Rock and roll music is a natural forum for nonsense. “A-wop bop a-loo bop a-lop bom-bom” might be the greatest opening of any song ever, a call to arms as much as a call to dance. Gene Vincent sang “Be-Bop-A-Lula” in 1958 and inspired John Lennon to form a band (who ten years later would have a hit whose coda consisted mostly of the word Na). Lee Dorsey sat in La-La waiting for his Ya-Ya, while the Marcels doo-woppized Rogers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” with a hearty “Ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang ba ba ding a dong ding.” Hell, Dave Marsh wrote an entire book on “Louie Louie,” a song whose lyrics are nothing but gibberish.
In just about every case above, the nonsense lyrics took on their own meaning, either as integral parts of a narrative (Vincent, Dorsey, Marcels), Zen-like mantras of peace and solidarity (the Beatles), or really fun things to shout while drinking (the rest).
Then, of course, there are the lyrics composed by those who desperately want to make grand statements, but which invariably wind up making no sense at all. I blame Bob Dylan for this. He was capable of infusing a word-drool anthem like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with enough wink-wink wordplay and knowing counterculture references to make his nonsense seem full of import. He could then turn around and infuse “Like A Rolling Stone” with so much sublime and absurd imagery, certain burnouts and music critics (I’m looking at you, Greil Marcus) are still digging around inside the song, ferreting out meaning, nearly 45 years after the fact.
Dylan could pull this off—he was a great, consequential talent, the likes of which I would argue we haven’t seen since his first great run ended in 1966. The lesser talents that followed him, however, tried to make their own gibberish meaningful; most times, though, they failed. “Eve of Destruction,” “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” “Epistle to Dippy,” etc., whether sincere or parodic, were nonsense striving for meaning and failing, sometimes fabulously so.
In more recent times, the bands have dispensed with the Dylanisms entirely, straining to crap out a pebble of meaning after gorging on a big block of their own perceived brilliance. I’m thinking of Creed, mostly, but also something like Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” (so wonderfully eviscerated recently by our own Anne Logue), in which no fewer than five co-writers cobbled together a song intended to be a Big Statement, but which is chock full of non sequiturs and babble about tae-bo and deep-fried chicken, rendering it virtually meaningless.
The power ballad arts have more than their share of such moments—the subgenre was practically built on sensitive Big Statements by groups of long-haired men more comfortable screaming about their love of titties and liquor, or bragging about the size of their johnsons. One of my favorite examples of utter nonsense reaching for meaning is the final cut on the first Bad English album, “Don’t Walk Away.”
The track starts with a cool drum figure from Deen Castronovo, which segues into a mellow bed of keyboards and muted guitar. It’s a ballad, yes, but with a little (very slight) swing to it. Singer John Waite steps to the mic and begins his proclamation. Or tale of woe. Or … well, you guess what’s going on:
Wise men, thinking by numbers
Shaken not stirred
But I hang, I hang on your every word
The opening abstraction—”Wise men, thinking by numbers / Shaken not stirred” makes no sense. The first line, if left alone, can be construed as a kind of statement on academe or some such bit of collective wisdom, how rote it can seem to those not in an academic clique. Fine. “Shaken not stirred?” Total non sequitur—an out-of-place James Bond reference, at best. Waite continues:
These days I roll with the punches
Always your clown
Do you remember when we used to paint this town
Red, gold, green, and blue?
There’s a bit of connective tissue there—he’s hanging on her every word, rolling with the punches, just a clown she can play with or laugh at: “You treat me like a plaything, but I love you anyway.” Painting the town red is a common way of designating good times, loud times, drunken times—great arena rock moments, all. But adding “gold, green, and blue” just makes me think of the LA Metro railway system.
The chorus is the usual “Don’t leave me baby” yearning: “I know we’ll find an answer / If you stay,” etc. Then Waite uncorks a puzzler:
Don’t walk away
There’s nothing in tomorrow
That wasn’t there in yesterday
Let that sit in the noggin a bit, marinate for a while. If she hates him tomorrow—since, apparently, she’s at least considering leaving him now, as he’s singing—by virtue of Johnny’s logic, she hated him yesterday, too. Granted, if she loved him yesterday, she’ll love him tomorrow, by that same logic, but still—he’s begging her to not leave him, which I’m assuming means there was an ill wind blowing a while before yesterday. A rock star as experienced and red-headed as John Waite can tell you that means trouble, and the downward slope to “I ain’t missing you at all” is steep, indeed.
The second verse is just as puzzling:
All the heartache
Too many nights in the heartbreak hotel
Don’t you give up, love is a carousel
Metaphors dutifully mixed, he returns to painting the town the colors of the Ethiopian flag, then back to the chorus. Then a labyrinthine middle-eight, chorus, then out, done, song and album over.
What’s so frustrating to me is that I love this song. I love the drumming. I love the subtle, bluesy guitar licks from Neal Schon, who is not known for his subtlety. I love Jon Cain’s synths, the way they close around Waite’s vocal without obscuring it. And I love Waite’s earnestness in delivering these oddly juxtaposed lines. I love how the song reminds me of a certain set of circumstances and people and memories that I can still conjure up when I hear Castronovo’s drums, even though I’ve heard the song a thousand times in the last 21 years. That love is irrational, just as the lyrics here border on the nonsensical.
So, carrying that sentiment forward, I should understand why millions of people love Train’s “Drops of Jupiter,” assigning meaning to the essentially meaningless.
But I don’t understand that. I just don’t. Perhaps if I were thinking by numbers …