LIST – Coming Of Age Songs
I can hardly wait to see you come of age.
I love pop culture lists. I know that they don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t stop me from being slightly addicted to them. I have at least one book of lists. I collect magazines with lists in them. (I’ve gotten rid of quite a few of them, actually.) I go from list to list in the internet. Cracked.com is kinda my crack.
The reason I’m able to tolerate and, in fact, love the hell out of ‘em, is because I never see them as the end all, be all of what they’re listing. Much like awards shows (which are just high-profile, big-budget lists, really) they’re guides to show you new artists, new films, new music, new genres…just new. I’ve ended up finding a LOT of great artists by reading lists. Don’t hate the list. Embrace it. It’s totally worth it…for the most part.
I also love coming of age films. As most people who know me know (because it’s usually the first question they ask when they find out that I have a film degree), my favorite movie is Stand By Me. It’s not the greatest movie ever (although, it’s certainly not a bad film at all), but it takes me to a place that I’ve never been into a childhood that I never had. Sure, my childhood was ok, but I certainly didn’t have adventures like kids in movies have had. It’s way more fun to watch The Goonies than to watch something about an actual childhood.
A while back, I decided that I should try my hand at making a list. Why not? I’ve read enough of them. I should be able to make one, right? And why not try to put that together with my favorite genre of films?
Well, that would be FAR too easy. I could list about 100 coming of age films that I love, but only about half of them are truly any good. Let’s come at this from a different perspective. Maybe something with a slightly smaller palate: coming of age songs!
The more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was a pretty niche genre of pop song. Most pop music is made by young people who aren’t thinking about their childhood as more than a pretty recent memory. It isn’t until they grow up a bit that they start being nostalgic enough to really write these things. But they’re out there. Oh, they’re out there.
The songs aren’t in any sort of order, just the order that I thought of them in. And, keep in mind, lists are a two-way street. Especially on the internet. I want you to comment on my lists. I want you to add to my lists. Be a part of it. Introduce me to new stuff. That’s why I really started this whole thing.
Now, let’s come of age.
COME DANCING (1983) – THE KINKS
In the 60s, The Kinks were known in America, but not nearly as well as they really should have been. They were every bit as good as The Rolling Stones and The Who, they were just much more British. With songs like Waterloo Sunset, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion and Dead End Street, they didn’t really scream for America to take them into their hearts. Lola was probably about their only hit after their initial string of pop-rock love songs in the mid-60s.
Fast forward to 1983, after a lot of people had written Ray Davies and his boys off (although they still put out some great albums), and State Of Confusion comes out with a little song called Come Dancing. The song is about Ray as a little boy watching his sister go off to dance with her various boyfriends at the local palais. (That’s dance hall to you and me, Russ.) Eventually, the palais is torn down and “a part of my childhood died.” Now Ray is older and looks back on his days watching his sister with sadness. He thinks about calling her to come dancing with him, but wonders if she still would.
I actually don’t know how autobiographical the song is. Ray Davies has always been really good at building characters in three-minute pop songs, so it could be a character. It really doesn’t matter, though. This is one of the few happy sounding pop songs (with some great, crunchy guitars) that can actually put a lump in your throat if you listen carefully enough to it. It was years before I ever really listened to the lyrics and realized how sad it really is…and it’s the reason for this list in the first place. Hearing this song again put me in the mood to hear more like it. It’s a great song and not a bad swan song (on the charts, anyway) for an amazing band.
ALMOST CUT MY HAIR (1970) – CROSBY, STILL, NASH AND YOUNG
CUT MY HAIR (1973) – THE WHO
Hair is a pretty big deal to kids of all ages. Young kids are allowed to have shaggy hair that covers their ears. It’s a big deal when they finally get that short men’s cut that comes to define “growing up.”
In the 60s, it was an absolute status symbol. If a hippie cut his hair, he was going straight. It was the end of his hippiedom. He was a member of the establishment.
It was all over.
