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Songs with Must-Hear Backstories Vol. I

Rock History 101

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    rockhistory101thumb Songs with Must Hear Backstories Vol. ISome songs are fun because they have no real meaning – “I Am the Walrus” anyone? – but others make more of an impact when you know the true stories behind them. When I first heard the theory behind Don Mclean’s “American Pie”, I was blown away. From the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper to references to Bob Dylan and the Byrds, the six verses truly took on a life of their own.

    Don McLean never did publicly confirm or deny the rumors behind his epic anthem, and yet people still speculate. However, for those of us who want concrete facts behind our favorite songs, let me regale you with seven validated stories straight from the artists themselves.

    Pearl Jam – “Better Man” (1994)

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    Pearl Jam’s poignant ballad about a woman who stays in an abusive relationship because she doesn’t think she can do any better, “Better Man” was written by Eddie Vedder when he was still in high school. As the band readied to play the song in a 1994 concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, the truth came out. Vedder said, “It’s dedicated to the bastard that married my Momma.”

    Lyrics that back up the story:

    She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man…
    She dreams in color, she dreams in red, can’t find a better man…
    Can’t find a better man

    Nena – “99 Luftballons” (1983)

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    What’s more fun than rocking out to an upbeat German song? Finding out aforementioned song is about nuclear annihilation.

    The inspiration for “99 Luftballons” came to Nena’s guitarist Carlo Karges while he was getting his jam on at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin. As the band released a mass of balloons into the sky, he noticed they shifted and changed shape, resembling bizarre spacecraft. He considered what might happen if they floated over the Berlin Wall to the Soviet sector – hint: it wouldn’t be a tea party – and a pop culture gem was born.

    Lyrics that back up the story:

    The war machine springs to life
    Opens up one eager eye
    Focusing it on the sky
    Ninety-nine red balloons go by

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    Derek & the Dominos – “Layla” (1971)

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    In what has to be one of the biggest affronts to the Man Code ever, Eric Clapton wrote a song for Derek & the Dominos professing his love for his best friend’s wife. Luckily for us, that song kicks some serious ass.

    During the late 1960s, Eric Clapton and George Harrison became close while Clapton was laying down some guitar tracks for The Beatles’ White Album. As their friendship progressed, Clapton found himself head over heels in love with Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd.

    In 1977, Patti called it quits with George – marrying Eric two years later. George, being the good guy that he was, remained exceptionally cool about it. He even attended their wedding alongside fellow Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

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    Lyrics that back up the story:

    I tried to give you consolation
    When your old man had let you down.
    Like a fool, I fell in love with you,
    Turned my whole world upside down.

    Fastball – “The Way” (1998)

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    When Fastball’s bassist, Tony Scalzo, came upon the story of Lela and Raymond Howard in the newspaper, he decided to write a song romanticizing the missing persons case. Scalzo said he “pictured them taking off to have fun, like they did when they first met.” It was only after the song was written that the story met its grim conclusion.

    Despite the fact that Lela had Alzheimer’s and Howard was recovering from brain surgery, the elderly Texan couple decided to hit the road to attend a music festival in a nearby town, only they never made their destination.

    Two weeks after they left, the Howards were found dead in their vehicle, hidden by dense brush and more than 350 miles from home. Authorities concluded the couple became disoriented and eventually drove off the road. No foul play was suspected.

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    It certainly puts an eerie spin on the lyrics.

    Lyrics that back up the story:

    You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere
    They won’t make it home
    But they really don’t care
    They wanted the highway
    They’re happier there today, today

    The Beatles – “Let It Be” (1970)

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    The late ’60s were a rough time for The Beatles. Tensions were rising within the band, management was falling apart, and a breakup was on the horizon. During a night of tossing and turning, Paul McCartney dreamt of his mother, Mary, who died when he was 14. Her words of wisdom for his dark times: “It will be all right, just let it be.”

    Lyrics that back up the story:

    When I find myself in times of trouble
    Mother Mary comes to me
    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
    And in my hour of darkness
    She is standing right in front of me
    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

    The Kinks – “Lola” (1970)

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    Imagine having one of your most embarrassing moments recorded forever in pop history. For Robert Wade — manager of The Kinks — one night spent with a transvestite was immortalized by Ray Davies in the song “Lola”. In The Kinks: The Official Biography, Davies said: “In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, ‘I’m really onto a thing here.’ And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ but he was too pissed to care, I think.”

    Lyrics that back up the story:

    Well I’m not the world’s most physical guy
    But when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine
    Oh my Lola la-la-la-la Lola
    Well I’m not dumb but I can’t understand
    Why she walked like a woman and talked like a man
    Oh my Lola la-la-la-la Lola la-la-la-la Lola

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