Essay

Bad Poem, Great Song

How singer Marianne Faithfull rescued a story about a lost housewife from its creator, Shel Silverstein.

by Claire Dederer

Song lyrics do a fine imitation of poetry, but they’re not quite the same thing. Lyrics are a vessel, designed to hold a singer’s voice. Poetry is its own solid object. I was reminded of this the other day when I rented Dusan Makavejev’s 1981 film, Montenegro.

The film itself is a middling thing, a pro forma Euro indictment of bourgeois conformity—the kind of movie where the repressed housewife finds love in a barn with a wiry but life-loving Yugoslavian. But the opening scene is unforgettable: A woman in a fur coat stands alone on a snowy dock in front of a large house. Synthesizer music quickens, and Marianne Faithfull’s voice crackles out the opening lines: “The morning sun touched lightly on the eyes of Lucy Jordan. . . .” Before you know it, the whole devastating, menacing, wounded song has slipped by, telling in just a few verses the story of an unhappy housewife and her unhappy demise. Combined with the snowily austere imagery of the scene, the effect is chilling.

I remembered “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” from the early ’80s—I had loved Faithfull’s album, Broken English, on which the song appeared. The lyrics eluded me, so I went online to track them down. There I discovered that the song was written by a poet, and not just any poet, but Shel Silverstein.

Silverstein is best known for his classics of children’s poetry: The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, and, of course, Where the Sidewalk Ends. But he was also a songwriter, with a bunch of tunes under his belt that, once you realize he is their author, seem perfectly Silversteinian: “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone,’” and “Sylvia’s Mother.” All of these songs are silly and subversive, not so much interested in destroying the status quo as in giving it a poke in the eye.

Silverstein was a kind of professional free spirit—he started out as a cartoonist for Playboy in the 1950s, made music and poetry in Greenwich Village and San Francisco in the 1960s, and reached a kind of apex of cool in the 1970s, writing songs for bands like Dr. Hook and recording his own albums. Like many free spirits, he exuded a kind of coercive joy that suggested if you’re not somehow following your very own personal bliss, you’re not really living.

In Silverstein’s best work, he combines flip insouciance with this deep commitment to the possibility of rapture. In his not-quite-best work, he seems to be condescending to the people who have chosen a more conventional route. So it is with “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” written in 1973 and first recorded by Dr. Hook. I printed out the lyrics and had a look at them. The song opens with a brief, dismissive limning of the housewife’s life:

The morning sun touched lightly on the eyes of Lucy Jordan
In a white suburban bedroom in a white suburban town

Then to the chorus, where we learn that Lucy Jordan has regrets:

At the age of thirty-seven she realized she’d never
Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair
So she let the phone keep ringing and she sat there softly singing
Little nursery rhymes she’d memorized in her daddy’s easy chair.

The song then slides into the kind of snide anti-housewife sentiment that seemed to come so easy in the 1970s. Feminism—the notion that as a woman, you could shape your own destiny—and the male embrace of the new sexual ethos combined to create a social order where freethinkers and liberated ladies were at the top, and women burdened by kids and chores were at the very, very bottom.

“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” happens to have been written the same year that Fear of Flying was published. For Erica Jong’s heroine, Isadora Wing—smart, sexual, educated, partially liberated—housewifery was simply not an option. (Incidentally, Isadora also sought her bliss in a sports car, which appears to be the 1970s icon of free-spirited happiness—no room for the kids, that’s why.) There was one thing women and men could agree on during the era of consciousness raising and lesbian separatism and general war between the sexes: Being a housewife sucked. And not only sucked, but was soulless besides, as Silverstein’s lyric goes on to make clear in the next verse:

Her husband, he’s off to work, and the kids are off to school
And there are oh so many ways for her to spend the day
She could clean the house for hours or rearrange the flowers
Or run naked through the shady streets screaming all the way.

There’s a world of contempt in that “rearrange the flowers.” Once her work is dismissed, Silverstein tosses her a bit of empathy: the poor thing is at the end of her rope, ready to run naked through the streets.

I think at this point it’s pretty obvious where “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is headed, and it’s not Paris. There’s only one thing left for such a pathetic specimen to do:

The evening sun touched gently on the eyes of Lucy Jordan
On the rooftop where she climbed when all the laughter grew too loud
And she bowed and curtsied to the man who reached and offered her his hand
And he led her down to the long white car that waited past the crowd.

Here the song joins a long tradition—from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to the film Thelma & Louise—of art that can find only one existentially correct solution for the housewife: death. (In fact, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” appears on the Thelma & Louise soundtrack, just to pile suicide upon suicide.) I can’t tell you how angry I get when I think about Silverstein writing this song, with his beard and his sandals and his Playboy contract.

But “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is a song, not a poem, so I went out to buy a copy of Broken English. Sometimes a singer can rescue a song, and Marianne Faithfull performed just such a resuscitation when she recorded “Lucy Jordan” in 1981. Faithfull at the time was in need of a bit of resuscitation herself. No one really expected to hear from her again after she unburdened herself of “As Tears Go By” in 1964 and put in a few years hanging with Mick Jagger. But Broken English changed all that. Faithfull might have been a ’60s person, but her album, with its spare arrangements, dark synthesizer passages, and almost punk sensibility, heralded the Eighties.

