We highlight Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Robyn Hitchcock, three artists who created their own song worlds in the framework of their music over the course of multiple albums and years.
David Bowie said of Lou Reed that “he created our world and we peopled it.” He meant that the seedy streets, dark dungeons, and dank subways described in the songs of the Velvet Underground became the backdrop for the androgynous glam parties and dramas of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and “all the young dudes” that David Bowie wrote about. While neither of these greats are the focus of this article, this example illustrates an artistic phenomenon that occurs with some sublime artists and writers. Writers and songwriters are often encouraged to “write what you know;” many create and describe images of a distinct world around them which remains relatively consistent through their albums and songs. Lou Reed wrote from the character of a streetwise rock and roller; his early songs (and many of his later ones) take place in a fictionalized, exaggerated New York City where boundaries of all kinds – sexual, gendered, chemical, interpersonal – melted away and merged with the urban landscape around them. His “song world” was very distinct and recognizable.
This post highlights three master songwriters who created their own song worlds within the framework of their music over the course of multiple albums and years. This is by no means a prerequisite for being a great artist, but as you travel your own creative path, it might be interesting to consider: “What’s the landscape/world of my songs? Where do my songs live? Where does my artistic voice live?”
You may find that integrating a visual presentation within the world of your songs can help the audience more readily connect with your material (i.e. Lou Reed wearing leather helps us see him as more “streetwise”). Again, you don’t have to do this as a performing artist, but it’s something that can help immerse your audience in your material and keep them engaged and coming back for more.
Bruce Springsteen’s song world is easy to understand and investigate because it comes directly from his real life experiences growing up in working-class New Jersey. While his first-person narrator travels around with Crazy Davey and Weak-Knees Willie in his early material, there is almost always an “I” in every song, giving us the impression Bruce is talking about something he witnessed or that really happened to him. In songs like “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City,” the narrative is strictly personal and assumed to be autobiographical, even if it really isn’t.
Bruce’s song world – a realistic Jersey Shore town where the ’50s never ended, greasers drive their Chevys on Highway 9, and the boardwalk is the center of the action – is geographically where Bruce is from, and actual places and people are consistently name dropped (Madame Marie from “Sandy,” E Street, the Ferris Wheel, and casino of Asbury Park). He also writes about New York City from the perspective of someone living in the suburbs, fantasizing about what might go on there in the tenements and different neighborhoods (“Incident on 57th Street”, “Jungleland”) but also narrating events that sound like they could plausibly have happened to him (“10th Avenue Freeze Out,” “Backstreets”).
The listener assumes autobiography and that Bruce is a “real” person, even if the stories are fantastic, possibly exaggerated, or sometimes outright tall tales. Bruce’s songs take place in cars, apartments, city streets, and late-night turnpikes, which gives them an authenticity that serves him well with connecting to his audience. Of course it’s not all real; the real Bruce was too busy writing songs and working on music to experience all the adventures of his narrator! I suppose that may be revealed in his autobiography.
But this is how successful song worlds can function, as a way to pull the listener and live concertgoer more deeply into the experience. Bruce tells autobiographical stories during live performances to further enhance this world. Some of them are probably true, or close to it (the story of his dad and “the goddamn guitar” during “Growin’ Up”), some of them stretch the truth a bit (the story of him and Clarence meeting Santa before “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”). Visually, his album covers and art are him wearing simple clothes in realistic looking settings. Sonically, Bruce’s sounds are the sounds of early rock and soul, the music of the ’50s and ’60s before psychedelia kicked in. Music that working people who weren’t flower children could relate to. The visuals, the lyrics, and the sounds are all details honed to keep continuity in the song world he has created.
As Bruce became more and more successful, his song world left the Jersey Shore and NYC and became a more generalized rural/suburban America. Instead of focusing on places, his focus is more on the feelings of desperation that many people living in this certain kind of place might feel. This America of the late ’70s and early ’80s was an economically challenged, disintegrating America that millions of people were experiencing and could relate to.
