Poetic Pop: Songs of the 60s and 70s

There was a time when pop songs were not only about falling in or out of love, when gifted song writers understood that songs were a powerful medium for expressing the longings of the human condition using the lyrical language of poetry. Alas, such “poetic songs” are much rarer today, and one must go back to the 60’s and 70’s to rediscover these gems. Here are three such songs that I can recall. They were all billboard hits at the time, and certainly have lost none of their beauty and ability to move. I’ve included full lyrics for each song so you could have a better appreciation of the poetry as you listen to them.

BOTH SIDES, NOW (Joni Mitchell, 1968)

Rows and flows of angels’ hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and they snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way that you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
And you leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say, “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends they’re acting strange
They shake their heads and they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

“Both Sides, Now” was written by Canadian songwriter, Joni Mitchell when she was just 23. The maturity of the lyrics belie the fact that she had been struggling during the period she wrote the lyrics as she had recently given birth to a baby girl but was left by the father to bring her daughter up as a single parent. Not being able to sufficiently provide for her baby as a young, single mother, Joni gave up her daughter for adoption, a distressing experience that remained private for much of her career. Joni wrote the song while on a plane looking out at clouds from the side window. The song has been performed by many famous artists, most notably Judy Collins, first in 1968. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “Both Sides, Now” at number 170 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs.

LISTEN: “Both Sides Now” by Mary Fahl

DUST IN THE WIND (Kansas, 1977)

I close my eyes
Only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity.
Dust in the wind;
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song;
Just a drop of water in an endless sea.
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind;
All we are is dust in the wind

Now don’t hang on;
Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away,
And all your money won’t another minute buy

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

“Dust in the Wind” is a song recorded by American progressive rock band Kansas and written by band member Kerry Livgren. The song was first released on their 1977 album Point of Know Return. It peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of April 22, 1978, making it Kansas’s only single to reach the top ten in the US.

The song is a meditation on human mortality, perhaps drawing inspiration from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, where Chapter 1, verse 14 says:

I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile — like chasing the wind!

Other references to the impermanence of life include Genesis 3:19: “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”), and the famous opening lines of the Japanese war epic The Tale of the Heike: “…the mighty fall at last, and they are as dust before the wind.”.

LISTEN: “Dust in the Wind”

Here’s a wonderfully clear rendition of “Dust in the Wind” by the Ukrainian duo, Daria Zaritskaya and Sergey Sershen. Listen out for the fantastic guitar acoustics.

WINDMILLS OF YOUR MIND (Michel Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, 1968)

“Windmills of Your Mind” was a song written for the 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair, which was a story about a wealthy playboy who has been everywhere and done everything, and for a thrill, plans a very complicated bank heist. There was a scene in which he is flying a glider for pleasure while planning to rob a bank, and the director Norman Jewison, shot six- or seven-minutes of him circling in the glider (which is a dream for a songwriter: no dialogue, no sound effects, just a little shoosh of wind). Jewison wanted a song that exposed no character, that didn’t tell any plot, just a tune that captures the restlessness of the character. French composer Michel Legrand wrote the melody and husband-and-wife team, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the lyrics.

The song has been sung by the likes of Sting, Dusty Springfield and classical soprana, Kiri Te Kanawa. As for the song’s meaning, the poet Ian McMillan says “Windmills of Your Mind” is similar to some modernist poetry where the phrases are deceptively simple, but the meanings are kept deliberately mysterious. Here are the lyrics:

Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind!

Keys that jingle in your pocket, words that jangle in your head
Why did summer go so quickly, was it something that you said?
Lovers walking along a shore and leave their footprints in the sand
Is the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway and the fragment of a song
Half remembered names and faces, but to whom do they belong?
When you knew that it was over you were suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair!
Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
As the images unwind, like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind!

LISTEN: “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Sinne Eeg

A soulful rendition of “Windmills of Your Mind” by the Danish jazz vocalist, Sinne Eeg, considered as one of the finest female jazz vocalists currently in Scandinavia.

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