Do you remember who Timothy Leary was? More to the point: Did you ever know? How about Joe DiMaggio? Was ‘Jolting Joe’ ever a part of your consciousness? And yet, somewhere deep in the recesses of your memory, these names probably touch a chord and you wonder why.
I’ll tell you.
If you are part of my generation (which sadly, fewer and fewer people are), then you’ll remember the acid guru/scientist Timothy Leary from the Moody Blues song, Legend of a Mind, (The chorus went Timothy Leary’s dead/No, no, he’s outside/looking in). Most Americans—of any generation—will know of Joe DiMaggio as a baseball great (not to mention, a husband of Marilyn Monroe), but we know him only as the man who is used as the symbol of a national dream gone wrong in Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson (Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you).
That’s the power of the pop song. Get yourself mentioned in a rock classic (or even, a not-so-good song by the Moody Blues) and you’ll live on in the minds of millions of listeners, even if they will never be quite sure who you really were.
Sadly, not many songwriters actually use real names in their work. Take John Lennon. He was the master of the coded song. As he later revealed to Jan Wenner in his Rolling Stone interview, Norwegian Wood was about a girl with whom he was having an affair. But you’d never guess that from the lyrics which were kept deliberately obscure to keep his then wife from finding out.
Similarly, Lennon’s put-down of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi appeared as Sexy Sadie (What have you gone and done/You’ve made a fool of everyone) apparently because (or so he told Wenner) he did not want to come right out and call the old geezer names. His attack on Paul McCartney, How Do You Sleep, makes his target clear (Sergeant Pepper took you by surprise...), but he refrains from mentioning Paul by name.
When Lennon did use real names, they tended to be members of his family. Julia is about his mother, Oh Yoko! is about you-know-who and Don’t Cry Kyoko is about you- know-who’s daughter. Bizarrely, other Beatles were reluctant to mention the Lennon family by name. Paul McCartney wrote Hey Jude while going out to meet Lennon’s son, Julian, and the original lyric was Hey Jules, but he decided that it would be unfair on Julian to use his name, so he changed it to Jude. (Unfair? Hell, he’d still be dining out on it nearly four decades later.)
The problem with not naming the subject of your song poses many problems for the people they’re supposed to have been about. Patti Boyd claims to have been the inspiration for three of pop’s greatest love songs. We know that Eric Clapton wrote Layla for her because he has often said he was inspired by Laila-Majnu (Layla-Laila. Get it?). He claims to have written Wonderful Tonight for his lady love, but during that period, Clapton was so drunk that it is hard to believe that he remembers anything. And I am sceptical of Patti’s claim that her husband, George Harrison, wrote Something about her, especially as a) she was probably involved with Clapton at the time, and b) old George, that naughty plagiarist (remember the row over My Sweet Lord), stole the first line from a James Taylor song called Something in the Way He Moves. (That’s pretty blatant, isn’t it?) Now imagine how easy Patti’s life would have been if at least one of the songs had actually named her. (Though I’m not sure that Patti/You’ve got me on my knees) has quite the same ring to it.
Other Pattis have been named—not always to their pleasure. When Cat Stevens broke up with the actress, Patti D’Arbanville, he wrote My Lady D’Arbanville about her. That’s a beautiful sentiment except that in the song, the Lady D’Arbanville is dead.
The Rolling Stones are reluctant to name check anybody. Mick Jagger wrote Star Star about a groupie who did naughty things to Steve McQueen, but the late actor is one of the few people to actually get named in a Stones song. Ruby Tuesday is about another groupie, but nobody is sure which one. And Jagger had a way of claiming songs were written about people when it suited him—even if it wasn’t true. He told three different Janes that Lady Jane was about them. He told Angie Bowie (then wife of David) that Angie was about her, though Keith Richards now claims that he wrote the song. And both Mick and Keith told their girlfriends that Wild Horses was about them. (For the record, it is unlikely to have been about Marianne Faithful. Circumstances suggest that Keith wrote it for Anita von Pallenberg along with Gram Parsons.)
Other rock writers are more open with their name checks. David Bowie made Mick Jagger a central character in Drive-In Saturday. He also wrote a tribute to Andy Warhol and Song for Bob Dylan is about the man he calls Robert Zimmerman in the lyrics. Elton John was pleased to name Marilyn Monroe in the original Candle in the Wind and the execrable rewrite was clearly about Princess Diana.
Bob Dylan goes through phases. In the 1970s, he was happy to name check everybody. His ex-wife, Sara, got a song about herself (in which he also admitted that he wrote Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for her). So did the dead mobster Joey Gallo and the convicted boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.
But the king of the name check remains Paul Simon. Just as he named Joe DiMaggio in Mrs Robinson, his Emily Dickinson obsession has surfaced in at least two songs: For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her and in The Dangling Conversation (I read my Emily Dickinson/You your Robert Frost). In A Simple Desultory Phillipic, he named Robert McNamara (remember him?), Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce and nearly every member of the New York scene. The Late Great Johnny Ace is about the death of three Johns: JFK, John Lennon and singer Johnny Ace, all of whom are named. In contrast, when Elton John recorded his own Lennon tribute, he called it Johnny’s Garden and most people did not know who it was about. (The alternative title—Hey, Hey, Johnny— was no help).
Far better to be as honest as Neil Young who, in a moment of self-loathing, decided to celebrate the spirit of punk. The best lines in Hey Hey My My (Out of the Blue) are The King is dead, but not forgotten/ This is a song for Johnny Rotten).
But, of course, in the two decades since that song appeared, Johnny Rotten has been forgotten. And Neil Young still rules.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org