Song of the Day #4,575: ‘Side of the Road (Live, ACL, 1989)’ – Lucinda Williams

Continuing the chronological presentation of my 25 favorite songs…

Take On Me‘ – A-Ha (1985)

1985 is the second year to place two songs on my list of favorites, the first being Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ and the second being one of today’s featured tracks, A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me.’

Some songs on this list are here because of the excellence of a specific version. ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ is a good example. Both the original demo and cover versions by others pale in comparison to the magic created by Simple Minds on the definitive recording.

A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ is another sort of favorite song — one so beautifully written that it transcends its synth-pop roots and works in just about any form. Sure, the New Wave original (and its accompanying video) remains an all-time classic, but I’ve skimmed YouTube and come across highly listenable rock, swing, funk, tropical, and even metal versions.

In 2017, A-Ha went on MTV Unplugged in their native Norway and recorded an acoustic version that stripped the song of everything but a plaintive piano, acoustic guitar and Morten Harket’s still-amazing vocals. That gorgeous version teased out the songs underlying melancholy and revealed to me why a peppy synth-pop song has such appeal to a lover of sad things.

It was that version that was used so poignantly in last summer’s The Last of Us Part 2, the most cinematic and emotionally powerful video game I’ve ever played.

Suffice it to say that this song has followed me around in one form or another for 25 years and I’ve adored it every step of the way. I made this a list of 25 favorite songs to avoid the hell of trying to cut things down to ten, but this one would have made the theoretical shortlist as well.

Side of the Road‘ – Lucinda Williams (1988)

If there’s one thing bothering me about my list of 25 songs, it’s the gender imbalance — 17 men and only eight women. But the final ten songs I’ll write about, spanning 1988 to 2010, are split evenly between men and women.

I assume that’s because I started listening to female artists much more regularly as I got older. Hell, my five favorite albums of last year were by women.

Lucinda Williams has a number of songs and albums I count among my favorites, but ‘Side of the Road,’ from her self-titled sophomore release, is the one I treasure the most. I think it became one of my favorite songs the very first time I heard it.

That’s because it is such a winning combination of a simple but profound lyric and a simple but stirring melody. The other song on my list it reminds me of the most is Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘April Come She Will.’

‘Side of the Road’ explores the idea of wanting to find yourself without losing the attachments you’ve formed. It has been hailed as a feminist anthem, but its message is universal. I see it just as much as an introvert’s anthem, one that understands the soul-cleansing importance of solitude.

You wait in the car on the side of the road
Let me go and stand awhile
I want to know you’re there
But I want to be alone
If only for a minute or two
I want to see what it feels like to be without you
I want to know the touch of my own skin
Against the sun, against the wind

I walked out in a field
The grass was high, it brushed against my legs
I just stood and looked out at the open space
And a farmhouse out a ways
And I wondered about the people who lived in it
And I wondered if they were happy and content
Were there children and a man and a wife?
Did she love him and take her hair down at night?

If I stray away too far from you
Don’t go and try to find me
It doesn’t mean I don’t love you
It doesn’t mean I won’t come back and stay beside you
It only means I need a little time
To follow that unbroken line
To a place where the wild things grow
To a place where I used to always go

La la la, la la la, la la la, la la la
La la la la, la la la, la la la, la la la
If only for a minute or two
I wanna see what it feels like to be without you
I wanna know the touch of my own skin
Against the sun, against the wind

7 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,575: ‘Side of the Road (Live, ACL, 1989)’ – Lucinda Williams

  1. Amy says:

    I knew “Take On Me” would claim a spot on your list, and it’s well-deserved. I’m more surprised “Don’t You” found its way into your top 25.

    As for the “representation” factor, this is a useful exercise to stir self-reflection about what we gravitate to, listen, love and where our blind spots may be. That said, is it surprising if, especially in music, we are especially drawn to those songs that already speak to/represent us in some way? I don’t know, but I’m asking those questions as I continue adding to (then thinning) my own list.

  2. Dana Gallup says:

    I too assumed “Take on Me” would be on your list, and it may be on mine as well. I’m also not surprised to see Williams make the list.

    As for the representation issue, while it is important in certain contexts, I don’t feel it should be a factor when comprising a list of personal favorite songs or artists. We cannot pretend that we are not White, and in our case, male, whose formative years, when music was likely most front and center in our lives, skewed toward White male artists. It seems to me it would be disingenuous and, frankly, politically motivated for the sake of outward appearances, to displace a song or artist you truly adore for one who would not make the cut but for the musical equivalent of affirmative action.

    • Clay says:

      Yeah, I agree… I definitely didn’t set out to achieve some sort of balance. I just picked my songs and let the chips fall where they may. That happened to be 100% white and 66% male. Oof!

      I think it says a lot about how music was distributed and promoted during our formative years as much as anything else. It reminds me of that great clip of David Bowie taking MTV’s Mark Goodman to task for the channel’s lack of Black artists.

      I’m positive young white dudes today would have plenty of Black artists on their lists. Not sure about female artists.

  3. Amy says:

    I’ve thus far whittled my list to 39 songs. While I clearly have more culling to do, I anticipate my final list will have several songs by artists of color and about 9 or 10 by women. We shall see… back to making those hard cuts.

  4. The Cool Guy (Daniel) says:

    I love “Take On Me” by A-Ha! It is a testament to just how timeless that song is that when I’m in the car driving with my roommates and we play that song, everybody knows every word and sings at the top of their lungs! I have very fond memories associated with this song as well and it sincerely could be a contender for my Top 25. I was blown away when I listened to the acoustic version and appreciated how it presented the song in a whole new light.

    This Lucinda Williams song is very pretty and although it doesn’t immediately grab me, perhaps upon more listens I will discover how she managed to earn a spot on your male dominated list!

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