In this phase, Bruce starts to tell stories that we know are mostly fictional, but the song worlds around them are so real, they seem true. Songs like “The River” take place “down in the valley” – he doesn’t say which valley, could be Pennsylvania or Ohio – but listeners makes the identifying leap because they can relate to a place where “they raise you up to do just like your daddy done.” Bruce, as a skilled lyricist, knows that adding local color and identifying specific places gives the audience something to grab onto, but now he is hopping all over America: he’s in Utah (“Promised Land”), somewhere in the Rust Belt (“Highway Patrolman”), in the South (“Darlington County”), or in a town where the street names identify it as somewhere in America (Michigan Ave. in “Used Cars”).
There are still songs about specific places – “Youngstown,” “Atlantic City,” “Nebraska” – but now his world covers the entire country. His audience believes he’s telling “their” story, because they can relate to the world in which he placed his characters and the situations those characters encounter. The widening of the lens and broadening of the geography went hand-in-hand with his growing audience, and it was intentional, culminating in speaking for the whole country at once in the aptly titled Born In The USA.
With the international success of Born In The USA, the whole world was now listening, and Springsteen responded with more personal material. His unmistakably American song world, though, is still how most listeners identify with his music. And at the bottom of it all, amidst the dysfunction and disrepair, Springsteen’s song world is one of hope. One of the beautiful things about being able to immerse your audience in your song world is the ability to lift them up. If you’ve got listeners believing in what you are doing, you can inspire them to greatness in their own lives. Your message will be clearer and stronger if the audience is taking the journey with you. Bruce Springsteen uses this to maximum effect.
To understand the world of Tom Waits, it’s important to note that there are two distinct Tom Waits characters and two distinct Tom Waits song worlds. The first is the world of an American beatnik barfly bum, nostalgic for the times and sounds of yesteryear. The album covers of this era tell his story very distinctly. The smoking lounge lizard on the cover of The Heart of Saturday Night is the same guy as the backstage strip club hanger-on of Small Change and the all-night diner patron of Nighthawks at the Diner. This is a world of prostitutes, strippers, boozy smoke-filled evenings at cocktail lounges, and longing for “the one that got away,” whether it be a woman (“Martha”) or a business deal/planned crime gone bad. It’s an America full of forgotten people who’ve gotten too old or too broken to exist with the rest of “normal” society.
All the songs and albums from this period have this world as a through line. The characters and subjects change from song to song, but the basic world remains the same. Loyalty can be fickle, but you can also fall in love with a stranger. Truth is the truth of the barroom, which is to say it’s fluid or tall (“I seen the Brooklyn Dodgers playing at Ebbets Field” in “Jitterbug Boy” or the misleading narration of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”). Sonically, the music is mostly piano-based with a strong jazz/blues/beat influence; the sonic environment works with the lyrics to create the song world.
As my favorite theater professor/acting teacher used to say, “Everything is information.” No detail is too small to be left unattended to in order to draw the listener more deeply into the world of the songs. The visuals, sounds, and words combine together to make this 24-hour diner and cocktail lounge world come alive.
The second Tom Waits world (starting with the album Swordfishtrombones) is narrated by a deeply strange, more worldly, theatrical, gypsy carnival barker. We leave the illusion of the real world and enter into the funhouse mirror, where skeletal percussion reigns supreme and the laws of time and space are bent. People have their reasons in this world but they are often the logic of the insane, like the narrator of “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six” who is hell bent on capturing a crow and trapping it inside a guitar. He’s traveling around the world now, sailing for Singapore, dancing along colored winds and dangling from ropes of sand. The focus is global, and while the atmosphere is still bluesy and nostalgic, it’s more of Giorgio De Chirico’s surrealist “Nostalgia For The Infinite” than any concrete sentimentality for an actual place and time. He misses the past in general, even if it’s unclear to the listener what actually happened there.
A good example of the difference between the first and the second Waits’ song worlds is “The Briar And The Rose” from The Black Rider. Lyrically the song is pretty obscure: “There’s a tree in the forest / but I don’t know where / I built a nest out of your hair.” But the maudlin accordion, haunting old school melody, and signature Waits vocals that sound like they’re coming from an old radio or a hotel room from the 1920s give us the feeling of sentimentality because we are trained to recognize the audio symbols of what “sentimental” sounds like. Clearly this image of the briar and the rose means a lot to the singer, and his commitment to the material translates to its meaning something to us. But rather than emotionally attach us to the story with words in the way “Martha,” “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” and “Muriel” would, here Waits is obscuring his true meaning and eliciting a connection based on certain kinds of sounds. He is a brilliant lyricist, so the emperor does have clothes (metaphorically), but this time the song is being built from the outside-in instead of the inside-out. We relate to the feelings created by the sounds because we buy into Tom Waits’ song world. Whereas previously Waits would tell an emotional, linear story (“I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You,” “Shiver Me Timbers”), now he is creating the frame before the picture and gives us a sentimental song atmosphere so that the sounds make us feel a certain way. In this way, he has mastered the art of the song world.
