Hearing My Story In The Rock And Roll

by Kevin Burton

   The stories, the images, the sound and fury of rock and roll, truly resonate when they hit close to home.

   By now we have enough rocking sounds to fill the seven seas. The messages are all over the map. The sheer variety is breathtaking. Not every song will get in your kitchen, nor would you want that. But isn’t it something extra special when one does?

    Just as former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill used to say “all politics is local,” I want to say all rock and roll is personal.

   Think of the Buckinghams’ 1968 number 12 hit “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)”. The song is completely carried by the hook in the title because everybody has been there.

   The band used a catchy beat and chord progressions, lead with the hook and didn’t bother with meaningful lyrics, even resorting to a sigh to “explain’ things in the middle of the song.  But you can’t argue with their approach because “they’re playing our song” is a universal feeling. It’s palpable. It can’t miss. 

   For the Buckinghams “our song” brought back pleasant memories and made the singer nostalgic for the good days before the couple broke up. An even better and much better-written example is “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which Roberta Flack took all the way to number one in 1972.

   Can’t you feel the singer squirming as she describes the musician “strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song, killing me softly. Telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song.” 

   Don’t you cringe a little as she sings “I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd. I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud. I prayed that he would finish, but he just kept right on.”

   I’ve you’ve been there you understand why Olivia Newton John is haunted by a jukebox and sings “Please mister please don’t play B-17. It was our song, it was his song but it’s over. Please mister. please, if you know what I mean, I don’t ever wanna hear that song again.”

   Everybody knows what Olivia means.

   Words and music can get into those places in the heart where words alone can’t go.  There are a number of theories on why this is, but nobody disputes it.

   We all get bogged down in life’s struggles.  At those times, the music around you soothes you, lifts you up. Now if the lyrics happen to be right on and hit home, that’s the sweet spot. That is a lot of what keeps me coming back for more. That’s my take.

   That’s why I’m with Barry Manilow when he sings “Music would sing to me things no one else even said,” in Beautiful Music.

   There is an element to rock and roll where people just want to dance because they like dancing.  I get it, but that has always left me flat.  It has always bothered me that the sublime “Deacon Blues” only reached number 19 on the chart and the ridiculous “Shake Your Booty” went to number one. 

   “Bother” is a relative term here because it’s not really a problem. As the Rolling Stones sang, “It’s only rock and roll.”

   But I like it. I like it best when it’s personal.

   This is not to say every song does or should fit into that pattern.  There are limits to both “all politics is local” and “all rock is personal.”

   But there is universal understanding when B.J. Thomas sings “Hey, won’t you play another somebody done somebody wrong song and make me feel at home while I miss my baby.”

   I have mostly talked about songs that most anybody can relate to. You surely have your own songs that are more narrowly focused to you.

  I see myself in Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and in Paul McCartney’s “Fool On A Hill.”  These are tunes that probably get an extra spin or two when I listen to them.
   Having said all this about music and personalizing it, I admit I got impatient back in the day when Casey Kasem would read long distance dedications on American Top 40.  I guess I didn’t like that because it was somebody else’s special song.  I wanted Casey to get, as he used to say, “on with the countdown.”

  Now that I’m older and creating my own countdown, I can tell my life story with the help of my favorite old tunes.

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