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Book Review: The Boy in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics by Frank Hopkinson and Michael Heatley

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Not long ago, my local classic-rock station began airing old American Top 40 episodes on Saturday and Sunday morning, and now I realize that’s where my obsession with rock music history and trivia might have come from.  I listened to AT40 religiously back in the day, and I always enjoyed it when Casey Kasem answered listeners’ questions about chart records, or told the stories behind the writing and recording of the week’s biggest hits.

Many of the songs featured in The Boy in the Song didn’t chart anywhere near the Top 40, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating to find out what–and who–inspired their performers to write them.  

Authors Frank Hopkinson and Michael Heatley concentrate on songs which were inspired by real people, and present impressively researched sketches of their lives and how they were portrayed in song.

Some of the stories are pretty well-known even to the casual music fan–Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is about the death of his young son, for example, and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” is almost certainly inspired by Warren Beatty–but Hopkinson and Heatley add a lot of detail I didn’t know.  There are traces of Mick Jagger, David Geffen, and even Nick Nolte in “You’re So Vain,” and the story behind “Tears in Heaven” becomes even more tragic when you find out young Conor’s fatal accident happened just when his famous father – who had once resented the chaos a young child brought into his life–was really starting to enjoy and appreciate his little boy.

I honestly had no idea that some of the other songs featured in The Boy in the Song were inspired by real people.  Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It” (from Band on the Run) was meant to sound like a parody of John Lennon, with whom he was bitterly feuding at the time, but the lyrics expressed a desire to make up with his former songwriting partner. Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is about Bernie Taupin and U.K. blues legend Long John Baldry convincing him not to get married, years before he came to terms with his sexuality. Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” was inspired by a real child with that name–but Vega felt that he was just a boy who seemed a bit different, not abused.  (Years later, she was amused to find out the real Luka was using his connection to the song to impress girls.)

Other songs featured in The Boy in the Song–the Ramones’ “Love Kills” (about the doomed Sid Vicious) and Lou Reed’s “Andy’s Chest” (about a certain Mr. Warhol) are not nearly as well-known, but this book made me want to track them down. The most unusual selection is probably Loudon Wainwright III’s “Rufus is a Tit Man,” about being jealous that his baby son got to breast-feed. The authors write, “the glorious irony of the song was only revealed in the 1980s, when Rufus first told his parents he was gay and that in all honesty he was never going to be a tit man.”

There are probably dozens of other songs which deserved to be in The Boy in the Song but didn’t make the cut. (Some of them probably made it into The Girl in the Song, from the same authors, which I haven’t read but will definitely track down.) Here’s hoping this one finds its way onto many music lovers’ bookshelves, so we can get another volume.

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About Damian P.