The Greatest Rock Song Lyrics


image by limitrofe on pixabay, CC0

This post will likely stir up some outrage, since poetry is so subjective, and music lyrics are especially so. Dave Barry has become quite famous for his survey and book of the worst song lyrics ever, but awfulness is much easier to identify than greatness.

Some musicians have become almost as famous for their poetry as for their music, and several of the lyrics that would make my list are from such artists. Then there are the writers like Anna Tivel whose lyrics are frequently stunning, so much so the accompanying music just is no match for it.

The best lyricists, it seems, tend to burn out — they write great stuff in their youth, and then coast on much weaker stuff thereafter. Still, if I could produce even a handful of songs like the best of Neil Young or James Taylor (“and where will we hide, when it comes from inside?“), I’d probably coast in my old age too, especially if I’d taken as many drugs as those two. James also wrote the music for Reynolds Price’s extraordinary poem New Hymn.

Two artists who’ve published separate books of poetry are Bob Dylan, who has written lyrically extraordinary songs like Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word and Like a Rolling Stone, and Jewel, who gave us wry and piercing songs like Who Will Save Your Soul?

The clever collaborations of the Beatles and George Martin gave us (at the time) brilliant, original lyrics in songs like You Never Give Me Your Money (with its reprise in Carry That Weight later in the album). The lyrics of Come Together are also very witty (“hold you in his arms, yeah you can feel his disease”).

My favourite Canadian lyricist is Marc Jordan, who has penned a number of remarkable songs including the gut-wrenching Little Lambs.

And of course we can’t forget the world’s most biting lyricist, Tom Waits, who wrote the incomparable How’s It Gonna End?

So how’s this gonna end? With my choice for favourite rock song lyrics of all time. Back to Bob Dylan, though the song sounds much better when sung by his friend Joan Baez: Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

I can hear the howls of protest. Impenetrable! Perhaps, but I think its use of incongruous, evocative imagery and synesthetic phrasing are unparalleled in the genre. I think it’s just stunning. Really worthy of his Literature Nobel. Such a shame that shortly afterwards, following his motorcycle accident, his creative power seemed, IMO, to dwindle to a trickle of its former self.

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Who do they think could bear you?
With your pockets well protected at last
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
Who could they get to ever carry you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I put them by your gate
Or sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement clothes and your hollow face
Who among them to think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this
But who among them really wants just to kiss you?
With your childhood flames on your midnight rug
And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs
Who among them do you think could resist you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels were that they used to hide
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?
How could they ever mistake you?
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm
But with the sea at your feet and the phoney false alarm
And with the child of the hoodlum wrapped up in your arms
How could they ever have persuaded you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go
And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show
Who among them do you think would employ you?
Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion in your fingers now that hold
And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul
Who among them could ever think he could destroy you?

Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophets say that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Greatest Rock Song Lyrics

  1. David Beckemeier says:

    A couple of my favorites:

    As below so above
    And beyond I imagine
    Push the envelope
    Watch it bend!

    Tool – Lateralus

    Some say a comet will fall from the sky
    Followed by meteor showers and tidal waves
    Followed by fault lines that cannot sit still
    Followed by millions of dumbfounded dipshits
    And some say the end is near
    Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon
    I certainly hope we will
    I sure could use a vacation from this
    Stupid shit, silly shit, stupid shit

    Tool – Aenima

  2. David Beckemeier says:

    Dang!! I left out a line from Lateralus, here it is in full:

    As below so above
    And beyond I imagine
    Drawn outside the lines of Reason
    Push the envelope
    Watch it bend!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.