When inspiration strikes it can come from anywhere. It’s a troubling notion for those of us not blessed with such lightning rod cerebral cortexes. How can one think of a unique song or a completely unheard of sonic concept, and conjure them up seemingly from nowhere? How can someone imagine an entire world for their audience only to give it away?
It’s a facet of songwriting that has always raised the art form to higher echelons than most can only ever dream of reaching. Naturally though, sometimes, songs come from right under their noses as they write about the world around them.
Though the inspiration for a song can land like a God-given electrical current shuddering through your body, usually, the song is taken from the very world the artist has surrounded themselves with. It means that, within songs, very real places are explored, earnest questions answered and genuine people are described. Below, we’re looking at the latter as we bring you ten great songs written about real people.
It’s only natural to think of pop stars and rock stars as inhuman. The very notion of them as stars promotes such a feeling alone. When you add to that the stage, spotlight and presence each one is afforded, it is only a matter of time before the humble artist becomes an ethereal artiste. With such an otherworldly presence, it is just as easy for us as the audience to assume that all of their songs are equally cast down from the universal heavens.
But, whether it is Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Beatles or Leonard Cohen, most songs come straight from the very people they meet in their lives. We’ve got a sumptuous selection of songs inspired by genuine people and it’s a timely reminder that rock stars are just like you and me but with a little bit more talent.
Expect to hear songs about gardeners, waitresses and everything in-between as we bring you ten great songs inspired by real people.
10 great songs inspired by real people:
‘The Circle Game’ – Joni Mitchell about Neil Young
In Toronto back in 1964, a young Joni Mitchell was a member of a very small but growing folk scene. Another member of that scene was Neil Young and the two performers met in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba. Later, she would encounter him again in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. At the time, the aspiring musicians were desperate for club experience but both were struggling to make an impact.
Mitchell would take her talents towards songwriting and began penning some of the decade’s anthemic folk music. She composed songs for Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins as well as a bunch of other hits including a track about her then-21year-old-friend Neil Young.
The track pictured a man scared of growing old—a recurring theme in Young’s own work. ‘The Circle Game’ was written in response to Young’s own track, ‘Sugar Mountain’ a song written when he was just 19 years of age and lamented the loss of his teenage years.
‘I Walk The Line – Johnny Cash about Vivian Cash
There aren’t many rock and roll romances that can fill you with as much wholehearted warmth as Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The singing duet blossomed into a love that puts everyone else’s to shame. A career filled with subtle glances and charged collisions culminated in this classic song.
The title of the recent Johnny Cash biopic, which focused on the love of the pair, ‘I Walk The Line’ was a song written by Cash for June Carter. Well, that’s the story you all know anyway. In truth, the song was actually composed for his first wife Vivian.
Soon enough though, the song became a tool for Cash to woo his new beau with and he succeeded. The duo left behind any of the nonsense that plagued their early years and were happily married for decades.
‘Dear Prudence’ – The Beatles about Prudence Farrow
Allegedly composed on the spot and in dire circumstances, ‘Dear Prudence’ was written to save the sister of actor Mia Farrow from a spiritual meltdown as she got lost in the pursuit of transcendental enlightenment. Instead, John Lennon and George Harrison reacted and performed a rough version of ‘Dear Prudence’, a song which would not only become a focal point of their White Album, but a crucial part of their legacy too.
Prudence would later say in Womack’s book The Beatles Encyclopaedia: “I would always rush straight back to my room after lectures and meals so I could meditate. John, George and Paul would all want to sit around jamming and having a good time and I’d be flying into my room. They were all serious about what they were doing, but they just weren’t as fanatical as me.”
