In honor of Hem’s ending-laden album, let’s focus on similarly-themed songs by other artists. I think I’ll leave the low-hanging fruit alone, and NOT talk about “The End” by The Beatles or “The End” by The Doors (one song I like a lot, the other not so much not so much…).
“The End” by John Wesley Harding: Though I don’t believe I’ve ever written one, the “list song” is one of my favorite kind of lyrics when it’s done well (as it is in this case). So many good lines in this song, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Let’s start with its killer opening:
“It’ll end with a bang
It’ll end with a gun
It’ll end with a chorus
Then another one”
I guess we already knew from the title that the subject of this song was “endings”, but I love how he establishes a balance between clichéd and clever right at the top; nothing more common than ending with a “bang”, and nothing more knowing than the detail about the way songs often end with double choruses (which, btw, this song does!). I also love how he never reveals the antecedent. What is it that’s going to end? Everything, of course. In every stupid, comic, tragic, funny, awful way ever imagined.
“Goodbye” by Steve Earle: Okay, I’m sure it’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite songs. There is much to love here, both musically and lyrically. In some ways, this song is the antithesis of the John Wesley Harding song in that there is no comprehensive list here – just a few beautiful, fragmented memories. I like to think of songs like these as “slideshow songs”; and just like an actual slideshow, they are only as interesting as the details captured therein. A photo of a beach may be beautiful, but it’s not interesting or emotionally compelling. Focus in on a specific detail though (“the soft breeze blowing up from the Caribbean”) and then you have something on which to attach meaning. BTW, that lyric/detail in particular is brilliant; it’s something that only happens “now and then” (no more often than the singer misses his love), but it’s also something so delicate and sweet that it’s rareness only adds to its power.
I figure most of my songs fall into this “slideshow” category in one way or another (“I can still see the hem of your dress and the comb as it’s parting your hair…”). Memory is the currency of a slideshow song, and one of the reasons why I love “Goodbye” so much is that it’s a memory song about the limits of memory. He remembers so many important things, but is haunted by what he can’t recall. Memory fails, but it’s all we have.
Note: Okay, I will say this about “The End” by The Doors: I am immediately turned off when a song calls me their friend. Using “my friend” in a lyric has always struck me as presumptuous, and worse, pretentious. It almost always follows some pronouncement, or judgment, or some piece of advice the songwriter wishes to impart to his/her audience. Now I normally don’t like to call out other artists, or point out (the many) things I DON’T approve of as far as songwriting goes, but this one lyrical tic has bothered me for years. I should also mentioned that this aversion only applies to song lyrics, and you can call me your friend any time you like.