This is Part II of a post where I place the blame squarely on songwriters for screwing up their songs. See Part I here.

“I’ll work for your Love”-Bruce Springsteen

80% of all rock fans think the Boss is one of the all-time greats, putting him up there with John, Paul, Joni and Holy Bob. The other 20% look at the 80% and wonder what they’re thinking. We over here in the Other 20 don’t get it, folks.

For me, Springsteen’s voice does his songs a disservice. It always strikes me as over-earnest (and as I’ve written before, not liking the singer’s voice is pretty much akin to not liking the song). His singing reminds me of a soap opera star, torn T-shirt, struggling against some evil force, over-emphasizing each heavy breath.

Still, I have respected peers–songwriters, writers, artists–who swear by the Boss, and each loves to pass along Springsteen tunes to me, hoping for conversion. No doubt there are Springsteen songs I like (“I’m on Fire,” probably because his voice is so subdued), but most of his efforts get ransacked at some point by his panting, cloying presence. I’ve concluded the Boss likes something in his music I just don’t. That’s okay with me, and I’m sure he’ll survive somehow.

Recently, my Springsteen opinion threatened to change when a friend made me listen to a song from Springsteen’s album “Magic” called “I’ll Work for your Love.”

Here are the first four lines of the song:

Pour me a drink Theresa

In one of those glasses you dust off

And I’ll watch the bones in your back

Like the stations of the cross

Lovely, right? Then the chorus:

I’ll work for your love, dear

I’ll work for your love

What others may want for free

I’ll work for your love

I was smitten by the imagery and the beautiful can-do sentiment of the chorus. For the first time I was getting what people get from the Boss, and I was ready to dedicate the next decade of my life to exploring his back catalog.

But the song kept going.

Round your hair the sun lifts a halo

At your lips a crown of thorns

and later

The pages of Revelation

Lie open in your empty eyes of blue

and later

Your tears, they fill the rosary

At your feet, my temple of bones

Here in this perdition we go on and on

and later

Now our city of peace has crumbled

Our book of faith’s been tossed

And I’m just out here searchin’

For my own piece of the cross

and later

The late afternoon sun fills the room

With the mist of the garden before the fall

I watch your hands smooth the front of your blouse

And seven drops of blood fall

Are you getting that subtle Catholic imagery weaved throughout? Yeah, me too.

All of a sudden, just like that, I didn’t like the song as much. Is it because I have some issue with the Catholic church? No. It’s the fact that the sentiment I’d built into the song, this love of this man for this woman and his willingness to work for her love, struck me as not so much the meaning of the song anymore. That part now seemed merely a vehicle Springsteen employed to cram as much Catholic imagery into the song as possible. This sort of over-control of the lyrics gets in the way for me. I feel pulled out of the trance, manipulated in a way. It’s the songwriter getting in front of the song and saying, “Isn’t it amazing all this Catholic imagery I’m putting in?” My earlier suspicions of the Boss came flooding back–control, manipulation, artifice. He almost sucked me in that time.

“Boys of Summer”-The Ataris

You might find it strange that I include a cover song in this post–and such a great song–but this one holds a special place in my heart for songwriting misplays. It’s 2003. 9/11, file sharing and Ritalin are all doing a pretty good job of driving a stake into rock and roll’s heart, and this Disney-esque cover of a classic 80s pop song–maybe the greatest 80s pop song, written by a star associated with one of the biggest bands of the 70s–might be just the shot of adrenaline rock and roll needs to get up and rolling again.

It was the famous third verse that caught my attention:

Out on the road today

I saw a Black Flag sticker…

Right there I was ready to leap to my feet in aural ecstasy. I felt we’d arrived at a magical moment, when the 21st century of rock was getting tied to the 20th in a vital, appealing way by this band, with this cover. Damn it, rock music culture was not dead. It would rise again. Take that, Bin Laden!

But then the lyrics continue.

…on a Cadillac

A little voice inside my head said

Don’t look back, don’t you ever look back.

