Usually the mystery concerns things like: how in the world did this song ever get recorded when all the musicians were so stoned they couldn’t even hold their instruments and it still became a big hit?! Or, why does Eric Clapton look different in every picture? But sometimes there’s a real enigma in there between the intro and the cold fade out. Here’s three examples:
- “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobby Gentry. This haunting tale, one of the greatest in modern music, is filled with unanswered big questions, terrible sorrow and soul- crushing apathy, just like reality itself. It was originally a much longer song which was edited for radio airplay constraints, a smart move which boosted its inscrutability and ensured its place in rock history. There is no reason given for the title character’s suicide. We don’t know what he and his girlfriend threw off the bridge over the Tallahatchie River. But one thing is certain: the Third of June was never the same again. Oddly, the song itself has no bridge.
- “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. This smash from 1972 explores a self-absorption that would make even Narcissus blush and includes the ultimate musical conceit line “You probably think this song is about you.” Numerous men from Warren Beatty to James Taylor (Simon’s ex) have been suggested as the inspiration, but the title character remains a mystery to this day, although Dick Ebersol won the right to know in a charity auction. But he’s not talking. Mick Jagger, who contributes some nice harmony, is also a suspect, but that hardly seems fair since he is the best singer on this number.
- “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This apocalyptic classic about the end of the surface dwellers and the migration undersea (what would Aquaman think?) is self-explanatory. The puzzle concerns one of the featured guest musicians, flautist Chris Wood. On loan from Traffic, Wood eventually died in the year the song was set, 1983, becoming one of the only rockers to foresee a date-specific doom. Would have made a great One Step Beyond episode.