What happens to us when we get inspired? Why do we seek inspiration? Should we better leave it up to the muse to find us, or should we open our eyes wide and ears sharp not to miss a glimpse of inspiration that surrounds us in most unusual or ordinary places?
Is it true that it’s only when we’re inspired we outperform ourselves: write an outstanding article or the most beautiful song, take the best photo or design a stunning ad or a web site? How does inspiration change us, how does it make us feel?
Whenever I see a magnificent work of art, read an exquisite piece of literature or hear a magnificent musical composition, I’m not only greatly influenced by it, but also curiously trying to find out what has inspired the creator to produce such a gem.
Music is one of the most essential sources of inspiration. We often like working with the headphones on or the music blasting from the speakers. For quite some time I wanted to put together a list of songs inspired by real people. I’m sure there are many of such songs, but here are my 8 sound bits. I’ve linked all of them to the video clips on YouTube so you can watch and listen to some of the most beautiful songs inspired by and dedicated to real people.
This song by Don McLean has always been at the top of my all time favourite songs list. I’ve already written a bit about having a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, and this song like no other biographical book about the artist deeply touches my heart.
Don McLean’s admiration for Van Gogh is expressed with every word in the lyrics. He masterfully describes the artist’s famous paintings: Starry Night’s “swirling clouds in violet haze”, Sunflowers are the “flaming flowers that brightly blaze”, self-portraits are the “weathered faces lined in pain”.
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent,
this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you…
Shine on You Crazy Diamond
This epic composition from Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here was written by Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Richard Wright as a tribute to their former founding band member Syd Barrett. There are many stories about the reasons behind Syd Barrett’s leave from Pink Floyd, I won’t be talking about neither of them. There is however a consensus in Barrett’s creative genius mind: he wrote most of Pink Floyd’s early material and his innovative guitar playing techniques created those mysterious sounds that became associated with the group.
A puzzling story is linked with the actual song Shine on You Crazy Diamond, it is said that during the band’s rehearsal a strange man walked into the studio, and it took some time for Pink Floyd members to recognize Syd Barrett. “At that time, Barrett had gained a lot of weight and had shaved off all of his hair, including his eyebrows, and the seven-year gap meant that it took some time for his ex-band mates to identify him.”
Come on you target for faraway laughter,
come on you stranger, you legend,
You martyr, and shine!
Englishman In New York
Sting dedicated this song to Quentin Crisp, an English writer, model, actor, who became a gay icon in the 1970s after the TV adaptation of his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. Sting has worked with Crisp in the 1985 movie “The Bride”. In 1986 Sting visited Crisp in New York and was astounded by his stories of “what life had been like for a homosexual man in the homophobic Great Britain of the 1920s to the 1960s”. That meeting has inspired Sting to write a song about Crisp who recently moved to New York from London. You can even see Quentin Crisp appearing in Sting’s video at the beginning and in the end.
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say
Killing Me Softly with His Song
It happened to all of us – we hear a song that we feel is about us, about our life, our pain, and we wonder how is that possible that a stranger knows so much about us, we feel that unsettling closeness with the performer, and we became his/her fan.
That’s what happened to Lori Lieberman: after seeing a young Don McLean performing his song Empty Chairs, she wrote a poem “Killing Me Softly with His Blues”. Later on it was reworked by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, and became a hit performed by Roberta Flack in 1973. It was once again propelled to success in 1996 with the song’s remix by The Fugees.
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Lyrics | Video
This protest song by Bob Dylan was inspired by the real life story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an African-American former middleweight boxer from the early sixties. Carter was falsely accused of a triple murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1967. In 1974 Carter published an autobiographical book The Sixteenth Round where he claimed his innocence. He sent his book to Bob Dylan “because of his prior commitment to the civil rights struggle”. Inspired by his story Bob Dylan met with Rubin Carter at the Rahway State Prison and later wrote the song “Hurricane”.
Even though the song didn’t lead to the boxer’s release it attracted a lot of attention to Carter’s case from the public and media, and played a significant role in helping Hurricane with his fight for freedom. Of course, Lesra Martin and the three Canadians played a big part in helping free Rubin Carter.
Carter’s story inspired Norman Jewison to direct the feature film The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington.
Rubin now lives in Canada, and was executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted from 1993 until 2005.
That’s the story of the Hurricane,
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done.
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
Man On The Moon
This song is REM’s tribute to the late comedian and actor Andy Kaufman, who was famous for his outrageous pranks performed on TV and the stage. Andy Kaufman left a lasting impression on REM’s lead singer Michael Stipe.
“What I was doing with the lyric for Man on the Moon”, said Stipe, “was pulling in various crackpot conspiracy theories of our time, like Elvis Presley was still alive somewhere. And, even more absurd and outrageous, that when they sent a man to walk on the moon that he actually went to a stage set up somewhere in Arizona and the moonwalk never really occurred. And these were the comparisons I was drawing to the people who were not able to believe that Kaufman was dead, that, to the end, he was pulling a prank. That that idea is just as outrageous as those other theories. That he, for me, as a fan of his, puts himself on that level by being such a prankster that people actually thought that.”
The song’s title was used for Miloš Forman’s film “Man on the Moon”, with Jim Carrey superbly playing Andy Caufman.
Hey, Andy did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you locked in the punch?
Hey, Andy are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby, are we losing touch?
Lyrics | Video
This song about Elvis Presley was written by Canadian musicians David Tyson and Christopher Ward, and first performed by singer-songwriter from Toronto Alannah Myles. Some argue that the words “black velvet” refer to the black velvet shirt that Elvis often wore, others say that they describe his velvety voice, others claim that’s his black hair. I guess it will remain as yet another secret bit about Elvis, unless the song writers decide to unveil it.
Black velvet and that little boy’s smile
Black velvet with that slow southern style
A new religion that’ll bring ya to your knees
Black velvet if you please
There are many songs that pay a tribute to some well known celebrities. But what about regular people, who remained unknown to the general public? “Piano Man” by Billy Joel is one of such songs dedicated to real people whom Joel met during his days as a lounge performer in LA. It’s the song about people who could’ve become contenders, gone fulfilling their dreams, but they didn’t. There’s one very poignant line at the end of the song, where all those people ask the piano man: “And say, man, what are you doin here?”. It’s true that Billy Joel turned out to be a millionaire, but what about all those other talented night bar performers, who never got a chance to cross that line from obscurity to fame?
Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And youve got us feelin alright
I wonder if you have heard all these songs I mentioned above? If you were a poet who would you dedicate a poem or a song to? What is the most inspiring song for you? Who is your inspiration?