By Louise Ure
“What in the world has come over you?
What in heaven’s name have you done?
Broken the speed at the sound of loneliness
Out there running just to be on the run.”
– Amos Lee
Speed at the Sound of Loneliness
There’s something special about a songwriter’s ability to distill a character, an emotion, an entire story down to fewer than three hundred words. They can often say more in a chorus or a three chord transition than we can with chapters of dialogue and description and narrative.
It is a skill I admire.
An economy of words. And just the right words at that.
And they’ve got the advantage of being able to use that haunting minor chord, or guitar twang or perfect soprano voice to wrench our hearts even further.
There are a few songs – mostly old ballads and country western songs – that spell the whole story out for us.
Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”
“Puff the Magic Dragon”
Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”
Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”
Those black-eyed peas
They tasted all right to me, Earl
You’re feeling weak?
Why don’t you lay down
and sleep, Earl
Ain’t it dark
Wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?"
And my all time favorite in the category: “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” by Meatloaf.
“Ain’t no doubt about it
We were doubly blessed
‘Cause we were barely seventeen
And we were barely dressed.”
These are no one act plays. They tell the whole story — all the way from asshole to appetite. We know the characters, we know the plot, we know the conflict, we know the ending.
But there are other songs that touch me and make me ache to hear more. Not just of the song, but of the story told. Those are the songs I’d like to turn into novels.
Amos Lee, quoted above, is one of those. His song is a sad plaint about a woman living on the edge, making bad choices, and leaving a good man in her wake. Who is she? Why has she driven herself to this lonely place? It’s a book I’d like to read. It’d be a perfect vehicle for Ken Bruen. Or Denise Mina. Or Sara Gran, dontcha’ think? Somebody who carves into the hearts that beat in cold gray places.
How about Janis Joplin’s version of "Me and Bobby McGee?”
I want four hundred pages of the saga of these two drifters. And would we dare turn this tale of harpoon-blowing hitchhikers into a crime story? Duane S. could do it. Or Megan Abbott.
Maybe Solomon Burke’s "Honey, Where’s the Money Gone?"
Even the oldie “Walk Away Renee” leaves me wanting more pages. (Although the new ballad version by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy seems to tell more of a story than the old Four Tops pop-and-R&B song.)
“Your name and mine inside a heart upon a wall
Still find a way to haunt me
Though they’re so small
Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame”
What drove these young lovers apart? A pregnancy? An abortion? Narrow-minded parents? A new lover? “Romeo and Juliet” was written with less inspiration than these lyrics.
And Miranda Lambert’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is tailor-made for a mystery novel.
“Well, I started throwing things
And I scared folks half to death
I got up in his face
And smelled whiskey on his breath
I didn’t give a second thought
To being thrown in jail
Cause baby to a hammer
Everything looks like a nail.”
I want to write that book. The wacko ex-girlfriend who hunts down the sleazy ex and his trashy new lady. I do so love writing about strong women bent on revenge.
And I was going to add that Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” would make a good book, too, but she seems to be living out that story for us live and in person. Still, ya gotta love that song. It’s got echoes of “Dancing in the Streets,” but only if you’re dancing in a funeral procession.
How about you guys? Is there a song you’d like to see taken to 400-page length?
Is it one you like to read or one you’d like to write?
And if you aren’t the perfect person to write it, which author should we talk into it?