Not quite as well-known as Waits or Springsteen, Robyn Hitchcock’s formidable body of work, uniquely literate lyrical bent, and willingness to exploit his huge vocabulary make him quite worthy of discussion when it comes to creating a song world. Often his song world is the collision between the dreamlike world of the id and the waking civilized world, as he explains in his psychosexual a cappella number “Uncorrected Personality Traits” from the album I Often Dream of Trains. Indeed from the beginning of his career with his first band the Soft Boys, we the listeners were immediately thrust into an organic world of unconscious swarming desires teeming with life. The Soft Boys’ first album, A Can of Bees, features exactly that on the cover. In the song “Human Music” from this record, Hitchcock philosophizes that “a girl can smile sweetly though her mouth is stuffed with flies.” While he muses that maybe being mechanized might be easier on “I Want To Be An Anglepoise Lamp,” his focus is on the organic, represented by such titles as “The Lizard,” “Meat,” and “Victorian Squid.”
Many of Hitchcock’s records feature his own illustrations, which draw us even further into his surreal, whimsical, and often Freudian cartoon world. The 12-inch release of the fan-beloved “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” featured the entire lyric drawn as a cartoon, showing an assortment of ghouls and freaks riding a sausage-powered sled (“sledge” being the British word for “sled”) through a host of surreal environments. With the humorous deftness of a verbal Salvador Dali and the vocabulary of Shakespeare, Hitchcock’s world entrances us because it is an escape from our day-to-day lives. While he does get concrete about actual feelings at times, those moments stand out even more as they are framed by the trappings of his song world. The sun isn’t just shining, it’s “shining very hard” and “melts both margarine and lard,” but then he becomes plaintive and honest when he confesses “but me, I only dream of you,” in “Love” from Black Snake Diamond Role. Hitchcock gives us new perspectives on old ideas (like musing on the sun when in love), and we digest his new perspectives more easily because we make the leap into his world due to his commitment to its strangeness as normality.
Like Tom Waits’s song worlds, Hitchcock’s does not spring from the void without precedent. The sounds of his world are mostly the traditional pop guitar sounds of the great ’60s bands: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Byrds, Fairport Convention, and The Incredible String Band, to name a few. As he moved more deeply into his solo work, then forming his group the Egyptians in the mid ’80s, the sound became a contemporary re-imagining of these groups in the same way that his lyrics were a re-imagining of the greatest surrealist lyricists of that era: Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan. Admittedly uncomfortable in his own skin (“For God’s sake, don’t waste any faith on me” from “Sleeping Knights of Jesus”), he dove into a myriad of possibilities: “Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl,” “Lobsterman,” “The Man With The Lightbulb Head.”
Hitchcock, like Waits, adds to his song world visually – literally, through his album art – and tells long, mostly improvised, surreal shaggy-dog stories that are a highlight of his live shows. These stories deepen the resonance and strange reality of his song world, which is full of humor, teeming with earth life, and dripping with the melted clocks and mysterious shadows of the great Surrealists.
As he has aged, Hitchcock’s work has become more grounded in a world of interpersonal relationships and framed by beauty rather than dissonance. He hasn’t completely abandoned the fish, frogs, and acid birds of his youth, but since 2006’s Olé! Tarantula he’s focused more on reality than escaping from it. Perhaps he felt somewhat creatively trapped by the world he’d created, perhaps he is still chasing a dream of writing a great universal pop song. He came close with a few during his major label years from 1988 to 1993 (“So You Think You’re In Love,” “Arms of Love”). Perhaps he finally feels more comfortable in his own human skin and no longer needs a created world to escape to.
Whatever the case, it’s great that he’s still writing new music, but the song world he created years ago is still dear to his fans’ hearts, and is much of the reason they’re still around nearly 40 years later.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.