What's a line like you doing in a song like this?
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
January 14, 2020
Just how hard it is to come up with a strong opening line for your song? Somehow, you have to grab the listener's attention, set the scene, establish any relevant expository information, stay true to your own artistic voice, and (most times) set up a rhyme. It’s enough to send a songwriter running for chestnuts like “Woke up this morning…” There are plenty of blogs and websites dedicated to recounting bad lyrics, so I’m going to focus on some of the many openers that have inspired me over the years:
1. Atlantic City by Bruce Springsteen
“Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night”
Who’s this Chicken Man and why did they blow him up? What the hell is going on here?! It’s like being dropped right into the middle of a scene from some foreign film. There’s a language here – or at least a lingo – that I only partially comprehend, conveying a story that is at once confusing and compelling. I guess more than anything, this line immediately suggests a world that has spun out-of-control, full of danger and desperate last chances.
2. Duncan by Paul Simon
“Couple in the next room bound to win a prize / they’ve been going at it all night long” –
What I love about this lyric is the economical way it sets the scene and lets us know about the narrator’s reduced circumstances. There’s just something about a lousy night’s sleep in a cheap, noisy motel room that sets a soul searching for a more lasting peace. And that desire is all we really need to know about Lincoln Duncan in order to understand his story. Also, even though it’s not the opening line, I just have to mention another favorite lyric from this song: “…and I was born in the boredom and the chowder”; so specific and strange and lovely!
3. Little Girl Blue by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart
“Sit there and count your fingers / what more can you do?”
A very different sort of lyric from one of my favorite songs ever. What I love here is the way this line immediately sets up the sad, nursery-rhyme logic of the entire song. And it serves another purpose as well; setting up the repetition later in the same verse, only this time it's "Sit there and count your little fingers..." Everything is regressing here, growing smaller, sadder, and more and more unreal.