Friday, April 18, 2008

The opener

While melody and rhythm, rather than lyrics, seem to drive the popularity of a song, it's always nice to come across a catchy tune that is as mindful of words as it is of music. Rarer still is that song that has a great opening line. Last fall, published this list that purports to, um, list the best opening lines in rock history. I think it's pretty clear that the editors at Spinner came up with this list during a time of great difficulty--perhaps while guarding enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib or some other place where the fog of war clouds judgment and loosens one's grip on right and wrong. I mean, "Tommy used to work on the docks"? "You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar"? These simply cannot be among the best opening lines of all time. And also, if we're going to be accurate, the opening line of "Livin' on a Prayer" is not "Tommy used to work on the docks." It's that talkbox-filtered "whoooa whoa whoa whooa whoa whoa" line, and it's TONS better than "Tommy used to work on the docks" because it expresses the plight of the song's protagonists so much more poignantly. (E.g., how Tommy is burdened by financial constraints and, from management's perspective, how he clearly presents a high risk for a worker's comp claim.)

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure what my favorite opening lines in pop/rock are, but a few songs automatically come to mind as definitely having good openers:

Paul Simon's "Graceland" ("The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar")

Elliott Smith's "Alameda" ("You walk down Alameda, shuffling your deck of trick cards, over everyone") and "Clementine" ("They're waking you up to close the bar / the streets wet you can tell by the sound of cars")

Kate Wolf's "Across the Great Divide" ("I've been walkin' in my sleep, countin' troubles 'stead of countin' sheep")

The Indigo Girls' "Ghost" ("There's a letter on the desktop I dug out of a drawer / the first truce we ever came to in our adolescent war")

R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" ("Lookin' at your watch a third time, waitin' in the station for the bus")

Modern English's "I Melt with You" ("Moving forward using all my breath / making love to you was never second best")

Rilo Kiley's "Portions for Foxes" ("There's blood in my mouth, 'cause I've been biting my tongue all week")

The Replacement's "Valentine" ("Well you wish upon a star / that turns into a plane")

Prince's "Little Red Corvette" ("I guess I shoulda known / by the way you parked your car sideways / that it wouldn't last")

Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" ("Livin' on the road, my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean / but now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath is as hard as kerosene") (obviously, the Willie Nelson-Merle Haggard version is the more famous)

Smashing Pumpkins' "Geek U.S.A." ("Lover, lover, let's pretend we're born as innocents / cast into the world with apple eyes")

Journey's "Oh Sherrie" ("Cinnamon gum! Knowing how I made you feel / And I cinnamon gum! After all your words of steel")

There are undoubtedly many, many other songs, but maybe that last one is my favorite (because of the gum angle).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Marty Robbins' El Paso has one of my favorites: "Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl." Sticking with the country theme, the best opening line of any song ever comes from Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Morning Coming Down: "Well I woke up Sunday morning,
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt."