We’ve all got our favourite characters in literature, film, TV and art. The personalities that seem so utterly real even though they’re created from an author’s mind and patch-worked traits from reality. You may be drawn to the hero, the under-dog, the cad or the outcast, whether you relate to them or not. Caliban, the ‘hag-born’ wild man of the island in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with his heartbreakingly poetic turn of phrase, has always been a character I go back to, along with Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night, Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Tony Soprano and all those weird sketches in The Wasteland. I’m sure the characters that resonate with you are equally as disparate.
But creating characters in song is much more difficult; there isn’t a lot of space to flesh out someone’s story and their personality. Billie Jean, Mrs Robinson, Eleanor Rigby, Babooshka, Terry and Julie… these are as much part of our cultural history as the music behind them. They have struck a chord to the point that they are, really, alive, evolving into stereotypes of their fictional circumstances. And some of the greatest songs are snapshots of a character – even though they’re not based in reality, the lyrical force gives them life. Here’s 5 memorable characters in song. Leave your suggestions in the comments below or using the hashtag #charactersinsongs.
‘Wichita Lineman’ – Jimmy Webb
Songwriter Jimmy Webb was driving through rural Oklahoma in the 60s past rows and rows of telephone lines when he saw the silhouette of a lineman against the setting sun. Webb told the Dallas Observer:
I could see him on top of this pole talkin’ or listenin’ or doin’ somethin’ with this telephone. For some reason, the starkness of the image stayed with me like photography. I had never forgotten it
So he imagined what the man would say if he picked up the telephone there and then and it became the most poignant image of loneliness in popular song. The lineman’s vocation is looking for power “overloads” “for the county” but he admits it’s time for a “small vacation”. The stinger? “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time”. A lonely man, up a telephone pole, at sunset, in plaintive longing for someone he can’t have (Glen Campbell, the artist who performed the song, said it was about Webb’s lost love)? It’s almost too much to bear.
‘Colin Zeal’ – Blur
‘Colin Zeal’ is a cynical skewering of a boring, flashy, 90s numpty that sits glowering in third place on ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, the band’s 1993 critique of the values and prejudices of middle-class suburbia. He’s the ultimate bore, a “terminal lard.” He’s “so pleased with himself” because he’s “on time yet again.” He’s civil, pedestrian and affable; the absolute opposite of rock ‘n’ roll and the anathema of zeal. It’s Damon at his best: acidic, concise and knowing.
Stagger Lee – Nick Cave (and others)
Stagger Lee isn’t quite a fictional character but his story’s too good to exclude. Lee Shelton is the 19th century braggart who inspired the story of Stagger Lee. A twit called Billy Lyons stole Shelton’s stetson in 1895 on Christmas day. He was messing with the wrong man and Shelton shot him in the stomach. There are so many versions of the folk song but Nick Cave’s visceral, grimy tale trumps them all, with lines such as:
She saw the barkeep, said, “O God, he can’t be dead!”
Stag said, “Well, just count the holes in the motherfucker’s head”
Billy dropped down and slobbered on his head
And Stag filled him full of lead
Live, with Nick Cave staggering around like a priapic, gothic giraffe with the meat sweats is one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen.
‘…Richard’ – Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s excellent at drawing strong, three-dimensional characters and Richard from ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ is one of her most potent. He’s a depressed cynic unable to see that he’s living exactly the kind of life he despises: “Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.” He tries to persuade Mitchell/the first person that love is a lie and chides her for her hopes and dreams, wallowing in his own moony, romantic melancholy. After putting a quarter in the Wurlitzer and receiving some tough love from Joni, we hear what happened to him:
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright
‘Stephanie Says’ – The Velvet Underground
Though a great deal of detail can make for a well-rounded character, sometimes a light sketch is quite enough, upon which the listener can project the remaining aspects. ‘Stephanie Says’, for example, is a pretty straightforward story about a woman looking back at her life with regret and bitterness but stubborn stoicism – “but she’s not afraid to die.” The finest image in the song is: “The people all call her Alaska.” Like the US state, positioned between Canada and Russia and north of the US, she is “between worlds.” The chilliness of her reality is made all the more sad by the pretty, tinkling music. It was one of The Velvet Underground’s final tracks recorded by the seminal line-up of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker. Apparently it’s about Steven Sesnick, the club-owner who managed the band after they parted ways with Andy Warhol but Lou Reed leaves it open to interpretation.
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Other favourite characters that have been suggested to me via Twitter included Bob Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, Arrested Development’s Mr. Wendal, Eminem’s Stan, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey’, Regina Spector’s Daniel Cowman and “the man who talks in maths” and “buzzes like a fridge” from Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’. Over to you.