17. Serious in songs

Posted on 20/01/2017

17. ‘Serious’ in songs

There are as many types of singer and song as there is variety in humankind. That may be obvious to you, but it wasnt to me until just now. This blog addresses  the polar opposites of ‘serious’ in lyrics.

I should first deal with David Bowie’s leftfield ‘Serious moonlight’. This does not use the normal meaning of the word, but means something like ‘important‘. His song cleverly emphasises the unlikely use of the word, but at the same time he does not mean ‘serious’. The next  two songs do not mention the word ‘serious’ but they both are.

‘Love hurts’ was recorded by the Everly Brothers in the 50’s but more strongly in my awareness by Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons (1970’s) is as heartfelt  and lovely a song as could be imagined: its serious.

‘Frank’s wild years’ by Tom Waits describes a situation about as heartless as could be imagined. The first song is entirely serious, no trace of humour. The second song is also serious (it concerns a murder) but Waits’ lyric manages to make the whole thing into a hilarious joke.

Waits’ first lines are ominous:

‘ Well Frankie settled down in the Valley/and hung his wild years

on a nail that he drove through his wife’s forehead’

That chilling introduction is spoken laconically and matter of factly.  The song proceeds in the same vein telling about their house, mortgage, his car. His wife is described as a ‘spent piece of used jet trash’ (not sure what that means, but not a favourable review). She makes good Bloody Mary’s and has a chihuaha dog which is blind and suffers from a skin disease. He does not exactly enlist the listeners’ sympathy on behalf of Frankie’s wife and dog.

One night Frank bought a gallon of petrol on the way home and poured the petrol over his home,

‘doused everything in the house, torched it

You have to listen to the record to fully appreciate that ‘Torched it’: its spoken gutturally with a pause and a smokers cough afterwards. Its very effective. Frank watches his house burn sitting in his car across the street, laughing at it burning ‘all Halloween orange and chiminy red’.

Frank then drives his car north along the Hollywood freeway with a Top 40 radio staiong playing; the final line is a reflection:

‘Never could stand that dog’

Black humour but very funny, despite the grim content. Heartfelt emotion excludes humour but, in a song, heartless situations almost demand it.

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