Mysterious Ways

By fredonelson | 9:00 am on July 6, 2012

When it comes to pop culture, I don’t need everything explained to me like I’m an idiot.  In fact, I love unsolved mysteries and ambiguous moments where I’m forced to draw my own conclusions.  For example, I thought the series finale of The Sopranos was absolutely brilliant; each viewer got to imagine his or her own version of Tony’s fate.  And what’s more beautiful than that scene in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett Johansson’s ear?  We’ll never know what he said and we’re left to imagine any number of possibilities.  That moment took my breath away.

Unfortunately, with many movies and TV shows we’re hit over the head with every detail and manipulated into feeling a certain way… the way the writers/directors/producers intend for us to feel.  We’re spoon fed our emotional reaction.

Although ambiguous moments may be rare in filmed entertainment, they’re all over the music world.  That’s one of the reasons I love music so much.  Music lyrics, like good poetry, can be filled with unanswered questions that let the listener go down any number of paths depending on one’s paradigm and mood.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the obvious ones here, the literal questions that are actually in certain song titles.  But now that I think about it…   Where do broken hearts go?  What does love got to do with it?  Who did let the dogs out?

But I digress.  Herewith, I present four songs whose lyrics keep me thinking, guessing, philosophizing.

“After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young

This is by far my favorite Neil Young song.  I also love the cover versions by Natalie Merchant, k.d. lang and Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.)  One of the reasons I love the song so much is because of the second verse:

I was lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in my eyes
I was hoping for replacement when the sun burst thru the sky
There was a band playing in my head and I felt like getting high
I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie

Who’s the friend?  What did he/she say?  And when?  Why does Neil hope it was a lie?  I could spend all day coming up with endless possibilities.  I’ll keep them to myself, however, so as to not taint your own interpretation.

“Please Mr. Please” by Olivia Newton-John

One of my favorite dinner party questions is, “What’s your B-17?”  I mostly receive blank stares, but once in awhile a savvy ONJ fan who’s familiar with this tune knows exactly what I’m referring to and participates in a spirited discussion.  Here’s the opening verse:

In the corner of the bar there stands a jukebox with the best of country music, old and new
You can hear your five selections for a quarter and somebody else’s songs when yours are through
I got good Kentucky whiskey on the counter and my friends around to help me ease the pain
‘Til some button-pushing cowboy plays that love song and here I am just missing you again
Please, Mr., please, don’t play B-17. It was our song, it was his song, but it’s over
Please, Mr., please, if you know what I mean I don’t ever wanna hear that song again

Back when bars had jukeboxes, you’d put another dime in the jukebox, baby, and press a letter and number combo to select the song you wanted to hear.  B-17 is the song that reminds Olivia of the guy that broke her heart.  What’s your B-17, the song that makes you think of an old flame the moment you hear the first few notes?  Everyone should have a B-17.  I have several.

“You Said Something” by P.J. Harvey

All the critics love Polly Jean and so do I.  This song, track 8 from 2000′s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, is decidedly a story from the city.

On a rooftop in Brooklyn, one in the morning
Watching the lights flash in Manhattan
I see five bridges, the Empire State Building
And you said something that I’ve never forgotten

It’s so simple and yet it paints such a vivid picture.  But we’re left to wonder… who’s she singing to?  What did he/she say that she’s never forgotten?  Was it a big revealing secret, a sweet compliment, an awful confession, or a simple, “I love you?”  In the very last line she switches from “you said something that I’ve never forgotten” to “you said something that was really important.”  The plot thickens!

“Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked

If you aren’t familiar with this song, get thee to iTunes and download it immediately!  It’s basically a letter from one long lost friend to another, filled with mundane detail and sweet nostalgia.  It feels as if Michelle is reciting word for word the reply she received from an old pal she recently contacted.  This verse is found in the middle of the tune:

Hey, girl, I think the last time I saw you was on me and Leroy’s wedding day
What was the name of that love song you played?
I forgot how it goes. I don’t recall how it goes

What was the song?  Was it a wedding standard or an original composition Michelle penned for the occasion?  And how could someone forget their wedding song?  So many questions, so many possibilities.

I encourage you to listen for these wonderful little mysterious morsels that are peppered throughout popular music.  And if we ever meet at a dinner party, you better be prepared with your B-17.

Which of these “mysterious” songs is your favorite?

“Building a Mystery” by Sarah McLachlan
“Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles
“Mystery Dance” by Elvis Costello
“She’s a Mystery to Me” by Roy Orbison


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