Lyrical Interpretation – Four songs with lyrics worth exploring

I often find myself being drawn to the lyrics of a song. I enjoy following the narrative of a piece of a music, trying to piece together these ambiguous snippets of a songwriter’s inner-most thoughts, their hurts, their desires. Sometimes straight-forward, often ambiguous, lyrics can provide songs with a larger context, provoke thought, and enhance the listening experience. Here are four songs with lyrics worth exploring…


We begin with two opening lines from two very different songs (one’s an ode to romanticism, one’s a bitter “f*ck you” to an undisclosed ex).

You’ve got a lot of nerve
To say you are my friend
Bob Dylan – “Positively 4th Street”

That opening gambit is the perfect distillation of everything that the song endeavours to communicate. All the bitterness, the vitriol, the hurt, the regret, the anger – it’s all there. You wouldn’t even need to listen to the rest of the song to know what it’s about (though you should, cos’ it’s a great tune, yeah?). It’s the very essence of the song boiled down to a single sound-bite and it acts as the perfect launching pad for the rest of tune, a tune that also contains these gems;

You say you lost your faith
But that’s not where it’s at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

And now I know you’re dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don’t you understand
It’s not my problem

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
To see you

The whole song is just a torrent of bitterness filtered though Dylan’s genius. It’s brilliant.


And then there’s Bruce…

Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night
With bruised arms and broken rhythm in a beat-up old Buick
But dressed just like dynamite
Bruce Springsteen – “Incident On 57th Street”

Different street, different song. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is the most unflinchingly romantic song ever written. It does away with schmaltzy platitudes and twee declarations of undying love and all that jazz, instead telling the story of a love that’s imperfect, young and fleeting, coloured by honesty and not hyperbole and bullshit. It’s refreshing. And it’s all set against this impossibly perfect backdrop of 1950s Americana.

He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street
But they sighed “Johnny it falls apart so easy and you know hearts these days are cheap”
And the pimps swung their axes and said “Johnny you’re a cheater.”
Well the pimps swung their axes and said “Johnny you’re a liar”
And from out of the shadows came a young girl’s voice said: “Johnny don’t cry”
Puerto Rican Jane, oh won’t you tell me what’s your name.
I want to drive you down to the other side of town where paradise ain’t so crowded, there’ll be action goin’ down on Shanty Lane tonight
All them golden-heeled fairies in a real bitch fight
Pull .38s and kiss the girls good night


This next song was used at the front end of a kid’s TV show (the unreasonably brilliant The Adventures Of Pete & Pete) and if you forget about the lyrics for a second and just listen to the thing, it probably evokes images of Autumnal reverie. Or puppies. But peel back that shimmering indie-pop veneer, and the lyrics expose a dark undercurrent. And this runs deep.

Hey smilin’ strange
You’re lookin’ happily deranged
Could you settle to shoot me?
Or have you picked your target yet?
Polaris – “Hey Sandy”

It’s a song about the Kent State shootings. Not Autumnal reverie. Not puppies. It’s a song about the ugliest recesses of the human condition, the part that allows the National Guard to shoot and kill unarmed college kids (see also, Neil Young’s “Ohio”) because Richard Nixon says it’s okay.

Four feet away
End of speech, it’s the end of the day
We was only funnin’
But guiltily I thought you had it comin’

Hey Sandy
Don’t you talk back,
Hey Sandy

“Thirteen” is an unspeakably beautiful, wonderfully nostalgic ode to that time in your life before you had to worry about things like money and responsibility, and how an adolescent crush seemed like the most important thing in the world. It also hints at the ways in which adult relationships share more in common with the flailing around in the dark you did when you were thirteen and convinced you were in love than you’d probably like to admit.

It’s about one person in the relationship trying harder than the other

Won’t you let me walk you home from school
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you
Big Star – “Thirteen”

It’s about trying to find common ground with, and desperately bargaining for acceptance from, your partner’s parents, even if all you have to work with is the mutual admiration of a Rolling Stones song

Won’t you tell your dad “Get off my back”
Tell him what we said ’bout ‘Paint It Black’

It’s about the redemptive potential of music, and having a space to retreat to when it all comes crashing down

Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay
Come inside now it’s okay

And finally it’s about that last gasp bid to salvage it all, and the acceptance that you’re likely to come up short

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of
And would you be an outlaw for my love?
If it’s so then let me know
If it’s “no”, well, I can go
I won’t make you


Bob Russell

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