Shelter from the Storm

get bornWalter 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.

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

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)

“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

2. John Lennon, Oh Yoko! (1971)

In the middle of a cloud I call your name

A powerful yet simple expression of romantic love.

3. John Martyn, Couldn’t Love You More (1977)

If you kissed the sun right out of the sky for me

Song lyrics straining to capture Love (is there a theme emerging?)

4. Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (1966)

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky

This could be love or drugs that’s fogging Jimi’s brain – either way it’s a great line.

5. The Clash, Garageland (1977)

Back in the garage with my bullshit detector

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)

Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Reckon there’s a load of philosophy buried in this couplet.

7. David Bowie, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1969)

As I am unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed

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)

Out here we is stoned – immaculate

One of those lines that throws a word into a whole new light.

9. John Coltrane, Acknowledgement (1964)

A Love Supreme

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?…

[I’m treating this as a work in progress – going to be putting some more bath time into it]

UPDATE 11.ix.11

After some more bath-time reflection here are some other stand-out lines, plus some picked out by commenters below that strike a chord with me too:

Michael Franti & Spearhead, Oh My God (2001)

I slept with Marilyn she sung me Happy Birthday

Magazine, Song from Under the Floorboards (1980)

I am angry I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin

The Passenger, Iggy Pop (1977)

We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides

Marvyn Gaye/Dick Holler, Abraham Martin and John (1970)

Has anyone here seen my old friend Martin?

PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (2011)

England’s dancing days are done

You seem confused by your own ideals

You will not be able to stay home brother

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

It took it 3.5 billion years to decide that you live just where you live [it = the universe]


20 comments so far

  1. Practical Psychologist on

    ‘Repenting other lives unknown’ Janis Ian (‘At Seventeen’)

    ‘Whiplash girl-child in the dark’ Velvet Underground (‘Venus in Furs’)

    ‘You will not be able to stay home brother’. Gil Scot-Heron (‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’)

    ‘His tongue smoldered with devil’s love’ David Bowie (‘Width of a Circle’)

    ‘Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’ Billie Holliday (‘Strange Fruit’)

    ‘She was 31, I was 17’ Bobby Goldsboro (‘Summer, The First Time’)

    ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’ Pink Floyd (‘Time’)

    ‘You seem confused by your own ideals’ Spirit (‘Give a Life, Take a Life’)

    ‘That death itself is freedom for evermore’ Bert Jansch (‘Needle of Death’)

    ‘The sky is victorious but here comes the rain’ Faithless (‘Crazy English Summer’)

  2. ArkAngel on

    A wide-ranging (wider than mine) collection suggesting some interesting directions (Lou Reed, jazz standards, etc.) and hip-hop hasn’t even started to be mined

  3. ArkAngel on

    Some more I’m considering:

    Michael Franti & Spearhead, Oh My God (2001)
    I slept with Marilyn she sung me Happy Birthday

    Magazine, Song from Under the Floorboards (1980)
    I am angry I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin

    Iggy Pop, The Passenger (1977)
    We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides

    Marvyn Gaye/Dick Holler, Abraham Martin and John (1970)
    Has anyone here seen my old friend Martin?

    Marc Almond, Tears Run Rings (1988)
    We’re going to set fire
    To the whole damn world

  4. Sue Thomas (@suethomas) on

    Joan Armatrading sung about shelter from the storm in that wonderful song ‘Willow’

  5. ArkAngel on

    A lovely song for sure, but no stand-out line – which is pretty much the case for most songs, it’s a cumulative thing

  6. ArkAngel on

    To mark last night’s deserved (second) victory at the Mercury Prize by PJ Harvey:
    England’s dancing days are done (Let England Shake 2011)

  7. Practical Psychologist on

    More selections on their way Arkangel but I think you have to drop the Springsteen. Two-liners change the whole partygame!

    You probably know all of my selections but possibly not Spirit, a seriously overlooked band from the late sixties, early seventies. Anyway, you might like this (recording level is low so whack up the volume):

    And, as you are a Dylanhead here’s Spirit mixing in a Dylan cover, taken from their Spirit of ’76 album:

  8. ArkAngel on

    Your’re right about that rogue couplet – consider it expunged. a couple of replacements in Comment #3

  9. Frankie Ward on

    I love ‘figured he isn’t your father figure, anymore’ by Grandfather Birds. It’s from a song called Higher Bridges ( about getting older and outgrowing your old family ties


    ‘It took it 3.5 billion years to decide that you live just where you live’ from ‘Years’ by Holy Mammoth ( about the universe and our routines within it (I think…)

  10. ArkAngel on

    @Frankie – Enjoyed Holy Mammoth in particular, do you know much about them? where did you come across them?

    • Frankie Ward on

      They’re some friends from Newcastle – met them when I used to play them on the radio. Some amazing bands in the North…

  11. ArkAngel on

    @PP Don’t know much about Spirit – seems like America meets early Floyd meets Beach Boys with a touch of Jethro Tull and a sprinkling of CSNY

  12. Practical Psychologist on

    Best known for their guitarist Randy California who was a terrific musician and Ed Cassidy their drummer who was already nearly 50 in the late 1960’s and is still alive and playing rock apparently. Much bigger in the US than here their classic album (and it really is a classic) is ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’. I think you would like it. A great American band at a great time for American music.

    The comparisons have some validity though their sound is their own. The ‘America’ influence is likely to be the other way round.

    One thing I have found with this is that lyrics are often not quite as I thought they were when I checked them out. Interesting with Iggy’s ‘city ripped backsides’. I thought he said something else!

  13. Practical Psychologist on

    ‘There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay.’

  14. ArkAngel on

    @PP Will get myself a copy of The Twelve Dreams (you’ve mentioned it before)

    Misheard lyrics is a whole other game – what did you think the Iggy line was?

    The Gil line is classic

  15. […] world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines: […]

  16. ArkAngel on

    But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die

    Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues

    When I was just a baby, my mama told me, “Son,
    Always be a good boy; don’t ever play with guns.”
    But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
    When I hear that whistle blowin’ I hang my head and cry.

  17. theluckhabit on

    Does the comma make it two lines?

  18. ArkAngel on

    I don’t think so – though I’ve seen it written down both ways. The rhyme scheme would suggest not.

  19. […] Best Song Lines […]

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