Some of my favorite lines in songs I like because they’re just so funky. In that group I’d put “It’s fever in the funkhouse now” from “Tumblin' Dice,” “They’ll go gaga at the gogo” from the song “Hair,” “His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud” from “Lost in the Flood,” and “Wearing afros and braids in every gangsta ride” from “Players Ball.”
Others are my favorite because I like the ideas expressed: “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here” from “Once in a Lifetime, “Now some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece. Some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street,” because it expresses a basic tenet of my credo, and “I wanna' be Bob Dylan” from “Mr. Jones” because of course I do, and when you can put that line in a kickass song that evokes “Ballad of a Thin Man” it’s all the better.
Another class would be lines that are verbal hooks that drive the song. The best example of this I can think of is “Mother what a lover, you wore me out.” Would “Maggie Mae” have ever become the radio standard it is without this line? “Whoop. There it is!” is another example.
Some hook me because they’re just so unexpected. Steppenwolf released “The Pusher” two years before “Workingman’s Dead,” and hearing “god damn” in a song was something we hadn’t heard before, but the long groans of “The Pusher” lack the startling and delightful force of “God damn, well I declare, have you seen the like?”
Others are on my list because of the beauty of the language and the imagery evoked, none better than “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” It’s right up there with Coleridge’s “Woman wailing for her demon lover” which some critic has said is the best line in English poetry. (I’m an English major)
Finally there are the lines I like because of the cleverness of the rhyme. At the top of this list is “One thing is for certain, you will surely be a hurtin’, if you throw it all away.” As a matter of fact this song has the best lyrics of any song ever written, and that includes “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Amazing Grace” and the French National Anthem.
(Have you ever heard or read a translation of the French National anthem? It has lyrics like, “Let us march! May impure blood water our fields!”)
The entire “Nashville Skyline” LP is lyrically wonderful, like Hank Williams if Hank had been smarter. The showstoppers are “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You,” and “If You Throw it All Away,” (Mr. Dylan had by this time stopped giving his songs maddeningly disconnected titles) but “If You Throw It All Away” has a half dozen lines that would be in my top twenty list if I made one. “I once had mountains in the palm of my hand/and rivers that ran through every day.” Jesus is sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear when you can write a line like that.
About that top twenty list: I’d originally intended this post to be just that, but then I realized I’d need six months to think about it so as not to forget a gem. For example, as I write this I realize I’ve left out “I’m wishing I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then /Against the wind.”
So as more come to me I’ll stick them at the end of future posts and I encourage my readers to add their own through the “comments” section.
(Which reminds me. There’s someone in Moscow—Russia, not Idaho—who reads my blog. Tell me please, what brought you here and what causes you to return?)
Worst lines in songs are another matter. Bad lines in good songs are the exception. Most bad lines are in bad songs piled one upon another, and you have to be willing to listen to bad songs to know them. Therefore the ones we know we remember from our youth when our tastes were less refined and we listened to whatever came on the radio.
In my case that would be songs like “Wonderful World,” Sam Cook’s celebration of ignorance, “Knock Three Times” (on the ceiling if you want me), and Bobby Goldsboro’s makes-me-want-to-stick-hot-knitting-needles-in-my-eyes “Honey.” Oh, and “Last Kiss” a song for which I still have a perverse affection. Are you old enough to remember when syndicated columnist Dave Barry solicited suggestions from readers for worst songs ever recordered? (1993) “Honey” was nosed out by “McArthur Park” (someone left the cake out in the rain), an asinine song but for my money it can’t touch “Honey” as a stinker.
I offer two examples of bad lines in good songs and I’ll probably catch some flak for this. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Sorry Mr. Lennon, but the fact that there are other dreamers makes you no more or less one. Al Qaida and the Nazis could make the same claim,
“Him and I, Aquemini.” Sorry Mr. 3000, but it’s either “he and I” or “him and me.” You can’t go juggling noun cases just to make a good rhyme. It’s bad form.