Some songs grab you with a catchy, singalong chorus, some with a great instrumental break (would Gerry Rafferty’s career be the same without the sax on Baker Street?) You listen, soak them up, eventually hum along with a mix of pleasure and familiarity.
But you can also be grabbed by the first line. Yes, you have my attention. I really do want to listen to what happens next. Concentrate on the lyrics. Hang on every word. That’s real power.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…” is pretty famous. What about today?
“It’s late in the evening, she’s wondering what clothes to wear.” We’re right there in the story.
“I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham.” There’s a colourful life story about to emerge here.
“Don’t start me talking, I could talk all night.” Elvis Costello has a lot to say.
“You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips.” Can’t you feel it?
My current favourite is a less well known song. Here goes;
“Johnny, I know why you had to face the train.”
Wow, powerful stuff.
Immediately we can picture the scene, palpably feel the anguish, know what is going to happen but are powerless to stop it. And the writer wants to answer the great question; WHY?
Here’s all the lyrics;
Johnny, i know why you had to face the train
Johnny, i know why you had to face the train
the whiskey wasn’t working to drive away the pain
and there ain’t no use in sleeping when you just wake up again
you could have picked a high bridge you could have picked a gun
the engineer said you saw him but you didn’t try to run
now everyone’s so sorry and everyone’s so sad
but i don’t think it hurt you quite as much as what you had
now Johnny did you think about that railroad engineer?
he’s gonna see your eyes in nightmares for the rest of his years
he’ll hear the thump and rattle as you went under his train
he’ll see his locomotive standing bloody in that rain
Johnny i know why you had to face the train
Johnny i know
It is a true story, and a song called Johnny I Know by The Raventones.
Piano player i did occasional gigs with. Loved by the whole music community, respected, lots of gigs, gifted, great player, instructor at the college. Also an alcoholic fighting depression. Stepped in front of a UP freight in Eugene Oregon in July of 1997. Fast forward 20 years and I’m good friends with a couple engineers on the Coos Bay Rail Link (CBR), a shortline that runs behind my house. It’s way out in the boonies – over the years the train crews have learned they can stop here for any kind of help. mountain/woods/tunnels/curves can throw things at them sometimes and the radios aren’t so good in these deep coast-range valleys. I get to hear a lot of RR stories. Suicides are the ones they never forget. So this goes out to both sides of the awful equation of train suicide. I’m a card-carrying depressoid myself. I watch the whiskey, take my pills, play bass and stay off the tracks. Thanks for asking. 🙂 I wrote it for the engineers.
Reproduced with permission – thanks TR.
However powerful that story is to you, it really hit me, and here’s why;
I believe passionately about rail safety and have spoken to many train drivers (Locomotive Engineers to give them the correct title) about incidents. It can be an accident or suicide, but the horrific memory stays with them. They get time off and counselling support, but some never return to work. Or do, and get the jitters whenever they see a vehicle or person near the tracks. I have talked to an LE who still pictures that last split second, when a little old lady absent mindedly walking in front of his loco turned and looked right into his eyes.
I have even been to ‘incidents’ where ‘bits’ are being shovelled into a body bag. Very gruesome and it affects everyone involved including rail staff and emergency services.
I became involved in this through working for NZ railways. I ran the public Rail Safety Week campaigns for several years. That became far more imaginative than ‘hey, dont walk on front of trains, say the driers’.
One year, KiwiRail organised a special demo; a car was parked on a level crossing and a train driven at it. The result was spectacular and had quite a bit of media coverage. Here’s the video.
Next year, I arranged for the wreckage of the car to ‘tour’ along with the video on a loop. It was there at the launch of the week in Wellington railway station, then moved to shopping centres around the country. Each time we set up in the middle of the shopping mall, with the remains of the car, a big screen video (with sound), and peopled by train staff on their day off. That really did create quite an impact; it was almost tear jerking to see kids tugging on their dads’ sleeves and pointing at the video, as if to say; ‘you wouldnt do that, would you daddy?’
It also explains why I really don’t like so called ‘cool’ band photos with someone standing on the receding lines of a rail track. You may argue that you were safe, but just don’t do it. Don’t encourage others to think it’s cool. I mean it. Someone may end up being bits shovelled into a body bag because of your ‘cool’ photo idea. Not worth it.
Anyhoo, that gives you probably a bit more background on me than I intended.
And it all started with a powerful opening line to a song.
What’s your nomination for the best opening line?