How a fifth-grader found stories on the radio
The magic of story as told through 1970s pop songs
Welcome to Story Cauldron, where I investigate what constitutes a story, where stories can be found, what makes a good story, and why we, as human beings, seem to crave “Story” and constantly find new ways to bring it into our lives.
As I initially contemplated creating this newsletter, I realized that you can find examples of Story everywhere you go. Seriously—unless you sit at home alone without any social media, television, Internet, printed materials, or radio, it’s almost impossible to avoid encountering Story in one form or another.
And with that, I’d like to start with radio, and how 1970’s pop songs were one of my first encounters with the concept of Story as a kid.
My best friend, the clock radio
As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room, reading books, playing with toys, or, late at night, listening to the clock radio on the desk beside my bed, the old-fashioned kind with the analog flip numbers. It was after bedtime, but for me, sleep was always a late visitor.
I’d hear songs over and over again, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the lyrics or what the words meant. I never realized that a lot of pop songs hid intriguing stories within the catchy tunes. That all changed one day in 1978 when I was 11 and, for the first time, I really “heard” a song.
Yellow feathers in her hair
The song was Copacabana (At the Copa) by Barry Manilow.
Before that day, I had heard the song dozens of times and didn’t care for it much. But that day when I heard it, a lightbulb went off in my head. A song on the radio had a plot. When I figured it out, I got really excited.
The song starts out,
Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair and a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor, they worked from eight til four
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?
Suddenly I needed to know more. Who was Lola? What was the yellow feather all about? And what was a Copa? I didn’t understand, and even as I tried to figure it out, the song was over. I wanted to know more but I was too slow to catch it all. It was like water slipping through my fingers.
And remember, this was 1978. I couldn’t just listen to it again whenever I wanted. I didn’t own the record (and in retrospect, I’m not sure why I didn’t ask my parents to buy me the single), and of course, there was no YouTube or a means to Google the lyrics.
So I did what any self-respecting 11-year-old did back then when they wanted to hear a song again. I called the radio station and made a request. And then I waited. And waited. I must have sat by the radio for at least two hours. And they didn’t honor my request. (Silly me, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a song clock that dictated when a song would get played again.)
With my system of “hurry up and wait” to figure out the song, it took a long time before I could work out the story, especially since I didn’t understand some of the cultural references. But finally, I was able to decode the main story within the song. There was a woman named Lola who loved a man named Tony, but then another man, Rico, showed up, shot Tony, and at the end of the song Lola is old and alone and has lost her mind.
The fun little disco tune that got played over and over (until I wanted to hear it!) was actually a tragic love story (and in case you’re curious, it appears to be entirely fictional), I was flabbergasted.
Songs of everyday life
After the epiphany that came with “Copacabana,” I started listening more closely to other songs on the radio to see what they were all about.
Some of the ones I especially liked include:
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon’s clever ditty from 1975 about a woman who is inspiring a dude with a bunch of different ways to ghost the woman he’s seeing—so he can be with her. But then in a great twist, he realizes she’s going to use one of her clever tricks to bail on him.
“Another Day” – Paul McCartney’s debut single as a solo artist in 1971, the song tells the tale about a young woman going through the motions at a boring office job and trying to just get by. As drummer Denny Seiwell put it, it’s essentially "'Eleanor Rigby' in New York City."
“American Pie” – a song about rock and roll, the death of Buddy Holly, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, and a whole lot of other things. As a kid, even though I learned to sing it by heart, I never quite understood what was going on. (And although many have tried dissecting the song, to this day no one has ever totally figured it out, and Don McLean still isn’t talking.) But it was still a fun mystery.
“King of the Road” – back in the 1960s this was a hit song from Roger Miller. It tells the story about a hobo who sneaks rides on trains and knows where all the handouts and good deals can be found. In first grade, I regularly cracked up my classmate Nedra by singing the single line “ain’t got no cigarettes.” It took me ages to realize what the song was actually about.
All of these songs—and most of the others I could name from this time—told stories about everyday people with everyday problems. Relationships, work (or lack thereof), growing up. There was no fantasy, no goblins or starships. Just people getting by. And as a kid, I found these stories comforting and grounding. I might not know what the Copacabana was, but even I understood the concept of a jealous lover.
