Any blog that launches with a bouquet for Steve Goodman's iconic "City of New Orleans" seems bound to impress, especially when its author glides seamlessly from fond remembrance of that great old song into an honest look at how frustrating a day can be when you don't have anybody to sing at least the chorus with. Posts like that are workouts for the soul. While I don't feel up to the same high standard at the moment, I was much taken with Faith's speculation about the possibility of a "song heaven" where the best stuff goes.
The "Billboard 100" and the annual lists of "Best Rock Songs of All Time" hawked by Rolling Stone are old hat, but the criterion about which Faith was speculating has more to do with genius than with sales figures. That, I think, is why the spark for her post was struck by Mr. Goodman, rather than by better-known tunesmiths like Mr. McCartney and Mr. Lennon, who were wildly popular but not always keenly insightful. Imagine -- it must be said -- is a crap sandwich. I Wanna Hold Your Hand cannot be called a Profound Comment on the Human Condition. Hey Jude aspires to greatness, but remains a crescendo in compelling disguise.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that there actually is a "song heaven." There are grounds to believe that there might be: C.S. Lewis, riffing on a suggestion offered by Thomas Aquinas, once suggested that music is the speech of the angels (not for nothing did Aquinas divide angel ranks into "choirs"). Beyond that, some of us who believe that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful all come from and return to a divine author are sure that there is a place for great music among those perfections, and that greatness ultimately adheres to or reflects an objective standard.
What qualifies something for "song heaven"? With apologies to the blogger who inspired this post, canonization of that kind can't depend solely on the reputation of the songwriter.
Any tune in the "heaven" conversation has to be durable, memorable, singable, popular, and keenly observant.
Frankly, I did not want to make "popular" a criterion, but without that, people like me would promote so many obscure tunes into song heaven that singalongs would be difficult. I think songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Claire Lynch should be famous, but they aren't, so they have to settle for heavy rotation on my own playlists rather than having their work acclaimed by the masses.
Because this is "song heaven" we're speculating about, everything on the foregoing list is non-negotiable. For example, I really enjoy the Blues Traveler song, "Hook," but it would not qualify for song heaven because it's not easy to sing, and it hasn't been around long enough to prove itself durable. I also like Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon," circa 1983 (Remember that?), but even I can't pretend it's keenly observant, or give it a pass because the harmonica part rocks.
"Let It Be," on the other hand, is a shoo-in for song heaven (McCartney was in top form there) -- and so is Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville."
If you don't think Buffett was keenly observant, then you missed the moral arc that moves the singer from "It's nobody's fault" to "Hell, it could be my my fault" to "It's my own damn fault."
That's meathead to mensch in three verses -- sounds like repentance, you betcha. I've said that for years.
Although Margaritaville ends with the shrimp overcooked and the salt shaker still missing, the singer has also come to a glimmer of wisdom, even without the "frozen concoction" that helps him hang on. Perhaps it's the same optimism that would later mark Wasted on the Way.