Every so often, a sports reference can make for beautiful music
It's hard to write well about sports, especially when setting the words to music
Baseball gets all the poetry, but the author submits that hockey has better songs
The sport that has best lent itself to popular and alternative music is soccer
Is there a less prescient lyric in the history of popular music than the one Billy Joel wrote for his 1978 song Zanzibar, in which he sang: "Rose he knows he's such a credit to the game..."?
The answer is yes, there is a less prescient lyric, and it's also about baseball. The Statler Brothers' single Don't Wait On Me is a when-pigs-fly litany of things that will never happen: "When a San Diego sailor comes home with no tattoo/When the lights go out at Wrigley Field, I'll be coming home to you." That was 1981. The lights went up -- and out -- at Wrigley seven years later.
I bring this up because every time Alabama scored against Penn State on Saturday -- and they did so pretty much constantly -- I looked at their nickname painted across the end zone and heard not cheering but Steely Dan: "They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues."
And every time the camera cut to Bama coach Nick Saban I heard, in my head at least, the Drive-By Truckers doing The Three Great Alabama Icons, a musical rumination on George Wallace, Ronnie Van Zant (of Lynyrd Skynyrd) and former Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant. "Bear Bryant wore a cool looking red-checkered hat and won football games," the spoken-word epic goes. "And there's few things more loved in Alabama than football and the men who know how to win at it."
It's hard to write well, and lastingly, about sports, and especially hard to do so when setting the words to music. I do like Zanzibar, especially the line that opens it: "Ali dances and the audience applauds..." An athletic contest has a crowd, not an audience, but Ali could turn a baying mob into theater patrons.
But I also like that it's not a sports song, per se. This isn't a column, really, about sports songs, but rather songs that allude in passing to a specific athlete or team. Not songs that are devoted entirely to a specific sport or person (no Hurricane by Bob Dylan or Bill Lee or Hit Somebody [The Hockey Song] by the great Warren Zevon), nor serially name-dropping songs (like Talkin' Baseball by Terry Cashman), nor generic sports songs (like Centerfield by John Fogerty), nor novelties (like Basketball by Kurtis Blow, though I still know every word by heart).
I'm talking about songs devoted to other issues that suddenly surprise you, as life does, with a familiar face or place, sprung from out of the blue. The Hold Steady wrote a 13-word biography of every Minnesotan I know in their song Stuck Between Stations, which goes, in part: "He loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters."
Hearing that for the first time, I was reminded of the day my brother Tom and I spent in a bar in Paris because it had -- we couldn't help but notice, while walking down some cobblestoned side street -- a neon Minnesota Timberwolves sign mounted in the window.
Imagine another generation's surprise hearing Mrs. Robinson for the first time, Paul Simon going on about pantries and cupcakes and Jesus and sofas, when suddenly: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" (That was certainly DiMaggio's reaction at the time, according to Simon: Surprise, then confusion. Whaddya mean, Where have I gone? I'm right here, doing Mr. Coffee commercials.)
Jay-Z updated the DiMaggio lyric for a more self-absorbed era of artists when he rapped: "I made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can."
Speaking of the Yankees: In their country hit Lucky Man, Montgomery Gentry sing about a self-pitying man who learns to count his blessings. An early line goes, "And last Sunday when my Bengals lost, Lord it put me in a bad mood." I heard it on the radio a dozen times before the lyric changed, on my Connecticut station, to this: "And last Sunday when my Yankees lost, Lord it put me in a bad mood." This shameless tweaking put me in a bad mood. It also put me in mind of Billy Idol, and the thrill I got hearing Hot in the City for the first time in 1982. How was I to know that when the sneering pop star shouted "Twin Cities!" he was merely pandering to one of several dozen local radio markets? I thought Idol was shouting "Twin Cities!" even when the song played in taxicabs in the Philippines.
And so it came as a great relief to know that the Beastie Boys' Sure Shot was going out around the world with this lyric intact: "I got more action than my man John Woo/And I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew."
Hip hop sometimes seems like one long sports reference, from Eminem (who calls himself a "naughty little rhymer/Cursin' at your players worse than Marty Schottenheimer") to Ice Cube (and the immortal "I had the brew she had the chronic/The Lakers beat the SuperSonics") to Ludacris (who name-checked my wife in a song called Mouthing Off: "My Statue of Liberty is Rebecca Lobo.")
Indeed, the first sports lyric I remember taking notice of as a kid came over the north Minneapolis R-and-B station that I tried to listen to in 7th grade, its signal barely reaching our southern suburb like the light from a distant star -- a distant star playing the Sugarhill Gang: "I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball." The anachronism now, of course, is not so much the color TV; it's the desire to watch the Knicks play basketball.