Why did I deflate so after this? Aren’t these words exactly the same as the Don Henley version of the song? Yes, but at the point I heard “Black Flag sticker” the song transformed into something new for me. Tying this classic song to a more current generation of rockers, showing in a visceral way the connection we still have with great bands like Black Flag and the Eagles (how many times do you hear those two mentioned in the same sentence?) was an idea for the ages. We are all one rock audience, and here was a chance to unite most if not all of us in the common thread of rock. I’d’ve never thought to do the same thing–and if that kid who sings for the Ataris thought of it, hats off to him–but he didn’t follow through, didn’t finish it. Here’s what I mean.

The whole stanza begs to be rewritten to match the time and place. For example, the Cadillac doesn’t really have the same resonance for our generation that it does for Henley’s; in the 21st century, Caddies aren’t really synonymous with affluence or maturity. So what would be an equivalent contradictory vehicle for a Black Flag sticker to appear on in 2003? How about an SUV?

Out on the road today

I saw a Black Flag sticker on an SUV

Which sets up the perfect finish:

A little voice inside my head said

It’s coulda been me, yeah, it coulda been me.

Wow, am I an awesome lyric writer or what? Not really. The hard part was coming up with the idea in the first place, which is what whoever put “Black Flag sticker” in that verse did. You can probably write your own version of the rest. This is a simple case of a songwriter not showing up with his lunch pail that day. The dominoes were set up to fall, someone just forgot to push them. I hope some songwriter gets another shot someday, but I bet it won’t be as good a shot.

“Filler”-Minor Threat

I think everyone of a certain vintage can remember that homemade cassette they played over and over until it wore out. You may not have known the name of the album, you probably didn’t know the names of the songs, but still you loved that cassette almost as much as anything else in your collection.

Such was the case when a high school friend of mine came back from Germany with a homemade cassette collection of punk music. My favorite off the tape was a band called Minor Threat, and the first song had this great chorus that went:

Hey, knucklehead,

Hey, knucklehead,

Hey, knucklehead,

Fa Na.

I didn’t know what “fa na” meant, and I didn’t care. The song was delivered with such perfect rage, I knew it must be some heavy shit, and that was enough for me. I think I also knew deep down not to want to solve this mystery, that it could only disappoint me. The way it was yelled was so vital, the actual words seemed irrelevant.

It wasn’t until way later that I found out the line wasn’t “Hey, knucklehead” but “It’s in your head,” and that my imagined “fa na” was in fact the name of the song, “Filler.” So the song went:

It’s in your head

It’s in your head

It’s in your head


The lead singer, the inimitable Ian MacKaye, was referring to the way conventional thought–primarily religious thought–gets into people’s heads and screws them up. It’s a valid sentiment, and even today I relate very much to it. Still, I’m not sure I like his lyrics better than my own. There’s something so perfect about “Hey knucklehead,” and something so pure about the sentiment I heard in that “fa na.” To me, it makes the whole song broader in scope, addressing knuckleheads throughout the world in their many knucklehead guises (and God knows they need addressing). Again, learning the actual words only led to real disappointment.

Here’s the gist, songwriters. When someone unknowingly screws up the lyrics to your song, they’re actually more tuned into your music than you think. The listener cares so much about your voice and melodies, she attaches her own words–her own meaning–to them. That bond gets shot if it has to be all about your lyrics. More than creating art, you’re sharing energy with your audience, which is more important, and often more revealing, than anything you might say. Lennon–that famous garbler of his own lyrics–got this. Cobain–who never wrote a word that didn’t first and foremost sound good coming out of his mouth–got this. Ian MacKaye–who regularly handed off his microphone to audience members to sing the lyrics of his songs–got this. Someone likes your vibe enough to want to sing along. What a compliment to your work and, if unencumbered with your ego, what a gift to your listener.

ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

49 responses to “Songwronger: Part II”

  1. D.R. Haney says:


    It’s MacKaye!

    Quick! Change the spelling before I attempt to convert you yet again to Springsteen!

    The power of Ian compels you!

  2. Gonna have to disagree with you on Bruce Springsteen. He’s one of the few decent singer-songwriters who ever made it. There’s a reason he and Patti Smith collaborated and wrote songs together. Springsteen is sort of known for weaving religious imagery into his songs but I’m not turned off by that. His view, through his lyrics, is of a God or spirit that resonates in everyday people. It’s not bowing down before a greater being in the sense that the Greater Being has to be of title case.

