A couple of months back, our erudite music editor Judy Berman put together a list of her most memorable fictional characters from songs. The feature inspired plenty of talk, both among commenters and at Flavorpill HQ, and we’ve been meaning to do a follow-up ever since. Now, with all our end-of-year list making and beginning-of-year predicting over and done with, we’ve finally got around to revisiting the idea — so, after the jump, we’ve pulled together 10 more of our favorite fictional characters from songs. As ever, suggestions are welcome!
You could almost do a whole feature on the various depictions of Stagger Lee over the years. He first appeared in the folk song “Stagolee,” which was inspired by the actions of one Lee Shelton, a St. Louis pimp who shot a man named William Lyons in 1895 (apparently the murder was inspired by Lyons’ refusal to return Shelton’s hat). Since then, though, the character has taken on a life of its own, featuring in songs by artists as diverse as The Grateful Dead, The Clash, and, um, Snatch and the Poontangs. For us, though, the immortal Stagger Lee will always be the gloriously foul-mouthed villain from Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. Fun fact: Cave’s mother habitually absents herself from the room when he plays this live.
A murderous time-traveling gynecologist with green skin and a pink-and-white Afro? Yeah, we reckon that qualifies as “memorable.”
The Charmless Man
Blur’s early records are crammed with beautifully realized characters — there’s Ernold Same, Tracy Jacks, the pay-me girl (who’s had enough of the bleeps), the city dweller who moves to a very big house in the country, Mr. Robinson (and his quango), the debt collector, Yuko and Hiro, and plenty more. If we had to choose one, though, it’d be the charmless man, the coke-hoovering upper-crust type who was based on the characters Damon Albarn encountered at the Groucho Club in London and who embodies pretty much everything there is to dislike about the 1%.
Suzanne Vega’s classic depiction of domestic violence was all the more poignant for being written from the perspective of the eponymous victim. Over the course of three quietly heartbreaking verses, Vega captures the experience of abuse with frightening precision, and years later, this song still makes us weepy. (Also, actor Jason Cerbone, who played poor little Luka in the video, would go on to appear in The Sopranos years later.)
Pretty much everyone can find something to relate to in the story of “Me and Bobby McGee” — Kris Kristofferson’s story of young love lost is filled with both fond memory and regret at how things turned out. Of course, for all that Roger Miller (who first performed the song) did a perfectly serviceable job of it, it was Janis Joplin who’d immortalize Bobby McGee, recording the song barely a fortnight before her death in 1970.
Bruce Springsteen is another songwriter whose songs are thick with memorable characters. For us, it’s his finest song that also contains his most memorable character — for all that “The River” is essentially about the slow death of its protagonist’s dreams, it’s the mutely accusatory presence of his wife Mary that gives the lyric its power. The images of Mary as Springsteen’s narrator remembers her — “Her body tanned and wet down at the reservoir” — form a dramatic contrast with the detached figure of the present, lending poignant, dramatic weight to the song’s central question: “Is a dream a lie when it don’t come true/ Or is it something worse?”
“Did you hear the news about Edward?/ On the back of his head/ There was another face…” So commences Tom Waits’ nightmarish retelling of the legend of Edward Mondrake, a 19th century English nobleman who, as the story goes, was born with another face on the back of his head. As in Waits’s song, Mondrake’s face would apparently whisper to him at night, driving him to commit suicide at the age of 23. Clearly, it’s hard to believe that the story’s in any way true, although listening to the hugely creepy “Poor Edward,” you can just about believe it.
Elvis Costello’s reflection on growing old paints a vivid portrait of its titular heroine, and for all that the lyric laments the geriatric Veronica’s dementia (“These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure/ That her name is Veronica”), you also get the sense that despite all its abiding sadness, this is ultimately a song to celebrate a life rather than mourn its slow decline. The video, which features Veronica in three stages of life (youth, adulthood and old age) captures the mood perfectly.
She really was a nasty piece of work, wasn’t she?
There’s quite possibly never been a more compelling and/or chilling depiction of complete mental breakdown than Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” the story of a traumatized and impoverished Vietnam veteran whose slow decline into mental illness culminates in him murdering his wife and young child. In an era where America is sending as many soldiers off to fight wars in foreign lands as ever, it remains just as relevant (and terrifying) as it was in 1975.