But then, as we already know, musicians write about the shifting sands of sport at their own peril. Baseball is particularly intimidating, it seems. Fenway might be a "lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," in John Updike's famous phrase, but ballparks, strangely, have not proven terribly lyrical. Eddie Vedder has written of Wrigley and the Cubs, and the Dropkick Murphy's Tessie is set in a pre-Fenway era of Boston baseball, but my favorite ballpark song is Ry Cooder's 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium from a 2005 album called Chavez Ravine. I especially like the line, "Back around the 76 ball/Johnny Greeneyes had his shoeshine stall." If you've ever been to Dodger Stadium, or seen it on TV, you know the Union 76 gas-station ball is second in iconic status there only to Vin Scully.
Baseball gets all the poetry. But I submit that hockey has better songs. Maybe it's because there are so many Canadian singer-songwriters, or the fact that Neil Young's father was a hockey writer.
Whatever the reason, there is poetry in the Rheostatics' musical ode to former Maple Leafs' captain Wendel Clark: "Well I heard Wendel talking to Dave Hodge last night/And he said that he was confident and keen/And he said that Jacques Plante didn't die/So all of us could glide/He said that hard work is the ethic of the free."
When the Tragically Hip sing about the transformative powers of female companionship, it's the Bruins who are left in ruins: "You said you didn't give a ---- about hockey/And I never saw someone say that before/You held my hand and we walked home the long way/You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr."
Orr doesn't appear in the Dropkick Murphys' Time to Go, though it takes place at (and en route to) a Boston Bruins game. The only person the Murphys name-drop is Rene Rancourt, the team's longtime anthem singer, and a fixture more permanent than any player: "Rancourt's ready, it's time to take the ice..."
You could write a book -- Lyrical On Ice? -- about hockey-centric bands, from the Gear Daddies (I Wanna Drive a Zamboni) to The Zambonis (whose blend of hockey and music is made evident in the song title Andy Moog Meets Robert Moog).
But the sport that has best lent itself to popular and alternative music is, not surprisingly, soccer. Where to begin? Eastern European soccer alone has been a strangely inspiring muse. Billy Bragg sang "I had an uncle who played/For Red Star Belgrade." Joe Strummer's Shaktar Donetsk is about a lonely Macedonian in London clinging to the Ukraine's biggest team: "He had the wooly scarf of Shaktar Donetsk -- nay the banner of freedom -- rung around his neck." (Strummer also wrote a song called Tony Adams, named for the former captain of Arsenal, who play Shakhtar in the Champions League this fall.) If you haven't heard the English band Half Man Half Biscuit sing All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit, download it now. I'll wait.
Half Man Half Biscuit are the Lennon & McCartney of soccer songwriting. Even Aston Villa's American goalkeeper gets a nod in the song I Went to a Wedding: "And at a table nearby I heard a girl saying to a balding guest/ 'So you're Brad Friedel, I'm mildly impressed'."
The Proclaimers, from Scotland, support the Scottish side Hibernian, a fact reflected in their lyrics: "I can understand why Stanraer lies so lowly/They could save a lot of points by signing HIbs' goalie."
To paraphrase Churchill, never were so many songs inspired by so few athletes as those in Scottish soccer . "Down all the days, the tap-tap-tapping of the typewriter pays," Shane MacGowan of The Pogues mumbles in a song whose words I've tried to live by. Then the song shifts, as a surprising number of songs do, toward a Scottish soccer motif: "I have often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers/But I've never been asked, and I never replied, if I supported Glasgow Rangers."
If you're looking for songs about life, and love, and, incidentally, a Scottish soccer hero -- and I'm here to tell you that you are -- then listen to Strachan, by the Irish band The Hitchers. It's about rising tension on two fronts -- a domestic dustup in the living room as Scotland international Gordon Strachan is scoring a hat trick for Leeds United on TV:
She waited for the match to start to start a fight up with me.
She said, "What's that you're watching?"
"A program about art."
She said, "A program about art?"
"I said a program about art."
And then the greatest midfield artist of them all walked out onto the park.
It's a gorgeous song and I only discovered it years after its 1997 release. But that's a beautiful thing about music. Like the light from that aforementioned distant star, it can reach us across time and space, undiminished in its brilliance. Which can't be said for everything in life.
So when I hear The Hold Steady play Hornets! Hornets!, I smile at the reference to the Edina (Minn.) High School mascot. But I sigh through the rest of it, especially at the part that goes: "I guess the heavy stuff ain't quite at its heaviest/By the time it gets out to suburban Minneapolis."