    There’s a little piece at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/august/8.59.html that makes the comment, and rightfully so, about Pete Seeger using the same type of imagery.

    To say that Springsteen uses “control, manipulation, [and] artifice” to write his songs is incorrect in my opinion. Anyone, even the 20%, need to give him much more credit than that. I can hardly think of any book by any writer that doesn’t paint their canvas of words and sentences with some brush of religious imagery at some point between the first word to the last period.

  3. Tom Hansen says:

    I’m basically in agreement with you on Bruce’s overly dramatic delivery. The one album of his that is in my stack is Darkness on the Edge of Town, in which the lyrics, if I remember correctly were more grime and despair than filled with religious references

  4. D.R. Haney says:

    Springsteen isn’t my usual taste in music by a long shot, but I have to admit to a weakness for him. The voice was never good, and he’s earnest and corny and so on, but he’s just so damned American in almost every way I find America endearing.

    I think Darkness is an uneven record (though “Candy’s Room” fairly scorches, as does “Streets of Fire,” and “Racing in the Streets” is nice and melancholy). I’d have to go with, predictably, Nebraska as my favorite, and Tunnel of Love just activates that nostalgia thing, recalling New York City at a certain time and place.

    But, hey, I more or less promised that I wouldn’t try to convert you to Bruce if you corrected the spelling of Ian’s name, cheerfully or not, and I’m a man of my word.

    • Art Edwards says:

      I avoided writing about 10,000 words about Springsteen’s megalomania, because the world is full of Springsteen-philes and there’s just not enough time in the day. I don’t like him in that completely prejudicial way we don’t like certain entertainers, and I’m not sure I can be any clearer about it than that.

  5. Well, I’m on your side about Bruce. Pretty much can’t listen to him. I realize that statement renders me a moron in the face of millions of avid followers, but so be it. Over the years I’ve had any number of friends work hard to convert me. I’ve seen Bruce live. Listened to bootlegs. Been instructed on how to properly appreciate the (presumed) chops of Clarance Clemons. In the end, none of it took. I mean, sure, Bruce has a crack band, total pros, they put on a good show, he hasn’t sold his face to sell mayo, and is politically progressive and all. So, lots of reasons to dig it. But to me, musically, he’s a one-note nostalgia pony who bores me to tears with tales about a street-Jersey that never existed and sings every line with the identical inflection of self-bestowed integrity.

    But, you know, I feel the same way about Clapton.

    Actually, I’d much rather listen to Nebraska than just about anything by The Clap.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Bob Dylan.

      Don’t care.

      Can’t listen.

      That voice. That awful, awful voice.

      • Art Edwards says:

        You’re breaking my heart, Simon.

        One man’s Springsteen is another man’s Dylan, I guess.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I am a big fan of who Dylan used to be. I am a fan of the icon.

          I tried to go and see that guy in concert with Foo Fighters acoustic and ended up leaving 3 songs into his set. I think he may have been drunk.

          It was atrocious. And in front of his home state crowd. Unforgivable. I’d seen him one other time at an outdoor venue and didn’t remember him being so awful, but maybe I was the one who was drunk that time.

          The silver lining: That awful experience made me sit up and take notice of the magic that is Dave Grohl. It takes some doing to show up Bob Dylan, especially in my eyes and even if he’s totally wasted.

        • Art Edwards says:

          I’m a Dylan freak. I saw him in concert once and watched the drummer for two hours. Not exactly David Lee Roth, Mr. Zimmerman.

          I also love Jay Farrar, have seen him twice, and left early both times. (Yawn.)

          Mellencamp’s reputation seems to be getting better with age. I’d never thought to think of him as good. He was always just kind of there. I don’t think I knew of one “fan” of Mellencamp back in the day, but I didn’t know anyone who didn’t know the words to his singles.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Clapton’s a brave one, Sean. I’ll go out on that limb with you. Someone tell us why we should care about Clapton?

      Doesn’t the fact that the E-Street Band are “total pros” bore you to tears? I’m not sure I want my musicians to be total pros. Musicians should “play,” shouldn’t they?