David Crosby was a full-grown adult when he sang Almost Cut My Hair for CSNY’s Deja Vu. He was also a leader in the counterculture. He had been in The Byrds for a few years and was now trying to have his own identity. He was also one of the biggest drug consumers on the rock scene. By the early 80s, he was a bit of a burnout, only kept afloat by the occasional album that Stills and Nash would put together with some of his vocals in the studio…or with Art Garfunkel standing in for him.
Almost Cut My Hair was pretty much the first glimpse of that life that his fans saw. It’s drenched in paranoia and foreboding. David Fucking Crosby was thinking about growing up! He was close to chucking it all and becoming one of THEM! But he didn’t. He’s still a kid, like us. He’s still a hippie!
The whole album is really kind of like that. It was the end of the hippie years and CSNY knew it. It was also the end of them for a while.
The Who, on the other hand, still had some life in ‘em in the 70s. They also knew how to write a coming of age song or two. Hell, this whole list could be composed of entire Who albums and it wouldn’t seem too off base. Cut My Hair from Quadrophenia, though, may be their most unsung song in this niche.
Quadrophenia itself is all about coming of age. The album is about a rocker who is going through some changes that he doesn’t quite understand. He just doesn’t know how to justify growing up when all he wants to do is ride on the beach and fight all the time. But maybe if he cuts his hair he can get a job and settle down a little bit. “Why should I care if I cut my hair?” It’s pretty obvious, though, that he does care…a lot. That would mean throwing away his whole life. He wouldn’t be the same kid that he is.
And isn’t that what coming of age is really all about?
SHE’S LEAVING HOME (1967) – THE BEATLES
We all know the history of The Beatles. Even if you don’t know the full story, you know bits and pieces. Enough to get by in a very general trivia game, probably. And, most likely, you’ve heard a LOT of the Sgt. Pepper album, even if you aren’t a huge fan. The Beatles’ music is ingrained in our brains almost the way the ability to eat or “fight or flight” are.
She’s Leaving Home is a moving song about a young girl who is growing up and going out on her own…told from the perspective of her worrying parents. She left in the middle of the night, only leaving a note to tell them, rather vaguely, where she’s gone: to meat a man from the motor trade.
Instead of saying, “Good for her for being resourceful and getting out on her own,” her parents say, “How could she do this to me?” They don’t understand why a young girl would want to be on her own, away from her (apparently smothering) parents.
In only a couple of minutes, The Beatles manage to put across all of the fears of parents and the tentative exhilaration of going out into the world. This is why they are still the greatest band to come out of the rock era…no matter what Radiohead fans say.
4TH OF JULY, ASBURY PARK (SANDY) (1973) – BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Just like The Who, this list could be peopled with Springsteen songs and not seem too out of touch. Between his first album (Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ) and his seventh (Born In The USA), there is so much coming of age that there could be a story for each member of Bruce’s high school graduating class.
For this track from The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, Bruce pulled out all the stops. It’s the story of a young man who is trying his best to get out of Asbury Park. He’s telling Sandy about all of the characters that they all know around town and what they’re doing right now, how they’re never going to win. He also knows that, if he leaves, he may never see Sandy again. That’s why he ends the song with “You oughta quit this scene, too.” He desperately wants her to come with him. Deep down, though, he knows that they’re both a part of this world and, even if he leaves, he’ll still be a part of it.
Bruce would visit this theme a lot (most notably in the next year’s even better Born To Run), but this is the one that really captures the pain of growing up and leaving it all behind. Born To Run captures the desperation of the run.
DUNCAN (1972) – PAUL SIMON
While The Boxer is more well known, Duncan is…well…less so. It’s hard to say that Duncan is a better song, because it’s not. The Boxer is an amazing song in every way, but it’s more about the hardships of being along in New York City. Duncan, from Paul’s first real solo album (the eponymous one with a picture of him in a parka on the cover), is about a young man leaving home, making his way in the world and getting laid.
Yes, Paul Simon once wrote about sex. “Oh, oh, what a night. What a garden of delight. Even now that sweet memory lingers.” It’s not the most explicit “first time” song ever, but it’s one of the best. It also acknowledges how important sex is to growing up. (“I seen that girl as the road to my survival.”)