Lennon and Harrison had become close with Prudence after she revealed that she had travelled to India following a traumatic experience with LSD, and they were even assigned as her “team buddies” by the Maharishi. Offered two of the biggest musicians in the world as your support network, Prudence would need to rely on the two stars as her comfort. It was a responsibility the duo took very seriously, and when they were asked to coax Prudence out of her room and partake in the group’s activities, they dutifully obliged.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – Bob Dylan about Edie Sedgewick
Edie Sedgwick was the poster girl of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and despite losing her life so painfully early at just 28-years-old, she lived life to the fullest and cut herself out as a prominent figure in the New York art scene. It is this high-flying lifestyle of parties and possessions that has led many to believe that one of Dylan’s most famous songs, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, was written about her.
The model and actress was born into an incredibly powerful and wealthy family in 1943. Her ancestors had moved to America from England in the 1600s and went on to become one of the most illustrious families in the whole of North America.
It is widely reported that Dylan began an affair with Sedgewick shortly before marrying Sarah Lownds. It is even claimed by Edie’s brother, Jonathan, that his sister fell pregnant to the folk star. Edie’s departure from high society to the art scene was all well and good, but it was her dive into the darker side of the counterculture that led to Dylan’s caustic condemnation in song.
‘Suzanne’ – Leonard Cohen about Suzanne Verdal
One of Leonard Cohen’s most famous songs from his rich canon was inspired not by a romantic relationship but by his infatuation with platonic friend Suzanne Verdal. Given to Judy Collins as one of the first songs he ever wrote, the song became a hit under her guidance but it was rooted in Cohen’s love life.
In truth, the song was, in fact, an amalgamation of his journey so far. In ‘Suzanne’ Cohen provided an infinitely detailed piece of work, capturing the encounters he had with Suzanne Verdal, the girlfriend of Canadian artist Armand Vaillancourt. “He got such a kick out of seeing me emerge as a young schoolgirl, I suppose, and a young artist, into becoming Armand’s lover and then-wife,” recalled Verdal, in a 1998 interview. “So he was more or less chronicling the times and seemingly got a kick out of it.”
“He was ‘drinking me in’ more than I even recognised if you know what I mean,” Verdal said when noting the song’s intensity. “I took all that moment for granted. I just would speak and I would move and I would encourage and he would just kind of like sit back and grin while soaking it all up, and I wouldn’t always get feedback, but I felt his presence really being with me.”
“The song ‘Suzanne’ is journalism,” Cohen says in the book Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. “It’s completely accurate.”
‘Go Your Own Way’ – Fleetwood Mac about Stevie Nicks
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is an album littered with references to each other’s failing relationships. The best song on the record is the Lindsey Buckingham penned arrow with Stevie Nicks’ name on. While Fleetwood’s drumming is impeccable and the song’s subject matter is honest and raw, it is Lindsey Buckingham’s incredible vocal that takes this song over the edge.
Nick was apparently very hurt by the song’s claim “Packing up/Shacking up is all you want to do” but even that couldn’t stop her from belting out the backing vocals on this American rock radio gold. It’s hard to ignore the power of this track and when you hear it in the context of the album, it quickly anoints itself as the ruler of Rumours.
Though ‘Go Your Own Way’ is an undeniable bop, it is the potent message that lays underneath the pop pomp that really hits home.
‘Layla’ – Derek and The Dominos about Pattie Boyd
In a bid to avoid detection, Eric Clapton cleverly renamed his landmark song with Derek and the Dominos, ‘Layla’. The track is a clear and obvious love song that speaks of Clapton attempting to win over his new beau and be with her forever. So why all the secrecy? It was written about his best friend’s wife, Pattie Boyd.
Boyd, at the time, was married to The Beatles’ own George Harrison. The pair were growing apart and Boyd’s affection had already begun to swing in Clapton’s direction, however, there was still a need to disguise the song from the public. Of course, in the end, Harrison and Boyd would divorce and the model would soon be married to the guitar impresario.
Having later joked that they had a closer relationship for “sharing a wife”, Harrisonnand Clapton remained friends until the former’s death. It’s not the only song Boyd has allegedly had written about her either, with many suspecting The Beatles classic ‘Something’ was also penned about her.
