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Robin Benway's favorite storytelling songs

August 31, 2009 |  4:22 pm


As an 11-year-old kid growing up in Southern California, my favorite summer activity wasn't going to the beach. It wasn't riding bikes or playing at a friend's house or swimming in the neighbor's pool. I needed only three things for my ideal summer: a book, a couch and some air-conditioning. Sometimes I read the same book twice in one day, sprawled out in suburbia but residing in another world entirely. Books were both familiar and escapist, and I couldn't imagine ever needing anything more than a paperback.

Until I was 15 and discovered music.

A friend made me a mix tape -- an actual mix tape, not a CD or a playlist uploaded online -- in our junior year of high school, introducing me to a whole new world of storytellers: The Smiths. The Cure. Patti Smith. The Velvet Underground & Nico. The Doors. And that was just Side B on the tape! It was as if someone said to me, "Check out this library," and then pressed "play."

Suddenly I had these three- or four-minute songs, these perfect short stories that gave me new characters, new plots and a brand new way of reading. I still adore books (you never do forget your first love), but the following songs are some of my most-loved stories. After all, as anyone who has a favorite book knows, it's not the tale, but the way it is told.

Joni Mitchell, "My Old Man" and "Little Green"
Young love has been described millions of times, but in these back-to-back songs on 1971's "Blue," Joni Mitchell puts new words to a fast-paced romance and its inevitable demise. "We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall keepin' us tied and true," Joni sings almost defiantly, telling us about her man. Their love is stronger than any institution -- until it produces a baby girl. The affair long over, the child is put up for adoption, the last heartbreak in the long chain."You write him a letter, say 'Her eyes are blue' / He sends you a poem and she's lost to you," the narrator explains, once again describing her man, and then she tells the baby what we sadly already know: "Little Green / He's a non-conformer."

Joni Mitchell, "My Old Man" (live on "The Johnny Cash Show"):

Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel #2"
Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel has stories for days. It's just our good luck that Leonard Cohen told one of them. "I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel," he sings as only he can to his long-lost hotel girl, Janis Joplin. What follows is the memory of two people talking, honest and cruel and funny. "You told me again you prefer handsome men," Cohen reminds her, "but for me, you'd make an exception." They are in private, lingering while limousines wait to take them away to their very public lives. The dialogue is as sharp and sparse as anything found in a Raymond Carver story, but its best is sung by Cohen and presumably said by Joplin. It's a line that lifts the story out of Manhattan and into the bedroom of every kid who has put on headphones and watched a too-small world pass them by. "We are ugly," the song reminds us, "but we have the music."

The Raconteurs, "Carolina Drama":
Some of the best stories start by telling us the ending first. Jack White knows this: "I'm not sure if there's a point to the story, but I'm going to tell it again / So many other people try to tell the tale, but not one of them knows the end." It's too late to stop now: we're hooked. There are blue-tattooed villains and bottles of gin, priests and children, milkmen and (of course) a red-headed damsel in distress. By the time the story hits its apex, we've turned it up and leaned toward the speakers, waiting to be the first person who discovers the ending. (True story: One of my friends yelled, "What happens?!" at her car stereo the first time she heard the song.) And underneath all that Carolina drama is a hard-strumming, chair-rocking Southern Gothic melody that reminds us of at least one certainty: Every great story deserves an equally excellent soundtrack.

The Raconteurs, "Carolina Drama"

-- Robin Benway

Robin Benway is the author of "Audrey, Wait!" Her second novel, "The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May & June" is due from Penguin's Razorbill imprint next summer. Follow her at twitter.com/robinbenway

Photo: Joni Mitchell. Credit: File