It basically ends on Lincoln Duncan in the tent having sex with the girl. We don’t find out if this guy who was “as destituted as a boy could be” made it through his bleak period or not. That’s not the point. The point was that a girl led him into the promised land. (A preaching girl, no less.) The point is that he was a man now. It’s all that mattered to Duncan. And, really, it’s all that matters to us, too.
NIGHT MOVES/MAIN STREET (1976) – BOB SEGER AND THE SILVER BULLET BAND
Speaking of first times…
Bob Seger was Detroit’s favorite son up until Eminem took that title over. He’s pretty much the main reason, besides Motown, that people see Detroit as “Rock City.” (Ok, there’s that KISS song, too. Whatever.)
He wasn’t quite popular yet when he recorded the Night Moves album, but he was well on his way. He was just over the 30 hump and was reminiscing about the old days. Main Street is about a kid who hung out on Main Street just to watch his dream girl walk by after her shift at the local strip club. He takes her memory home with him every night.
Night Moves might as well be a sequel to the song where he actually gets the girl. “We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it.” They were just “tryin’ to lose those awkward teenage blues.”
Both songs end with Bob singing from his current vantage point. “With autumn closin’ in.” “I drift back in time and find my feet down on Main Street.” These tracks are built on pure nostalgia, but it’s some of the best nostalgia around.
Oh yeah, and there’s the line, “And points all her own sitting way up high. Way up firm and high.”
1941 (1967) – HARRY NILSSON
Nilsson is the great, unsung writer of the late 60s and early 70s. He and Randy Newman re-wrote the book on “singer-songwriters” at that time. Now, though, everybody knows One, mostly by Three Dog Night. Everybody knows Nilsson’s versions of Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You, neither of which did he write.
What they don’t know is that he was an amazing writer and did some great studio work. Just about every one of his albums from 1972 and earlier are worth checking out. After that, he gets more spotty and MUCH drunker.
1941, from his debut album (1967′s Pandemonium Shadow Show) is a sad little ditty about a boy growing up without a father and then doing the same thing to his own kids…much like Harry did. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with Daddy’s Song from his next album, Ariel Ballet. 1941, though, gets a slight edge.
BROOKLYN ROADS (1968) – NEIL DIAMOND
Neil Diamond doesn’t get the respect he deserves. Yes, he was pure drivel for about 30 years. Only recently has he been able to pull some good stuff out of himself with the help of the Old Dog Savior, Rick Rubin. But listen to his early stuff. His late 60s and early 70s singles. Just about everything he did was amazing, from Shilo (probably the greatest song ever written about an imaginary friend) through Sweet Caroline, he could almost do no wrong.
His first real album, Velvet Gloves And Spit, has this little gem on it. The song starts with Neil closing his eyes and remembering how his momma would tell him to go find his brother. It follows Little Neil through a normal day, with the sights and smells of living on the Brooklyn roads of his childhood.
By the end, Neil is grown and wondering if the little boy now living in his old room is having the same experiences that he had. It’s a pretty moving little story from a guy who, at one time, was one of the best of the Brill Building writers.
Now, if only we could completely erase the memory of the same album’s Pot Smoker’s Song.
LONGVIEW (1994) – GREEN DAY
We’ll bring this at least a little bit up to date with this one from Green Day’s Dookie. It really could have been any number of earlier Green Day tracks, but this one, I think, wins out.
Billy Joe tells us about how boring life in a small town really can be. All you want to do is sit around and masturbate all day long. The song is almost an anti-coming of age song. This guy doesn’t want to grow up at all. Hell, he doesn’t even want to leave his house.
PARADISE BY THE DASHBOARD LIGHT (1977) – MEAT LOAF
Bat Out Of Hell was one of the biggest albums in the history of pop music. And I don’t just mean that it was a huge hit, although it was. It was also just BIG. Jim Steinman’s arrangements of his own songs and Todd Rundgren’s production made the album an epic of epic proportions. Wall Of Sound be damned. This was the Empire State Building Of Sound.
A lot of the songs on this album could fit on this list, but Paradise By The Dashboard Light is, of course, about that all important First Time. Meat is trying his best to get into the panties of a young Ellen Foley. She makes him promise to love her forever. Unfortunately, after they finish, he realizes that he hates her. His future is sealed, though. He has to keep his promise.
