Great First Lines (80’s and 90’s)

leonardcohenlyricsSome songs have lyrics that just don’t matter. They’re essentially vowel and consonant sounds that seem pleasing with the song’s chord structure, and that is the extent of the thought that the songwriter put into them. This isn’t a bad thing. Lyrics can be difficult, and some artists just want to write a catchy tune. For example, even my precious Jerry Garcia turned to help from Robert Hunter for almost all of his Grateful Dead (and solo) lyrics.  Even the best of us feel stupid when it’s time to give our songs actual meaning. Some artists, to be sure, see lyrics as a burden that is to be sloppily unloaded as quickly as possible. This is not a list about these people. This is a list of first lines that smack you on the head immediately, sometimes before even the melody gets a chance to sink in.

I decided to divide this into two articles, simply because I have a little too much to say about each song and don’t want to run the risk of being long-winded (my critics will note that that ship has long since sailed). Here we have songs from the 80’s and 90’s. Enjoy.

 “Can’t Hardly Wait” – The Replacements

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Opening line: Write you a letter tomorrow/tonight I can’t hold a pen

If there were ever a single line that best summed up the self-deprecating, ramshackle appeal of the Replacements, this is it. Where another singer would bask in the party lifestyle or mask insecurity with grandiose boasts, Paul Westerberg freely admits that he’s too drunk to do much of anything. Everything is going to happen tomorrow. This change you’ve been waiting for can be put off for another day. For now, I can’t even hold a pen.

 “Random Rules” – The Silver Jews

Opening Line: In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection

Damn. That’s funny. That’s funny and thoughtful. Given the source, we should be none too surprised. Bandleader David Berman is probably best described as a “poet by trade who occasionally dabbles in rock music.” Accordingly, when I saw the Silver Jews live in 2004 I was surprised by Berman’s apparent stage fright. He still reads his lyrics from a music stand and hardly ever looks up at his audience. The Jews’ terrific 1999 album American Water is the rare alt-rock album that works as an exclusively lyrical project. These words, sans music, stand up alarmingly well.

“First We Take Manhattan” – Leonard Cohen

First Line: They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/for trying to change the system from within

This line conveys so much with such conservation of language. There is clearly some sort of totalitarian regime in play here; what exactly does this “twenty years of boredom” entail? No matter. Despite arriving roughly twenty years into his career, Cohen’s 1988 record I’m Your Man happens to open with the sublime “First We Take Manhattan,” which immediately vaulted itself onto the list of all-time great Cohen tunes. The witty, biting lyrics of this track (and other classics like “Everybody Knows”) cemented Cohen as a legendary peddler of delicious words. Now that’s a snack I could use at the ball game.

Stay tuned for the 60’s-70’s companion piece!

Photo credit: By Rama (Own work) [CeCILL ( or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (], via Wikimedia Commons

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