A soggy cake
But there was one song that I figured was telling a story, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what that story was. This was “MacArthur Park,” which was all over the radio in the 70’s.
The original was recorded in 1968 by Irish actor Richard Harris (who nowadays is better known as Dumbledore #1 from the Harry Potter films). It was re-recorded as a disco tune by Donna Summer in 1977 and subsequently by many others, and parodied by Weird Al as Jurassic Park, but only the Harris version is magical to me. (Though velociraptors do run a close second…).
And it’s definitely not for everyone. According to Dangerous Minds, humorist Dave Barry once called it the “worst song in modern history” with the “worst lyrics.” But I think that is very undeserved.
If you’re not familiar with the song by the title, you might know it by the refrain, which goes like this:
MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again
And oh, how I loved this song growing up. Although initially, I didn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, I thought it was magnificent—with the giant horn section, the song was lush and gorgeous and dramatic and sounded like an entire movie soundtrack. And as he sang the song, Harris sounded like his heart was truly breaking over the poor cake. But why? It was just a cake!
Or was it? When I started really listening to the song, I knew there had to be a bigger story, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
For the longest time, I thought the true story behind the song was a mystery as deep and frustrating as the one behind “American Pie” (or “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, about a mysterious vain man who was apparently based on a real person, but she won’t identify him).
But as I was working on this newsletter, I looked into it and discovered that the story behind “MacArthur Park” is almost as interesting as the song itself.
Jimmy Webb wrote the song in 1967 as part of an intended cantata for the band The Association (known for “Cherish,” “Windy,” and “Never My Love”), but it was too weird and the band rejected it. According to an interview Webb gave back in 2014, the goal was to “write and compose a classically structured song with several movements that could be played on the radio.”
And the story within the song itself isn’t actually all that weird. As Webb explained, the entire song was based on the ending of a relationship. He and a woman he was dating would occasionally share their lunch break in MacArthur Park in LA. When they broke up, he wrote this song to express his remorse and populated it with details he actually witnessed in MacArthur Park.
Was the cake real? Yes, someone really did leave a cake out in the rain, but Webb also saw it as a perfect metaphor for his feelings.
And so here’s something fun you can do. Take a few minutes to watch the video of Webb performing the song himself. Seeing the emotions he brings to the song demonstrates that this was never really a weird song about a cake in the rain—it is, and always was, a story about a man’s heartbreak.
So there you have it. I started getting into songs that were really stories back in 5th grade. But lest you think I was a precocious kid thinking all these deep thoughts, I was also obsessed with Shawn Cassidy around the same time. My taste—as well as my understanding of Story—still needed a bit of refinement!
Next time here in Story Cauldron, I’m going to tease out some thoughts I have about microfiction—teensy tiny stories that in some cases could fit on the cover of a matchbook. Do ultra-short stories matter? If you can read a story in under 30 seconds, is it really a story? Let’s find out together!
Before I go, I’d like also to offer an update on my own writing. I make my living as a freelance writer and editor, but I also write fiction. Right now I have a nearly complete draft of The Hidden Moon, the second novel in my Chronicles of Sarducia series. (Yes, it has taken me a long time, but I’m nearly there. Trust me, I want this finished as soon as possible!) You can purchase the first novel, By Moonrise, from Amazon.
I also have first drafts of a couple of young adult novellas in a new series I’m calling the Favor Faeries, featuring a pair of misfit teenagers and faeries that grant small wishes in exchange for trinkets and snacks. More on that soon-ish.
If you like this article, please consider subscribing to my Story Cauldron newsletter, where I will be posting more like this in the future. And if you’re already a subscriber, thanks so much. Please share this with anyone who may enjoy it.
Take a listen to "It's Not My Birthday," a riff on "MacArthur Park" by They Might Be Giants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYCPGEEvkJU
The song that I found inscrutable was "Jack and Diane" by John Mellencamp about "two American kids growing up in the heartland." The only "heartland" I knew was the Heartland Food Warehouse in the next town over, so I was fascinated by this story two kids who were living in a supermarket.
Great post. Looking forward to more.