Faithfull’s singing on the album is injured, strong, and a little scary all at once. Somehow she manages to sound both completely in control and utterly desperate, like a sadist who can’t seem to find just the right masochist. While these are most certainly rock songs, Faithfull doesn’t quite sound as though she’s singing rock music. A rock star is a faraway object, while a performer in a cabaret is right next to you. This can be cozy, but also a little unnerving. Broken English is marked by the intimacy of cabaret, with its almost threatening implication of the listener: Will something be expected of me?

Her version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” opens with spare, elegant synthesizer passages—already it’s got a little dignity going. Then Faithfull starts to sing, her throaty voice making her sound like the sexiest crone on earth. With lingering tenderness, she delivers the lines, and all of a sudden we feel close to Lucy Jordan. The crackling wail of Faithfull’s voice forces our empathy. “The laughter grew too loud” is delivered with a kind of twisted dying spasm. Instead of being told how shallow Lucy Jordan’s life is, we feel how absolutely sick Lucy Jordan is of living.

Of course, the condescending tone is immediately softened by the fact that she’s a woman. But would, say, Judy Collins have the same effect? Marianne Faithfull sounds like a woman who has seen everything and done everything. She sounds like a woman who on a daily basis rides through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair, and then gets out and seduces a gendarme and maybe does a little heroin while she’s at it. Yet her voice is filled with tender regret. Here is a woman who has lived fully, and she sounds just as torn up as the housewife trapped in suburbia.

Faithfull’s singing sends a message to Lucy Jordan straight from the housewife’s fantasy of the glamorous life, and the message is: It’s hard here, too. Faithfull has the wit and the courage to make pain look cool. In the process, she turns a bad poem into a great song.

Originally Published: March 20, 2006

COMMENTS (8)

On June 20, 2008 at 11:49am Reader of Lyrics wrote:
Is it just me, or is this a willful misreading of Lucy Jordan's sad end? She doesn't die, she's off to the mental hospital. So, if this poem is "bad" because of some undercurrent of anti-housewifery, we can at least have a clearer picture of its denouement. We know that the age of institutionalizing women breaking under suburban malaise was a horrible time (read Susanna Kaysen's _Girl, Interrupted_ among many other classic & moving critiques), but I'm curious why you read suicide into this song, rather than institutionalization. Great song, bad reading.

On December 20, 2008 at 1:35pm hoolia wrote:
i think you could read it either way,

although 'long white car' hints at the

nuthouse. Certainly with La Faithfull

singing, I would buy suicide, and that was

my original interpretation.

Either way, she breaks. I've never been

dead, but I've been in the bin; and it ain't

much like life.

On March 25, 2009 at 11:44am Dave Dederer wrote:
Hey Sis,

Nice column.

This speaks to the age-old question: "Is it the singer or the song?"

Ms. Faithfull's former paramour, Mick Jagger, has long said, "It's the singer, not the song."

The answer is, of course, both.

As you know, Willie Nelson is my main music man. One reason I like him is that he can take any damn song and make it great. Not because he is the most facile singer in the world but because he only sings something if he can sing it with utter honesty. Same goes for Bob Dylan.

Performers are blessed with the opportunity to bring the written word to life with their verve and conviction. Sometimes even the very badly written word can be resuscitated with proper handling. Poets (and other writers) have to figure out how to bottle that level of passion into a static thing that just sits on the page. In my experience, the latter is much more difficult.

xo

dave

On August 4, 2009 at 1:56pm B D Woodruff wrote:
Thank you for your column. Today was the first time I actually listened to the words of this song. I was mesmerized. I too felt she had leapt to her death, but wasn't sure and Googled the song to see if that's what happened. Now I see that the camp is split, and that's fine. Faithfull so passionately conveys the desperation of this character. I never took the lyrics as contempt for housewifery, but rather a person's regret at realizing they let their dreams pass them by. This is not to say that the author of the column is wrong; but contempt for one's own lot in life is surely gender neutral. Thanks again for the column.

On January 25, 2012 at 1:46pm Louise wrote:
Great column and so well written, thank you for your insight and
interpretation.

On March 28, 2012 at 10:21pm Alex wrote:
Come on now. There was clearly a large group of housewives in those days who DID feel suffocated by the lifestyle. This song is about them, the women forced into housewivery by societal demands, lack of contraception and few career options. Suicide and institutionalisation weren't exactly uncommon either. I'll just go ahead and say it since we're on a poetry site: Sylvia Plath.

The fact that there are housewives enjoying their lifestyles has no bearing on the quality of the song. And certainly the gender and occupation of the writer has no bearing on the quality of the song, so stop getting angry at his beard and sandals.

On December 26, 2012 at 11:32pm Donald Shelley, Jr. wrote:
Another meaning of the ending came immediately to me when I read the lyrics while listening to Ms. Faithfull. It is Jesus reaching out his hand to ease her suffering and take her above the laughter where laughter may mean the crying of the people left behind, changing the crying to laughter as another way to ease her pain. I do believe she did end her own life and the white car she sees could actually be black, which changed the same way the crying changed to laughter. Everything would be white in the colors of heaven.

On July 31, 2013 at 7:29pm Niki wrote:
Shel Silverstein was a maverick . His poetry/ lyrics and artwork can be
interpreted in multiple ways which is exactly what he wished and how
he led his life. M. Faithfull's various recordings of the ballad from a
young girl to mature woman demonstrate this precisely. Love the
comments as I also waver on interpretation each time I listen. So it
works!

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Biography

Claire Dederer lives in Seattle and writes about books and culture for the New York Times, Newsday, and many other publications.

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