Between the desperation of trying to get laid and the voice of Yankees’ announcer Phil Rizzuto calling the “plays,” this song is pretty much the perfect soundtrack to a high school jock getting stuck with the girl. Say what you will about Meat Loaf, his stuff is nothing if not dramatic.
AT SEVENTEEN (1975) – JANIS IAN
Just to show that the boys aren’t the only ones to come of age, Janis Ian comes in with this ode to the ugly ducklings among us. Janis had been around for nearly 10 years when this, her biggest hit, came out and stunned the world with its sheer honesty. She called out all of the people who told her that she was ugly and basically told them that she was better than them. And she was right.
The Between The Lines album was something of a comeback and a surprise from a woman who had not really charted since 1967′s Society’s Child. Her lyrics were always confrontational, so they didn’t really catch on…until many years later when folks like Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos were hitting the charts with songs about rape and going down on you in a theatre. Janis was a champion for women everywhere and At Seventeen was one of her most confessional songs.
FAST CAR (1988) – TRACY CHAPMAN
Speaking of confessional women, Tracy Chapman shocked the folk-rock world with her eponymous debut. Fast Car, her first big hit, is about a young woman who is trying to get out of her ghetto town. She thinks that she’ll get a job at the supermarket and she and her boyfriend will be able to buy a house in the suburbs.
Unfortunately, there is little chance of that because her boyfriend is a lazy asshole who spent all of his money on his car and the economy is so bad that no one gets out of the predicament that they’re in. All she can do is keep living her life the way she has and hope for the best. It’s a sad reflection on the Reagan Era that only shows us how bad it was for minorities and poor folk.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH (1972) – JOHN DENVER
John Denver gets a lot of shit these days, but he was once one of the most popular singer-songwriters alive. The 70s were his era and no one even thought about it…until the 80s. Then they realized what they had done. Rocky Mountain High (from the album of the same name) is the one anomaly, though. Even his harshest critics will usually concede, “Goddammit. I’ll give you that one. Shit!”
It’s almost a bit of a stretch to include this one, but it really is a spiritual coming of age. John sings about a young man who moved to the mountains “in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before.” The Rockies change him and make him a better person. They bring him closer to the land in, in doing so, closer to himself. He learns to live on his own and be his own man by getting away from the city.
As much as I almost hate to admit it, this is a pretty inspirational song. Hell, it makes me want to move into the mountains.
SOMEDAY NEVER COMES (1972) – CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL
John Fogerty and Creedence had a VERY short run, but far more hits than their short time together would typically warrant. From 1968 to 1972, they had more than 20 hits and put out six pretty amazing albums.
Their seventh and last album, Mardi Gras, was the problem album. John had pissed off his brother, Tom, enough to leave the band. He then decided to let Stu Cook and Doug Clifford write and sing some songs. This was a mistake. The album, as a whole, is terrible. Nearly unlistenable. The only songs that make it worth its release are, of course, John’s songs. Someday Never Comes is the best of the four. It’s about a young man looking back over his relationship with his father and seeing how he never truly understood why he left the family. Now, as a grown man, he still doesn’t understand…even though he’s doing the same thing to his family.
It’s a sad and poignant end to one of the greatest American bands of the 60s.
TWILIGHT (1980) – U2
U2 is now one of the biggest bands in the universe. Back in 1980, though, they were just four Irish boys putting out their first full-length album, Boy. The whole album is about growing up in Ireland, with songs like I Will Follow (about Bono’s relationship with his mother), Stories For Boys (about a magazine the boys read) and Electric Co (about an asylum that many of their friends ended up in).
Twilight was actually taken wrong when it came out. The song is actually about a boy being frightened of growing up and becoming a man. But the repeated line, “In the shadow, boy meets man” made people think that it was actually about a pedophile meeting a young boy in an alley.
The fear of growing up is a real one and it’s something that I (and most in my generation) can understand. It’s a little disheartening that this song was misread like that because it’s a great song. The album is just as good.