tell their boss to “get fucked,” and defiantly refuse to take anymore of his shit.

“Maggie’s Farm” has a cool backstory too. This is the song that Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in which he first infamously “plugged-in.” The performance was met with boos and jeers at the time, but has since come to be known as one of the most transformative moments in music history.

It’s wild to think that this sound was so upsetting to people back in the day, especially when listening to Rage’s 21st century interpretation. But if you believe the rock historians, it’s that moment that made groups like Rage Against the Machine possible. When Bob Dylan plugged his guitar into that amplifier, he fused the heart of folk music with the sound of rock. He turned the electric guitar into a vehicle that could deliver a political message. He made it cool for rock-n-roll to say something.

That’s why I’ll stand by my claim of “Maggie’s Farm” by Rage Against the Machine as the greatest cover song of all-time. It may not get the radio play or written acclaim of a Jimi Hendrix or a Guns N’ Roses, but the song has undeniable substance. It’s got the history, it’s got the message, and it’s got a crescendo that will knock your fucking socks off. That’s the stuff that counts. Rage on.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Music

Songs w/ Substance #3: The Mountain Goats – “Dance Music”

Lyrics: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/mountaingoats/dancemusic.html

I’m always surprised that I like this song. It’s a quirky song sung by a singer with an annoying, whiny voice, but for some reason both the lyrics and the beat still find a way to reach out and grab me.

Maybe that’s because this song is about something that we have all at times experienced—the medicinal properties of music—the ability of music to heal in times of sadness or pain.

Unlike the singer, I never had an abusive stepfather or a girlfriend with a “special secret sickness” (or maybe I did?), but like everybody else, I’ve experienced struggle, and I know that during those times of struggle, music has often been incredibly therapeutic.

Dance music wouldn’t be my first choice. I’m more of a rock-country, indie slow-jam kind of a guy. But that’s another great thing about this song. Even though parts of the lyrics refer to the personal narrative of the singer, other parts are purposefully vague so that we can make our own connections and bring our own narratives into the song too.

“So this is what the volume knob’s for”—got to be one of the greatest lyrics of all time. Turn this one up.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Music, Race

Songs w/ Substance #2: Ben Harper – “Call It What It Is” (A Response to Baton Rouge & Falcon Heights)

A lot of times we lack the evidence. Questionable police shootings culminate in ‘he said-she saids’ that ultimately fail to gain criminal indictments of police officers in a court of law. But for anyone who has ever questioned or failed to fully understand black narratives of police shootings in cases like Michael Brown or Jamar Clark (myself included), the last 48 hours have given us a lot to think about.

The video don’t lie. Sure there are still unanswered questions: Where exactly was Alton Sterling’s gun when the officer opened fire? What preceded the appalling footage taken by Philando Castillo’s girlfriend? But to me, the answers to these questions will likely do very little to convince me that what I saw in those videos is anything other than one word:

Murder.

Like the cell phone footage, Ben Harper’s song is pretty straightforward. What we saw in those videos are inexcusable slayings. It does not matter that the killer wore a badge. It does not matter if the killer’s ostensible intentions were to protect and serve. No matter what those two black men did or did not do to bring themselves into contact with law enforcement on those fateful nights, no matter what further details from their stories emerge, those two black men did not deserve to die.

The New York Times has a headline calling the Falcon Heights incident a “police shooting.” CNN ran a story where an officer was simply “involved.” In an NPR headline, a police stop in Minnesota mysteriously “ends” in a black man’s death. But Ben Harper is right. If we really want to address the problem of the destruction of black bodies at the hands of law enforcement, than in cases like these where the evidence is so apparently clear, we need to call that problem exactly what it is: Murder.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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