Storytelling in Song: Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood

In this series I’ve tried to focus on artists who wouldn’t be the obvious ones who come to mind when thinking of songwriting as story. I could write about Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Rickie Lee Jones. But I’d rather focus on lesser-known treasures. So today I’d like to draw your attention to the two songwriters behind the band Fountains of Wayne, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood. Some of the most emotionally rich and intellectually original songs I can think of have come from their heads and hearts.

Their songs often turn on an original perspective or a hyper-focus on detail. They always show rather than tell. The effect is often a combination of melody and words that can bring me to tears, or make me laugh. Or think about a person or a situation in a new way, and feel someone else’s experience as if it’s my own. That is, to me, highest praise for any writer. The fact that they can squeeze such power into just a few minutes is magical to me. Before we get to some examples, here’s an interview with Collingwood about his writing process, and here’s a piece by Schlesinger, published recently in the New York Times, about his approach, specifically with regard to storytelling.

One note: I know that the two write separately, but most of the songs have a joint writing credit. I’m too lazy to research who was mostly responsible for which song. I supposed I’ll only care if about this if they break up their band.

Okay. Here you go.

For a small girl Barbara sure has got a big crush

The kind that makes you want to break stuff
And blame it on a man you don’t know

She came down to New York City in a big bus
Nine hours driving and you can’t just stay home
So it doesn’t matter which way you go

And now all day the radio’s been playing the same song
Can’t shake that tune but it’s ok
Maybe the world isn’t so small
Barbara knows it doesn’t matter at all

— “Barbara H.”


Check out the girl in the Harbor Tunnel
Crawling to work six feet under
And the day has barely begun
They’re all chewing gum

And laughing at the voice on the crackling radio station
Lead us not into Penn Station
Cause the best part’s just begun
We’re all becoming one again

— “Sick Day”


I hear the man say you want to see the others
A mermaid and a heart that says mother
But I don’t know from maritime
And I never did hard time
I brought a .38 Special CD collection
Some bactine to prevent infection
And in case I get queasy
A photo of Easy Rider

Red dragon tattoo
Is just about on me
I got it for you
So now do you want me?

— “Red Dragon Tattoo”


Pining away every hour in your room
Rolling with the motion, waiting til it’s opportune
Sitting there watching time fly past you
Why do tomorrow
What you could never do?
How she loved you
All you imagined
All the shit you put her through

Maybe one day soon it’ll all come out
How you dream about each other sometimes
With the memory of how you once gave up
But you made it through the troubled times

And it takes a lot of nerve to ask how she’s doing
Start with a weak foundation, you will end in ruins
The way the days and hours pass you’ll never understand
Falling like rain through your hands

— “Troubled Times”


He thinks of his bride-to-be
He thinks of his father
His two younger brothers
Gathered around the widescreen TV

He looks to the left
He looks to the right
And there in a golden ray of light
Is his open man
Just as he planned
The whole world is his tonight

— “All Kinds of Time”


Are you alone now
Did you lose the monkey
He gave you backaches
And now you slouch

He didn’t mean it
He’s just a dumb ape
Reading Playboy
On your couch

— “Radiation Vibe”


Seth Shapiro is trying in vain
To hail a taxi in the morning in the pouring rain
Beth McKenzie sees one just up ahead
She cuts in front of him and leaves him for dead

— “Someone to Love”


They opened up a bar called “Living Hell”
Right from the start it didn’t go too well
They didn’t have the vibe or quite the right clientele

They bought a velvet rope and the door man laughed
They got robbed blind by half the wait staff
Six short weeks and they were forced to sell
Richie and Ruben
Don’t know what they’re doin’

— “Richie and Ruben”

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