Walter Pater, the art and literary critic much admired by Oscar Wilde, wrote that “All art aspires to the condition of music.” I read that as other arts striving for the direct impact music has on the heart and spirit without recourse to any physical medium and being able to by-pass the intellect. Much though I love music I’ve never tended to listen to the lyrics of songs in a coherent and systematic way. Phrases and lines emerge over time in their own way and hook themselves into the brain.
I was jogging along yesterday morning listening to a podcast of the evergreen Desert Island Discs when a Bob Dylan song came on and a line really resonated for me as a perfect expression of what women mean to men. When I got home and sat down in front of my machine for the first time that day I whacked the line into Quotables for posterity – and to look at it on its own for a moment.
Not particularly poetic. Quite ordinary really. But in its context perfect and to the heart of the matter, to the matter of the heart.
So I felt inspired to pick out 10 great lines from songs that are worthy of the condition of music, that have the resonance and penetrative power of the supreme art. I tried being strict about one stand-out line per song only (only cracked once with a couplet).
1. Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm (1974)
2. John Lennon, Oh Yoko! (1971)
A powerful yet simple expression of romantic love.
3. John Martyn, Couldn’t Love You More (1977)
Song lyrics straining to capture Love (is there a theme emerging?)
4. Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (1966)
This could be love or drugs that’s fogging Jimi’s brain – either way it’s a great line.
5. The Clash, Garageland (1977)
A spirited (spirit of Punk) response to an early bad review (of a gig with The Sex Pistols at Islington’s Screen on the Green): “The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”. [Charles Shaar Murray - what did he know?]
6. Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)
Reckon there’s a load of philosophy buried in this couplet.
7. David Bowie, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1969)
Loved this phrase for a long time, the “somewhat” is just what’s needed to throw it off kilter.
8. The Doors (Jim Morrison), The Wasp (1968)
One of those lines that throws a word into a whole new light.
9. John Coltrane, Acknowledgement (1964)
Sometimes you don’t even need a whole line or clause – this is a transcendent chant. They’re the only words in this track and all the more striking for that.
10. Well, why don’t you add this one? What song words do it for you?…