As the old adage goes, turnabout is fair play. My columns about songs with girls’ names in the title — an idea of Weekly copy editor Mike Howie — were quite popular. Let’s see if there’s any interest in the flip side of gender songs. We’ll start with the really good ones!
“Hey Jude” – The Beatles. A song that Paul McCartney wrote for John Lennon’s son, Julian, is one of the best songs ever featuring a guy’s name. Encouraging, uplifting and reassuring, this song became a universal message of how we begin to make it better.
“Hurricane” – Bob Dylan. The leadoff track from the “Desire” album, this eight-and-a-half-minute narrative exposed the interesting New Jersey “justice” surrounding the arrest and conviction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for a murder he didn’t commit. Carter was eventually freed in 1985 after his conviction was finally overturned. While this song made the “good list,” there’s another song from this album that will likely end up on the bad.
“The Ghost of Tom Joad” – Bruce Springsteen. Steinbeck’s hero from “The Grapes of Wrath” received two musical mentions: Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad,” and the Springsteen song in the spotlight here. A mid-1990s reflection on the modern versions of similar Depression-era concerns, “Joad” lived in two incarnations from the Boss: a stripped-down acoustic version, and an absolute rocker featuring the E Street Band with guest Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Both versions are stellar.
“Sam Stone” – John Prine. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes…” is how the chorus of this classic tale of a drug-dependent Vietnam vet begins. Wounded, and with “a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back,” the song’s character sinks into a hole that eventually consumes him. This was one of the first songs that empathized with the issues that Vietnam veterans were facing, and it was a message that wasn’t very popular upon its release in 1971. This absolute classic still resonates today, as we still don’t take as good care of veterans as we should. We owe it to them.
“Vincent” – Don McLean. This beautiful acoustic song celebrated — and mourned — the tragic life and timeless art of Vincent Van Gogh. Poetic and soothing, this is one of the finest tribute songs ever written.
“You Can Call Me Al” – Paul Simon. One of the most infectious grooves (and most recognizable intros) ever to hit the airwaves, “Al” combines African riffs and rhythms with a myriad of imagery only writers like Simon or Dylan could create. Roly-poly little bat-faced girls coexist with cartoon graveyard bonediggers and angels in the architecture spinning into infinity — while Al and Betty (whoever they really are) adopt pseudonyms for the length of the song. For what reason, we’ll never know.
“Captain Jack” – Billy Joel. Captain Jack was a heroin dealer in early-1970s Long Island who sold smack to suburban teenagers. Joel watched these relatively affluent teens walk into the housing project across the street and wonder what was so horrible in their lives that they felt the need to shoot heroin. The lengthy song, while quite brutal in its approach to these teen users, is one of the best anti-drug don’t-be-a-pathetic-loser songs ever written.
“Abraham, Martin and John” – Dion. Three names for the price of one song … and what names they were to drop in a pop song! Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy — and let’s not forget the Bobby Kennedy reference in the third verse. America was in a tumultuous place in 1968, with the assassinations of King and RFK. While Lincoln was murdered in 1865, the other three icons of social change were killed in the 1960s. And here we are in 2021, seemingly still fighting the same battles against hate and bigotry.
“Johnny B. Goode” – Chuck Berry. Hail, hail, rock and roll! Chuck Berry delivered more than a few signature guitar licks in the early days of rock, but none more recognizable as the opening riff that starts this song. Written in 1955 (and released in 1958), Chuck’s song about a country boy who could play a guitar like ringing a bell was just a wee bit autobiographical — Chuck was born on Goode Avenue in St. Louis.
“The Facts About Jimmy” – Shawn Colvin. While not a charting hit, this deep track from Shawn’s “A Few Small Repairs” album, released in 1996, features a compelling lyrical story and subtly intricate arranging and production from John Leventhal. Backing vocals from Lyle Lovett wrap up the package perfectly.
So much for the good for this column. Next week, we’ll take a look at some of the worst songs with guys’ names in the titles — until then, stay safe!
Catch John Wednesdays at Herbie’s, Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, Friday on Facebook Live, Saturday night at the Key Colony Inn, and Sunday brunch at Bongos. Music wherever you get your streaming or downloads. facebook.com/john.bartus