When I Ran Off and Left Her by Vic Chesnutt – This is a peculiar little song that, not unlike Fleet Foxes, I have a once word description for…..ouch.
My history with this song can be traced directly though the Drive-by Truckers’ (which is where the link sends you. I couldn’t find Chesnutt’s original version on Youtube et al. So if you want to hear his version you’re gonna have to shell out the $.99)(N.B. the link just to the left sends you to Amazon which lets you hear a brief sample. iTunes will do the same.) tree as they cover it in concerts at times. But honestly, I like Chesnutt’s less straight-forward (crookeder?) original cut. It is also on the (now approaching legendary) 4.20.11 mix CD. The opening line (either version) immediately drew me to it.
When I ran off and left her, she wasn’t holding baby, but she was holding a bottle and a big grudge against me.
Now if you want to set a scene for an entire song, you begin it with words like that. How much more painful does knowing Chesnutt was in a wheelchair when he wrote it make it? A lot for me. I love songs that paint a picture for what follows with perfectly crafted opening line(s).
She scratches a letter into a wall made of stone / maybe some day another child won’t feel as alone as she does. (Why Go – Pearl Jam)
And thus were launched the thousands ships of early 90s teenage angst in a graphic and blunt force Vedder manner.
Screen door slams. Mary’s dress sways. Like a vision she dances along the porch as the radio plays. (Thunder Road – The Boss)
Wow, don’t you want to live there? Using proper names is always particularly evocative. My mind builds on those three sentences to the point where I see the first 20 minutes of a really great Clint Eastwood (N.B. director not actor) film. However, I’m fairly certain she marries the wrong guy and/or her father always wished she had been a boy.
Tommy used to work on the docks. (you know this one.)
Indeed he did.
Step inside / walk this way / you and me babe, hey hey.
Speaks for itself.
Maybe the last two aren’t as picturesque as the priors, but you knew what songs they began. Opening lines are far more important in songs than in novels. If I asked you to recite the opening line to any novel, could you? I’ve read a novel or two and I couldn’t do more than 2-3 (and I’m talking common consciousness shit like “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” or “Call me Ishmael.” In fact, those were the only two I could recall off the top of my head (N.B. and I’m almost certain I know those because they have drilled into my head since Academic Team days). Ok, so I just got up and scanned over my bookshelf. Based on the spines, I could only come up with two more partials. “Everything in here took place after Jack died” (Dave Eggers) and “I’m sitting in a chair surrounded by heads and bodies” (D.F. Wallace) oh oh oh something about Jem and a badly broken arm (To Kill a Mockingbird.) Ok, my point is I can rattle off plenty more first lines of songs. Some examples above. Some more to come. I understand this prolly has more to do with length and format than it does anything else. But I think hand in hand with brevity and flow is that great first lines of songs have to be better. Now that may seem a bit tautological, but what I’m getting at is that in songs the canvas is much smaller and it’s always great strategy to hit the listener with the best stuff out of the box. That is unless you can really bring it home with chorus/hook. Then you don’t care what the first line is. Think Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond or Mrs. Jackson by Outkast. What are the first lines to those songs? I can’t think of them, but I can damn sure belt out good times never seemed so good with the best of them. But I’m more of a first line fan. Hit me in the face with it or let me know where I am, what I’m supposed be seeing. Examples of both.
I’m a street-walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm. (Search and Destroy by Iggy and the Stooges) (what does this even mean? No clue, but I know it sets off the song perfectly.)
There’s a big fat man on a mechanical bull in slow motion, like Debra Winger. (The Opening Act by Drive-by Truckers (brilliant, pop culture ref. and everything. You’re in that bar.))
Or tell me what kind of person you are, why I should be listening to your story.
Well when you’re sitting there in your silk upholstered chair / Talking to some rich folks that you know / well I hope you won’t see me in my ragged company / cause you know I could never be alone. (Dead Flowers by The Stones)(You know that’s building to a big fuck you.)
Almost as good as:
Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots and ruined your black tie affair. (If you’re from Oklahoma, that first line is stitched inside your head like the “Do Not Remove” tags to the pillows on your bed).
How about if you just floor me:
I’ve been a bad, bad girl. (Criminal by Fiona Apple)(Maybe the sexiest music video ever…..that is in a way that creeps me out beyond belief.)
Well, they’re building the gallows outside my cell. I got 25 minutes to go. (I can never listen to this song enough.) (25 Minutes to Go by John R. Cash)
Or just ahead and break my heart:
Maybe I didn’t love you quite as often as I could have. (Always On My Mind by Willie Nelson)(virtually perfect, maybe the 2nd greatest ever)
But by quite a margin both the best of all time and my all time favorite, begins what many critics (including this bargain store one) beleive is the single greatest song in the history of popular music. It’s on the Rushmore of songs. It hurts to listen to it sometimes. It’s that singular. The words “perfect” and “genius” and “brilliant” are overused (guilty as charged). All three can and and should be used to describe this song and its hopeful/heartbreaking/confusing opening line:
I may not always love you, but long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it I’ll make you so sure about it. (God Only Knows by The Beach Boys)
Tell me some of yours. Enjoy.