10 Songs That Basically Sum Up Their Authors’ Lives
We’re big fans of story songs — those tunes that develop like novellas. Every genre has its master — Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Kozelek, Drive-By Truckers, etc. — and we’ve “read” them all.
But our favorite kind of story song is the one that — whether intentionally or not — tells the story of a band or artist. Some are eerily prescient, leaving you scratching your head and asking whether it was possible that so-and-so band knew about what lie in store. Here, with our list of Songs That Basically Sum Up Their Authors’ Lives, we celebrate 10 of our autobiographical faves.
Being dropped by a record label and stagnant record sales can kill many a good band. But Jimmy Eat World persevered and are one of the better underdog stories in emo/modern rock history. The story of this struggle is recounted in the lyrics of this song.
Magnolia Electric Co., ‘Even the Dark Don’t Hide It’ (‘Magnolia Electric Co.’)
There’s nothing worse than a songwriting talent checking out too soon — what a waste. We can’t count how many times we’ve wished Elliott Smith, for example, were still around, writing and performing. So when we heard that MEC’s Jason Molina had passed, we were filled with sorrow. This Neil Young-esque romp about life, death, religion — just about everything heavy — seems like a harbinger of what was to come.
This was the “Song of the Summer” in 2007, and it tells the story of a band that “makes it,” does a bunch of drugs, marries models, etc. It’s one of those songs urging fans to make a band famous so that it can partake in all the wonders of stardom. And MGMT definitely saw some fame. Probably did some drugs. But where are they now?
A Tie Between Uncle Tupelo’s ‘Chickamauga’ and ‘New Madrid’ (‘Anodyne’)
These two songs from Uncle Tupelo’s final album, both on the rocking side of things, define the acts that would emerge following the band’s split: Son Volt and Wilco. ‘Chickamauga’ foreshadows the Neil Young-esque rock-outs of the former’s debut, ‘Trace,’ while the acoustic country of ‘New Madrid’ predicts the latter’s first album ‘A.M.’ If only they had stayed together.
Also known as ‘Drug Buddy’ and ‘My Drug Buddy,’ this song, like the one above, pretty much speaks for itself. Lead Lemonhead Evan Dando has struggled with drug addiction throughout his career, and this, well, is a reflection on just that. Dando sings of the urge to do drugs, the moment of “scoring” and the “buddy” he gets high with. In the song, that buddy is played by Juliana Hatfield. It’s both a sad and happy song. And reminds us of what a genius Dando can be — stoned or straight.
We had a chance to see Ray LaMontagne before he hit it big, opening for British blues-jazz-indie-rock band Gomez. It was just him, his guitar and the giant, gravelly voice that set him apart from everyone else at the time. And there was this girl in the front row, screaming after every song, obviously his girlfriend or wife. ‘Trouble’ is a place plenty of singer-songwriters know too well (as is obvious by Elliott Smith and Jason Molina), but luckily, this story had a happy ending.
What a haunting song! That bassy, detuned guitar line; that cello that saws through halfway in; and Kurt Cobain’s broken, howling vocals. Months later, he would commit suicide, and the biggest band in the world would be gone in a flash. Fans and his former bandmates were left with nothing. What else can we say?
This Weezer song came late in the sequence on the first album — well after all the hits — so it’s entirely possible that casual listeners avoided it completely. However, its a critical song on that album — possibly the most important — and basically tells the story of the band. You can picture Rivers Cuomo, guitar in hand, playing/singing to the garage wall: “I’ve got an electric guitar/I play my stupid songs/I write these stupid words/and I love every one.” Anyone who’s written a song can empathize.
It’s tough enough talking about dead, uber-talented songwriters in the past tense. So when the Elliott Smith record ‘From a Basement on the Hill’ was released posthumously, and it included this ode to a dead friend, it was hard to listen to and believe Smith had written it while alive and breathing. Read it whichever way you choose — but we see it as Smith’s touching eulogy at his own funeral.