True moments of clarity are rare and often arrive unexpectedly.
You know the kinds of moments I’m talking about.
You’re waiting on a long-delayed flight, hating life and everyone around you, when the fog of your increasingly sour disposition suddenly lifts.
What remains is a universal truth so glaring and simple that you’re left wondering what is wrong with you that you didn’t realize it sooner.
This was the case recently as I cruised the aisles of a local grocery store, debating the merits of organic quinoa in my head when I heard a familiar voice.
It was Bono.
No, it wasn’t the Bono voice I often hear in my head when shopping for groceries that tells me to buy fair trade coffee and forgive third-world debt.
It was the U2 frontman singing the band’s 1987 smash-hit “With or Without You” on the store’s PA system, and as I hummed along, it dawned on me: Someone wrote this song.
You see, “With or Without You” has been a part of my musical life as long as I can remember but I never once considered that it was written by a fellow human being, having been inspired by real emotions and real experience.
The song didn’t simply emerge from the ether or fall from the sky.
Someone, in this case Bono and friend Gavin Friday, labored for months to hammer out the arrangement and lyrics to a song that became the band’s first chart-topper in the U.S., and perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being in a toxic and painful relationship that also seems indispensable.
This revelation got me thinking about creativity and about the other songs that had long been a part of my life or to which I had a particular emotional connection.
Like anything that is constant in my life, I just assumed or took for granted the existence of these songs but never paid too much attention to the creativity required to make that happen and how much work it takes to write even the worst song.
This week’s playlist is dedicated to the songwriters responsible for some of my favorite lyrics, words that have moved me, made me smile or informed my life in some substantial way.
I wonder how much time it took to write “The Thong Song.”
• Martin Sexton, “Glory Bound” — I don’t know that anyone has ever written more profoundly about the importance of risk-tasking than Martin Sexton does here. “I’m taking a chance on the wind/I’m packing up all my bags/Making a mistake I gotta make/Then I’m glory bound.”
• Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” — Easy to dismiss this song as too precious but it has always resonated with me, particularly when Ben Gibbard sings, “If heaven and hell decide that they both are satisified/Illuminate the “no’s” on their vacancy signs/If there’s no one way beside you when your soul embarks/Then I’ll follow you into the dark.”
• Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” — Tough not to be moved by this. Tracy Chapman sings of two people longing to escape poverty, “You got a fast car/But is it fast enough so we can fly away?/We gotta make a decision/We leave tonight or live and die this way.”
• Matt Nathanson, “Loud” — Nathanson wrote one of my two favorite lyrics ever when he penned “You win/I quit/I’m certain you let my hands wander your hips/Just to leave me desperate now.”
• Paul Simon, “Kodachrome” — These are the other: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can even think at all.”
• U2, “One” — Only U2 could get away with lyrics like “Love is a temple/Love the higher law/You ask me to enter then you make me crawl/And I can’t be holding on/When all you got is hurt.”
• The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows” — Simply the greatest love song ever written. “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.”
• The Shins, “Simple Song" — Shins frontman Jim Mercer has penned some terrifically imaginative lyrics but none better than this simple chorus: “I know things can really get rough when you go it alone/Don’t go thinking you gotta be tough and play like a stone/Could be there nothing else in our lives so critical as this little home.”
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