      Then again, I don’t want some kid who’s going to let his guitar feed back half the night.

      • Tom Hansen says:

        I was a master of feedback. I could make it sound like Jimmy Page and his theramin. Don’t get me started about Clapton. Cream tickets 2500$? That was the end for me. Basically a private concert for Bill Gates and co. Fuck that shit

        • Art Edwards says:

          Tom, no doubt you’re exactly the guy I want manning the six-string if I’m in the audience.

          Moby Dick (Dick, Dick, Dick…)

        • I mean, yeah, Blind Faith and Cream-era Clapton? Sure, tons of good licks in there if that’s what you’re in the mood for. But solo Clapton? With his benumbed, derivative, slurry, pop-Robert Johnson routine? Sorry.

          I agree about the “total pro” thing not exactly being a compliment, but I wanted to make it clear I wasn’t saying something like “they suck.” They’re all really good musicians who have been playing exactly what they wanted to together for decades. I can totally respect that. I just don’t want to listen to it.

          Also, I love Bob Dylan. But I’ve seen him live 3-4 times….pretty brutal in each instance.

        • Art Edwards says:

          Agreed. Saying the E Street Band sucks would be a hard argument to make.

          No doubt, Clapton leverages heavily on his earlier work with his later. I don’t think anyone will remember one of his singles. Maybe they’ve already forgotten them.

    • Dana says:

      Heh. “The Clap”.

      Yeah, I never really “got” Bruce either. Friends tried to talk me into seeing him, “his shows last over 3 hours!”. How that’s a selling point of something you DON’T like is beyond me. I don’t like him for an hour and a half, but by that 3rd hour… ?!? The overwrought delivery is just lost on me. But on the other hand, I kind of like him as an American.

      I’ve seen Dylan at least 10 times. He’s been awful and he’s been awesome. The last time he was mostly boring. However, Elvis Costello opened and was so fucking fantastic that it more than made up for us walking out on Dylan. But Simon – screw the voice (yes it’s pretty hideous) and read the lyrics. “Idiot Wind” comes to mind. Come on — the man’s a genius!

      • Art Edwards says:

        Your comment made me laugh out loud, Dana. “He’ll bore you for three hours, man.”

        I’m a sick soul who loves Dylan’s voice, all dozen or so incarnation of it.

        • Dana says:

          Over the weekend I heard part of this show on NPR – and as described by the host the snippet of the Christmas song they played sounded like “a really bad impression of Dylan singing a Christmas song”. Unfortunately, it was really him on the album he put out last year. Yeeeesh. I really don’t mind his voice most of the time and it certainly has changed and morphed over the years.

          Frankly it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else mustering up the contempt and sarcasm he does in his delivery… “You know it balances on your head — just like a mattress balances
          on a bottle of wine — your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat”

        • Art Edwards says:

          That was a weird one, that Christmas tune.

          You never know what he’s gonna do. The linear, writerly mind is baffled by him, and I think that’s why he gets so much good press.

  6. Meg Worden says:

    Our lips are sealed = Omelettes of steel.

    Loved this, Art.

  7. P.A. Scott says:

    The lyrics to Don Henley “Boys of Summer” are “a dead head sticker on a cadillac” (as in Grateful Dead fan) not Black Flag … in case anyone cares.

  8. Becky Palapala says:

    I’m proud to find myself in my 20% with you, Art.

    It’s not that I can’t appreciate the Boss now and again, and certainly his nostalgia quotient is off the charts. “Dancing in the Dark” drags me back to my grade school and pre-teen years when he ruled the rock-pop airways (and my dad’s cassette collection) alongside Dire Straits and Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.” Back to when we first had cable and MTV. That’s about as far he gets with me, though.

    Not only do I not get the appeal, I don’t get what the appeal is alleged to be.

    Then again, I have taken many beatings on this site–or, rather, defended myself valiantly against attempted beatings–for saying that I prefer John Mellencamp as an alternative to Springsteen.

    You want to make the Springsteen faithful shit their fancy pants, try out that comparison.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Becky. I feel less alone because of you and others speaking up.

      That was a sweet spot for me, too. 1983, MTV and the like. I watched it for hours waiting for a Rush or Van Halen video.

