The Godfather: Peter Corris on the missing backstory
Some of the very best popular songs depend for their emotional power and resonance on an unspoken backstory.
Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s ‘One for My Baby’, made memorable by Frank Sinatra, tells us nothing about the broken relationship that has brought the singer into the bar late at night to share his unhappiness and drown his sorrows. We can only sympathise, speculate about what went wrong, and we do.
As we listen we find the customer noticing that the tired barman is trying not to offend his solitary customer by beginning to clean up. We are told little more, other than that the barman’s name is Joe and that he’s being invited to have a drink himself. One thing is for sure – that the singer’s declaration that the relationship has been only ‘a brief episode’ is bitterly ironic.
The best such song from a female point of view that I know is Janis Ian’s ‘In the Winter’. Again, the lyrics say nothing about the relationship that has ended in desolation for the singer and complete happiness for the former partner. The contrast between what the partner has (‘lovely home’ and ‘lovely wife’) and what the singer, friendless with few material comforts, has not is stark.
The theme is loneliness, a terrible condition for anyone who has experienced it (she’ll live ‘alone forever’ now). Listeners wonder how this disparity came about. Who is to blame and is there really no hope?
Patsy Cline was the mistress of singing the Country and Western song with no backstory (eg Cindy Walker’s ‘I Fall to Pieces’); Ray Charles stunningly added a blues and soul flavour to Hank Cochrane and Harlan Howard’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and Fred Rose and Hyk Heath’s ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’.
Ian Tyson’s ‘Four Strong Winds’ has been covered by every folkie who ever plucked a string and notably by Neil Young. It differs from other songs with unrevealed backstories, which usually elicit sympathy for the singer. In this song, interestingly, that sympathy is undercut by the singer’s apparent reluctance to really invite his lover to join him. He offers the weakest of all excuses – the threat of bad weather, cold winds.
How would that matter, we think, if he really wanted her to be with him?
Whether the lyricist meant it or not, it’s clear from the line about the weather and a suggestion that the person the song is addressed to would be at a loose end, that, selfishly, the invitation is not sincere and that the singer is more or less happy with things as they are.
Perhaps the most effective, most haunting, evocative and intriguing of all songs with an absent backstory is ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ by master songwriter Jimmy Webb as performed in all its poignancy by Glen Campbell.
The singer has simply left a goodbye note on his lover’s door. As he tracks his journey across the south-western states of America (Phoenix, Oklahoma, Albuquerque) we get a strong insight into the long-standing discord in the relationship, but not even a hint as to its reasons. He has left her ‘so many times’ before and she has become sceptical. In a curious way, it seems that having written, rather than just spoken, his farewell has enabled him to finally make the break.
In a very short song with no chorus, our sympathy gravitates between the two parties. It is a masterpiece.
An album of missing backstory songs featuring the singers most closely identified with them would be well worth putting together.