‘Man on the Moon’ – R.E.M. about Andy Kaufman
In the early nineties, America was rich with rock talent. While Nirvana had begun their journey toward the sun and Pearl Jam were equally as imposing across the globe, one band stood out among the rest— R.E.M. The release of their eighth studio album, Automatic for the People, provides a crystalline reminder of their talent and just how refreshing a voice like Michael Stipe’s was in 1992. But perhaps the brightest shining moment on that record was their enigmatic single ‘Man on the Moon’.
The song has become a bastion for the band, often regarded as one of their most beloved. The number was originally titled ‘C to D Slide’ and was likely to remain an instrumental effort destined for the dustbin until the inspirational figure of Andy Kaufman walked into the band’s life, equipped with a conspiracy theory and a desire to question everything.
Kaufman had made his name in America as the face of chaotic comedy. A cast member of SNL, in fact, the only cast member to ever be voted off the show, Kaufman gained a reputation for stunts and surrealist comedy. He left most of his audiences continually contemplating whether he was being serious or not. He was the perfect figure for the song. “Andy Kauffman was a performance artist,” noted Mike Mills. “He wasn’t a comedian; he wasn’t a comic; he was a performance artist. Some of what he did was funny, some of it was annoying, some it was irritating – but it was always provocative. As such, as someone that you couldn’t really pin down in terms of what he was and what he was not. Was he dead? Was he faking?
“He’s the perfect ghost to lead you through this tour of questioning things. Did the moon landing really happen? Is Elvis really dead? He was kind of an ephemeral figure at that point so he was the perfect guy to tie all this stuff together as you journey through childhood and touchstones of life.”
‘The Jean Genie’ – David Bowie about Iggy Pop and Cyrinda Foxe
David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane may well go down as one of the most iconic album covers of all time but beneath the starting exterior was another record full to the brim with glittered gasoline, ready to power Bowie’s rocket ship to stardom. One of the most memorable moments on the album was, of course, the pumping rock anthem, ‘The Jean Genie’.
Rather than an ode to a denim-clad deity, the track is instead a homage to New York City’s finest and Bowie nods his head to the sons and daughter of The Big Apple that inspired his soul. So, to say this song was specifically about The Stooges frontman is perhaps a little off.
A title that was spun off the iconic French writer Jean Genet, the song was written about two people. Iggy Pop, with his perennial aversion to wearing clothes on his top half, was a clear favourite to take the title with Bowie even confirming the song was about an “Iggy-type-persona” but there is also the figure of Cyrinda Foxe, a former Max Kansas City frequented who would work with Andy Warhol and as a publicist for MainMan.
Bowie was so transfixed by Foxe as his muse he also made sure she was included in the Mick Rock-directed video for ‘The Jean Genie’ saying he saw the film starring “Ziggy as a kind of Hollywood street-rat” with a “consort of the Marilyn brand.” Foxe would take on the role of consort and become an idol for swathes of a generation.
‘Jumpin Jack Flash’ – The Rolling Stones about Keith Richards’ gardener
Following flirtations with psychedelia and being led down the acid-path by a certain band, The Rolling Stones came back to rock with a thunderous punch to the gut in the imperious riff on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. The track was famously written about Richards’ gardener it is the archetypal Stones song. “We’d been up all night [he and Jagger]; the sky was just beginning to go grey. It was pissing down raining, if I remember rightly.
“Mick and I were sitting there, and suddenly Mick starts up,” continues Richards. “He hears these great footsteps, these great rubber boots – slosh, slosh, slosh – going by the window. He said. ‘What’s that?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumpin’ Jack.’
“We had my guitar in open tuning, and I started to fool around with that. [singing] ‘Jumpin’ Jack…’ and Mick says, ‘Flash’. He’d just woken up. And suddenly we had this wonderful alliterative phrase. So he woke up and we knocked it together.” Meaty and soaked in sauce, the Stones hang on Richards’ iconic riff on this 1968 single. Richards said of the riff, “It just floats there, baby”.