Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rod Stewart -- "Every Picture Tells a Story"

I couldn't quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats
'Cause it's all been said before
Make the best out of the bad just laugh it off
You didn't have to come here anyway
So remember, every picture tells a story, don't it?

If I was ever called on to debate whether the words or the music was the more important element in a rock song, I would choose "music," play this song, and simply declare victory -- I wouldn't need to say a thing.  "Every Picture Tells a Story" -- the first track on Rod Stewart's album of the same name -- is a great song, and certainly my favorite song on the record.  But it has some of the dumbest lyrics you will ever want to hear. 



But before we deconstruct those lyrics, let's spend a moment talking about the album.  (By the way, I honestly don't know what "deconstruct" means, but I like the sound of it.  Chicks dig guys who can deconstruct stuff.)

Every Picture Tells a Story was Rod Stewart's third album, and it was hugely popular, making it to #1 on the Billboard LP chart.  "Maggie May" was on the radio constantly in 1971, and still is.  

I'm pretty sure I got my copy of this record by joining a record club -- you remember when you could get 12 records for a penny (plus about twenty bucks in S&H) as long as you agreed to buy another dozen at full price over the next year?

Hey, when you're a college student, you're usually somewhere else when the next year rolls around.  I can't imagine how the record clubs didn't go bankrupt.  I don't know anyone who actually paid the full price for records from them.

Columbia Record Club advertisement

(I remember joining a record club when I was in high school -- I only got two free records, so the obligations must have been pretty minimal.  The two records were the truly remarkable "Surrealistic Pillow," by the Jefferson Airplane, and a record with music from "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." television show.)



Rod Stewart put out some appallingly bad records as he got older.  He does not have good taste in music, but his taste is very eclectic.  But even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then.

Not surprisingly, this record is uneven and consists of a real grab-bag of songs that have nothing in common.   There are three Stewart originals (the title cut, "Maggie May," and "Mandolin Wind") and a bunch of covers.

The Temptations
The covers include an old blues song ("That's All Right," the first song Elvis Presley ever recorded), an obscure Bob Dylan song, a Tim Hardin song ("Reason to Believe," which was released as a single with "Maggie May" as the B side -- who was the clueless dope who made that decision?), and a surprisingly good version of a Motown classic, the Temptations' "(I Know) I'm Losing You."  Oh, I almost forgot -- there's a version of "Amazing Grace" as well.  Go figure.

"Every Picture Tells a Story" tells the story of a young man who takes his father's advice to see the world before he gets old, and travels to Paris, Rome, and Peking.  Here's the verse about the Rome part of the trip:

Down in Rome I wasn't getting enough
Of the things that keeps a young man alive
My body stunk but I kept my funk
At a time when I was right out of luck
Getting desperate, indeed I was
Looking like a tourist attraction
Oh, my dear, I better get out of here
For the Vatican don't give no sanction

The double negative doesn't really bother me, but I don't know what to make of lines like "My body stunk but I kept my funk" -- especially when you rhyme that with "luck."  I see only three possible explanations for lyrics like this:

1.  Rod was drinking when he wrote this song.
2.  Rod was up against a tight deadline, and had to write the song in 15 minutes or less.
3.  Rod is taking the piss at our expense.

The lyrics get even worse.  Here's the next verse:

On the Peking ferry I was feeling merry
Sailing on my way back here
I fell in love with a slit-eyed lady
By the light of an eastern moon
Shanghai Lil never used the pill
She claimed that it just ain't natural
She took me up on deck and bit my neck
Oh people, I was glad I found her 

I suppose we can overlook the oh-so-politically-incorrect "slit-eyed lady" (a term he repeats in the next verse just in case we didn't catch it the first time), but the stuff about the pill not being natural is really too much information.

Here's Rod with a lady who is definitely not slit-eyed:


Of course, some people don't agree with me.  One Rolling Stone reviewer said Stewart's lyrics "are just about the finest lyrics currently being written, lyrics constructed solidly of strong, straightforward images that convey intense emotions."  (Say what?) 

Speaking about this song in particular, that reviewer went on to say, "Where [Stewart's] momentarily intent on rhyme things get a trifle forced here and there (as when he mates Rome and none), but such objections evaporate instantly in the face of such delightful lines as: 'Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She said, "It just ain't natural!"'"  You have GOT to be kidding me.  (Sorry about all those quotation marks, by the way -- very confusing.)


Rod Stewart's "Every Picture Tells a Story" is the greatest rock & roll recording of the last ten years. It is a mature tale of adolescence, full of revelatory detail (Rod combing his hair a thousand different ways in front of the mirror), and it contains the only reference to the Dreyfus case in the history of rock. It is also hilarious, and one of the friendliest pieces of music ever recorded. It is rock & roll of utterly unbelievable power, and for most of its five minutes and fifty-eight seconds that power is supplied by nothing more than drums, bass, acoustic guitar and Rod's voice. [Drummer] Mick Waller should have received the Nobel Prize -- in physics, of course -- for his demolition work at the end of the first verse; Martin Quittenton's acoustic guitar playing is well beyond any human award -- for that matter, it is beyond human ken."
Someone needs to dump a bucket of Gatorade on Professor Marcus to cool down that overheated prose.  I certainly agree with him with regard to the drumming and the acoustic guitar work.  But "the only reference to the Dreyfus case"?  I have no clue.
  
John Keats (1795-1821)
Finally, we get to the lines quoted at the beginning of this post, which bring the song to a close.  I hate to sound pedantic, but no one who knows anything about literature would write a line like "I couldn't quote you no Dickens, Shelley, or Keats," and I ain't talking about no double negative neither.  (I'm quite sure Rod is telling us the truth here.  I can just see him writing this song -- asking his mates or his bird or his mum to tell him the names of some famous writers he can stick in here, and they come up with these guys, who any Englishman has had to have heard of even if he never read a word they wrote.)  

The line is like one of those which-word-doesn't-belong questions on the SAT.  Dickens was a novelist -- and a very odd novelist to use in this context -- and Shelley and Keats were poets.  I'd think you'd want to refer to three poets here -- maybe "Byron, Shelley or Keats," although those three had similar styles, so saying that those three (who were all English and whose lived at the same time) said it all dismisses 99% of the world and all of history except for the first two decades of the 19th-century.  

It's sort of like saying the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Who said it all -- those are three great bands, but what about the Beatles?  What about all the great American bands?  What about all the great black musicians?  What about all the great music of the last 35 years?  

Having said that, I have to admit that I haven't really come up with a very good alternative to Stewart's line.  I think you have to get Shakespeare in there, and maybe a poet -- say, Wordsworth -- and a novelist.  Mark Twain?  "I couldn't quote you no Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Twain"?  It's an odd threesome, I admit, but at least the names have the right number of syllables.

Here's the song:



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Every


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