Classic song meanings often obscured

On a recent morning my wife and I were assembled for breakfast in the dining room and I had Pandora Internet radio running on the iPad playing classic rock when Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” came on. When it came to the line “Paul is a real estate novelist … ” I asked my wife what a real estate novelist was?

I quickly searched it on the Internet and found out that Paul was a very regular patron at a bar where Billy Joel (The Piano Man) played every night. He claimed to always be working on his novel in his spare time as a real estate agent.

Over the years of rock ‘n’ roll there have been lots of lyrics and song meanings misunderstood, misheard or ignored by those less alive to the lyric and more in tune to the rhythm.

One of my favorites are the lyrics from the Eagles biggest hit “Hotel California.” Some say the song is about devil worship, others will tell you it’s about addiction and still others interpret it as about a lover killed in a hotel fire.

Band members say it was about the hedonistic Hollywood lifestyles they had been used to living and how easily one can get caught up in it and how it entraps. “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

Ask someone between the ages of 18 and 40 what the theme of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” is or what the song’s about. They’ll probably tell you it’s patriotic and a song that makes you proud to be an American. Everyone knows the catch line but no one pays attention to lyrics of the verses like:

“Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the yellow man”

It’s actually a song deploring the treatment of Vietnam Veterans.

Song lyrics can also provide a great history lesson like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” He says the idea of the song, coming when he turned 40, was to encapsulate the events, inventions and people during his lifespan. The verses are rapid fire words that evoke a quick image of the times beginning with Harry Truman and the Korean War taking you through the space race of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate and ending with AIDS. No verbs but lots of images.

Probably the rock ‘n’ roll song with the most different interpretations of lyrics is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” You see, all the lyrics in this classic song are written in symbolism. We all know those crazy lyrics mean something but nobody knows for sure because McLean’s not going to tell us.

We’re pretty sure “The day the music died” refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. Holly fans have even adopted the lyric to symbolize Holly’s death. After that, things get murky. Are these references to music, drug, religion or politicians? For most people though, the song, written in 1972 talked about the loss of the innocent age of music with simple lyrics and danceable beats in the 1950s through the folk and psychedelic phases of the 1960s to the Hollywood excesses the Eagles landed amidst in the 1970s.

Perhaps the Doobie Brothers put it best when they told us simply in song, “Listen to the music.”

Karl Terry writes for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at:

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