  9. zoe zolbrod says:

    Your version of the Black Flag lyric is excellent. If I heard Don Henley singing that while driving in the Hyundai, I would definitely turn up the volume and let the kids pummel each other in the back seat.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Ha! Thanks.

      “Out on the road today, I saw a Black Flag sticker on a Hyundai coupe.”

      The rest writes itself.


      • Gloria says:

        I don’t have time to read and comment, only time to read comments and leave pithy comments on those. To that end:

        I just got Get in the Van from the library and am giddy with excitement to read it. Did I ever tell you about my near obsessive love for Henry Rollins? That is all.

        Hi Art!

        • Art Edwards says:

          Hello, Gloria!

          I have a very self-involved reason for not having read Get in the Van, which I’ll have to share with you at some point, too.

        • Gloria says:

          Self-involved? Do tell!

        • Art Edwards says:

          Despite being a rock lit guy, I steadfastly avoid any book written by a famous musician. I feel like that’s the last place you’re going to get anything resembling the truth, so why bother.

          Having said that, I plan to violate my rule for Bob Mould’s autobiography, which was co-authored by Michale Azerrad and will be out in June. I suspect Get in the Van will follow soon after.

          Henry Rollins is very crush-worthy, in my opinion. You picked a good one.


  10. If you want it to, Liz Phair’s Supernova can include the line And you fart like a volcano.

  11. John says:

    You realize using The Boss as the jumping off point hijacked this entire conversation, don’t you? Now everybody wants to talk about how great (or not) Springsteen is instead of the deeper point of the column (that it’s possible for the listener to “get something deeper” than the songwriter intended. In a sense, The Boss usage caused almost your entire readership to mishear the column


    Unless you totally did that on purpose! To further underline that readers and listeners impart their own meanings to song lyrics! And any art, really! Why, this column is fucking brilliant! You’re the best writer ever, Art! You’re so deep! You’re like…the Springsteen on columnists!

    (what do you think, was that too over the top?)

    Seriously, I heard that Robert Frost once said something like “a writer is entitled to whatever the meaning the reader offers.” He also said, in response to ‘what does the snow mean in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening’? “Um…it means it was snowing?”

    • Art Edwards says:

      It’s like anything, John. 90% of the people miss the point 90% of the time. Why should we let that detract from our thoughtful exploration?

      Thanks for being one of the good ones.

      Springsteen sucks!


  12. Gloria says:

    I’m totally in the Springsteen 20. I feel the exact same about U2. **cocks head to the side like the RCA dog** Mer? On the other hand, why are there not more disciples of David Byrne and Mark Knopfler – I mean in the Bono/Springsteen type of way? Ain’t no accounting for taste, I suppose. (And, yes, there’s always that one song you love. For me, it’s the song he did for the movie Philadelphia [which I’m too lazy and pressed for time to look up]. I love that song.)

    Are you getting that subtle Catholic imagery weaved throughout? – – bwahahahahahaha

    How about:

    Black Flag sticker on a Prius

    Makes you wanna die a little, don’t it?

    • Art Edwards says:

      I’m a David Byrne freak, and like both Byrne and Knofler better than Springsteen or Bono.

      How about a mash-up of Springsteen and Bono? Bonosteen!

      Out on the road today I saw a Black Flag Sticker on a Toyota Prius.

      Drivin’ by my high school friends sayin’ I hope they see us, yeah, I hope they see us.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Well, you see there? I could never get into David Byrne, though I had a friend who was a Byrne freak and played him incessantly, and I was never one for Mark Knofler.

        What does this mean, Art Edwards? Are we doomed to never understand one another?

        I never said, by the way, that I’m a Springsteen fan; I said I like him, even though he’s not really my cup of tea. Anyway, that’s what I intended to say.

  13. […] Read Part II here. […]

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    I don’t think this is particularly unusual, but…when I was small, I always heard “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” as “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to have some appreciation for the original lyrics.

  15. Jim says:

    Another great read. I’d like to see you do this analysis on REM’s Murmur album.

    I’m inspired to write some songs today and I’m thinking vague lyrics which will be mumbled.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *