"An Innocent Man" – in a rhyme crime free zone

SongExpresso has a thing about Billy Joel. Hugely musical songs in varied styles and a way of using natural language that never makes you go “eh?” (though even he had a bad day at the office: “We didn’t start the fire”, seriously).

For sure this won’t be the only time we analyse one of his lyrics. But this one is chosen particularly for what it isn’t – if you listen to Honesty, A Matter of Trust, etc. etc. then you’ll hear this super flowing series of rhyme after rhyme which never sound forced and just support the song’s flow and message (#SongExpressoNirvana). But this one contains… in the verses, almost no rhymes.

It’s a bold choice. How he holds it together is with a very subtle rhyme scheme ABCD EFGD, plus the natural rhythm of the lyrics and the relaxed phrasing.


An Innocent Man  (http://www.billyjoel.com/music/innocent-man/innocent-man)

Some people stay far away from the door

If there’s a chance of it opening up

They hear a voice in the hall outside

And hope that it just passes by

No rhymes. So it sounds more like speech. Rhyming now could break the sincerity. But note also that as listeners we don’t care – there’s no moment where we yearn for a rhyme anywhere in the verse. And why “some people”? At the moment we don’t actually know who Billy’s character is speaking to, he might just be making a general observation. 

Some people live with the fear of a touch

And the anger of having been a fool

They will not listen to anyone

So nobody tells them a lie

This time we end on a rhyme with the last line of the previous verse. Perhaps we don’t even notice the rhyme – is it even necessary? It’s skillfully done and doesn’t sound forced. And it closes off this first section in a satisfying way – we’re not waiting for anything more. Also notice the use of senses and emotions we have been through – hearing, hoping, fear, touch, anger, listening. 

We can empathize and maybe recognise something here in ourselves; that’s also the power of NOT making this personal e.g. “I know you’ve lived with the fear” etc. That might be too direct and negative. Here, the criticism is gentle and seems full of understanding. I think this reflects generally Billy’s style in the romantic songs – he likes to speak straightforwardly in the voice of his “I” character addressing someone else – compare with “Honesty” – “Honesty is such a lonely word” (statement of fact, could be internal), but mostly what I need from you (definitely external and shows us that the whole thing is directed to the other character).

I know you’re only protecting yourself

I know you’re thinking of somebody else

Someone who hurt you

Still full of understanding and empathy – but now speaking directly to the “you” character – and placing the blame on the other (bad) lover. 

But I’m not above

Making up for the love

You’ve been denying you could ever feel

I’m not above doing anything

To restore your faith if I can

The “But” is really just a leading note and the beat falls on the “I’m” to emphasize the contrast with the bad lover. It also sounds like how we’d say it in real life “he may have been like that but I’m certainly not”. Natural language = #SongExpressoHappiness. And the repetition adds emphasis – I’m not above that, in fact I’m not above doing anything. 

The “above” is interesting – yes, it rhymes with love. But again we see Billy’s character being non-judgmental and trying to show that’s he’s not trying to be smug or better but just speaking with the benefit of experience.

Some people see through the eyes of the old

Before they ever get to look at the young

I’m only willing to hear you cry

Because I am an innocent man

Oh yes I am

Here we have a similar “Honesty” style phrase – we start with “Some people” but midway go to I and you, so it’s all one impassioned speech. And this is really nice stuff – more sense-based images (seeing, hearing); getting old prematurely and missing out on youth; crying (also part of the youth idea?) and innocent – again contrast with the bad (guilty) lover. It’s a great theme – it’s not just “I’m a good man” or “a better man” but “innocent” – and so it’s unfair to penalise me due to others’ mistakes. There is something pure and enduring about this statement – he’s not just innocent today but someone you can put your faith into. Faith and innocence (linked by our only rhyme in this two verse section – can and man) give us an almost biblical flavor.

Some people say they will never believe

Another promise they hear in the dark

Because they only remember too well

They heard somebody tell them before

Some people sleep all alone every night

Instead of taking a lover to bed

Some people find that’s it’s easier to hate

Than to wait anymore

More of the same? Almost. I think a promise in the dark is a great euphemism – we all know what it means without needing to be told. Although contrast this with taking a lover to bed – old bad lover gets a euphemism while future better lover doesn’t need to beat around the bush (so innocent in the sense of “not evil”, not in the sense of “chaste”). 

By the way, what’s the opposite of a lover – a hater? No, a promise breaker… 

Finally, the language retains the spoken tone and natural, poetic rhythm – you might miss the rhyme if you weren’t looking for it.

I know you don’t want to hear what I say

I know you’re gonna keep turning away

But I’ve been there and if I can survive

I can keep you alive

I’m not above going through it again

I’m not above being cool for a while

If you’re cruel to me I’ll understand

Change of pace. More poppy more upbeat – more rhymey. Not “some people” any more but “I” – what we’ve been doing is getting more and more personal as we’ve gone along. This is probably the “Braveheart moment” (“Will you fight with me?”). But not preachy – gets the objections out of the way first and then drops in the “I’ve been there” story. Get a pad and write down as many empathetic and patient concepts as you can… 

Some people run from a possible fight

Some people figure they can never win

And although this is a fight I can lose

The accused is an innocent man

Oh yes I am

An innocent man

You know you only hurt yourself out of spite

I guess you’d rather be a martyr tonight

That’s your decision

But I’m not below

Anybody I know

If there’s a chance of resurrecting a love

I’m not above going back to the start

To find out where the heartache began


Some people hope for a miracle cure

Some people just accept the world as it is

But I’m not willing to lay down and die

Because I am an innocent man


I am an innocent man

Oh yes I am

An innocent man

I could go on but have gone on enough. But note the sheer length of the lyrics – minimal repetition and great content every time. I think the lack of rhymes enables this – the ear can take more. It’s almost two songs in one – the soft (empathetic) part then an upbeat (passionate) part. That’s an occasional SongExpresso technique by the way, when stuck – knitting together two or more fragments – obviously they have to work thematically but can effectively deliver a change of mood and elevate a song out of a rut.

So, takeaways:

  • Rhyme scheme – or non-rhyme: I think the ear does expect a rhyme sometimes: songs rhyme. But when you’ve got a lot to say, consider ditching the rhyme and really saying it with freedom. Of course, don’t also lose the poetry and rhythm…
  • Point of view: Think of different ways to say things. Do you ever feel your lyric might be a bit “preachy”? (I have one that builds up to a finale which incites the audience to “Enjoy each day while it’s here!” – ugh, definitely in need of a double-shot of my own medicine). If we take a cue from Billy, we can try out some different ways to say it, either to make it less personal: “Like people say, enjoy each day” or more personal: “You made me realise that I should enjoy each day”. Already a bit better.
  • Meshing two fragments: If we write every day and build up a catalogue of song ideas, adding one into another song may be a gift for a change of pace, pre-chorus, bridge. (Tip: they probably don’t fit together just like that – it’s essential to adapt and meld and not create SongFrankenstein).
  • Lists: If you have a good title or starting idea then build on that. Mind-mapping or just listing is great for this. Look in the dictionary and all the other forms of the word, or in the thesaurus: e.g.:


innocent‘ also found in these entries:

above reproach – above suspicion – angelic – artless – benign – blameless – boyish – callow – candid – chaste – child – childish – childlike – clean – clear – cleared – credulous – excusable – guiltless – inexperienced – modest – naive – natural – pure – safe – simple – sinless – tasteless – unsure – unsuspecting – unsuspecting – untarnished – with clean hands

Some great ideas there already.

Let me know what you think, especially if you are a fellow Billy fan…

“Will you?” genius; here’s why. But could it have been even better?

This goes back to 1980 – but something of a classic and you’ll probably know it, at least for its epic sax solo.

It’s one of those songs that almost any person can relate to and most of us can identify the situation – invite someone back for coffee and you’re wondering if they are thinking that it’s just coffee, or coffee and something more. 

The way the insecurity of the situation is described so simply from inside the head of the inviter is genius. But this wouldn’t be SongExpresso if we didn’t ask – could it have been even better? Are there any weak links that we could perfect?

Let’s work through the lyrics:

Will You?


Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

You drink your coffee and I sip my tea

And we’re sitting here playing so cool, thinking “What will be, will be”

We already notice a contrast between Hazel’s character sipping (nervously) and the invitee drinking (possibly oblivious to what is going on inside Hazel’s head…). Already we feel her vulnerability. 

But it’s getting kind of late now

Oh I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now

The repitition of stay now is just remarkable, managing to give a blend of voices to the verb – statement: “I wonder if you’ll stay now”; questioning “will you stay now?”; and an almost despairing imperative: “stay now (please!)”

Or will you just politely say goodnight?

What’s the opposite of passion? Hate? No, politeness. Kapow.

I move a little closer to you, not knowing quite what to do

And I’m feeling all fingers and thumbs, I spill my tea, oh silly me!

The idioms “what will be will be”, “oh silly me”, “much too much” etc. sound totally appropriate for Hazel’s character. We can believe that this is how she would actually speak. When we are trying to emulate this and a make believable character, we should try to develop a profile of them – who are they where are they from how old are they how do they speak etc.

But it’s getting kind of late now

I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now

Or will you just politely say goodnight?

And then we touch much too much

Like “silly me”, “much too much” might have been there just for the rhyme (so be careful!) but it seems extremely apt to describe the crossing of the line that has happened – much too much to ignore, much too much to leave it there etc.

This moment has been waiting for a long long time

Musically it just flows but lyrically it’s interesting how it’s the moment that has been waiting – almost a switch of viewpoints. In a moment Hazel’s character tells us she’s been waiting but this takes it outside of her. This might give a flavour that there is some fate/destiny/outside force going on here. Or perhaps it’s the culmination of a long time of frustration/expectation on her part waiting for the right person to come along. For sure more than just “I’ve been waiting for this”.

Makes me shiver, it makes me quiver

This is where we were headed. Hazel wants to introduce a kinesthetic description of her character’s physical and not just emotional feelings. However, I don’t think I have ever used the word “quiver” in real life or that I know anyone that would. If this were my song, SongExpresso would say: that’s a literary word and not one that Hazel’s character would use – have you considered all the alternatives? Shiver also raises a questionmark – is this is moment when a person would shiver? Trembling, shaking yes. Heart pounding, pulse racing (clichees, but might be more the type of sensation we are trying to describe). So I would probably say go and brainstorm this situation and see what other descriptions or images we can find. We should do some object writing, free writing or mind mapping just to exhaust all the possibilities. Shall we? (Will you?)

Shiver and quiver have a good sound (important) and actually don’t jar the ear of the normal listener; but Song Expresso is very attuned to these things and when we come across this, we need to work through the process – is this as good as it can possibly be? In this case, they do hit the required note and we see exactly how Hazel’s character is feeling. And also importantly they work with the flow and structure of the song which any of our alternatives (so far) wouldn’t do in the same way. There might be an element of poetic licence here but the good elements outweigh any reservations we might have. I wonder if Hazel also considered this? The lyrics are really honed so she might just have.

This moment I am so unsure

This moment I have waited for

Was it something you’ve been waiting for, waiting for too?

Take off your ice, bare your soul

Gather me to you and make me whole

Wait a sec! What just happened? Gather me to you? Seriously, Mr Dickens? Aren’t we in 1980 not 1880? We just moved into a whole new register, that’s what happened. Like the music, we swoop upwards as Hazel’s character puts her desire into words and wills her partner to come with her. This isn’t just reality, we’ve escaped into a world of reciprocated passion and this is how she describes the feeling. What a contrast – from “oh silly me” nervousness, lyrically we move into an expressionist land where biblical language is required to do justice to the emotion. “Gather me to you and make me whole” – could be from a Psalm… Wow again.

Tell me your secrets, sing me the song

Sing it to me in the silent tongue

The silent tongue – still biblical but also carnal. Magic. We have some assonance between song and tongue; a true rhyme could have brought us back to reality with a bump. It just feels right – and we get just enough flesh to get us right there with what is about to happen. 

But it’s getting kind of late now

I wonder if you’ll stay now, stay now, stay now, stay now

Or will you just politely say goodnight?

We’re still there. Nothing happened yet. Wishful thinking, arousal, anticipation but we’re still waiting. The last “goodnight” feels a little bitter, as we’ve seen what passion could come but we know that it might not unless someone makes a move now. And sure enough the sax brings us – anti-climatically – down to disappointment. Goodnight, then.

The sax hesitates but the situation is too compelling and the drums (there’s the heart pounding we wanted earlier) gather us to them and lead us into the epic solo. No analysis of that here, but it’s around half the song – it’s the soundtrack to the movie in our heads – we imagine Hazel’s character and her lover bursting into a tender new room where no words are needed. (The song was also used in a movie – but we are all imagining our own).

We may never reach these heights. But what can we take from this?

– situations – a situation that everyone can relate to but never named. We know it’s dark, after-midnight, we know they are sitting on a bed in small room etc. without being told.

– develop your characters – how old are they? what do they do all day? what do they want? How do they speak – use their words.

– contrast – to develop our plot we can use different types of language. In Will You there is a definite before and after. Can we show this (not tell) by using contrast in the language used, the point of view, rhythm, light and shade, key changes, dynamics…

– rewriting/hard choices – if things feel right they may easily be! But think it through – each word can add or subtract from the situation. A bad rhyme or a word that doesn’t fit can break the mood. Review all the options, change structures and orders, change them back if needed. Work it through, SongExpresso style.

– structure – in this song the sax solo has a particular purpose. If we want a solo, have we thought about why? (Les Paul owners and jazz drummers look away now.) We need a break to consider what’s just been said? We need a break to show a before and after, and a new chapter in the story we’re telling? It can feel right – but would it be more effective in a different place, a different length, different key etc.

– instruments – replace the sax with an electric guitar and we have a totally different song. Probably something acoustic was always going to be the choice here. This is verging on production but songwriters should know what is right.

As you may have realised, SongExpresso can’t get enough of this song. Independent of style, musical preferences, it seems to tell a timeless story (there’s another thing – timelessness – do you want to place your story in time? Did he call her on the bakelite telephone or the iPad? etc. If not, avoid).

What’s your iconic song that you would aspire to write? Think about each word. What can we learn? Tell me and I will analyse it here.

“Turn me on”: I scored 10 goals (hurrah!) … in a 9-1 defeat (oh…)

SongExpresso is frustrated. This song was high on my list of songs to review, and I have often used its first line as an example of a great simile/analogy in songwriting. It may be that Norah Jones’ version lifted the entire song up to a new level and made it sound smooth and glorious. But I was really looking forward to analysing this one and when I actually saw the remaining lyrics my heart sank (with a sound like a penny falling into a wishing well – ha!).

Listen to this:

Like a flower…. Waiting to bloom 

I’m just sitting here waiting for you

To come on home and turn me on

Press pause. Wow. I’m thinking “this guy is a genius” – what a fantastic image – a closed flower, waiting to become fulfilled and complete, full of antici — pation, so quiet but so sexy. And perhaps best of all (without wishing to get into plant anatomy) equally applicable to males and females, same effect. Compare that to “your sex is on fire… consumed by what’s to transpire” – same idea, right? Which do you prefer? (I already know – but then I do like new and outlandish images and metaphors).

He’s taken the ball from the kick-off, run 50 yards and hit a screamer into the top corner. 1-0. Should really count double. Maybe it’s an away goal, like if this was the Champions L… (hey, cut it out, Ed.)

Memorable. Like a delicious white prawn in a Spanish beach café. This meal is going to be amazing… 

But then I wake up. The match continues. I stumble over my feet and put the ball into my own net. I don’t really want it back but manage to mis-control it and it rebounds again past my own goalkeeper. Now I really want to get out of here. Ball comes back, ouch, in the goal again. Is it half-time yet? My whole body is tense like an elevator cable. I gesture to the half way line to be substituted, speechless as if I am breathing sand. The ball bobbles again across my own goal line like an oblivious puppy. I am desperate and frantic and trying anything to control the situation. Same result. The whistle blows. 9-1.

But wait. Before starting to criticize the writer (the prolific and respected John D. Loudermilk), let’s do a little research. Here we get some explanation (great resource by the way).

Aha. Turns out these are not the original lyrics. John D.’s version is here. We are told (caution, internet speaking) that Nina Simone changed it. Qué?! The original is really quite different (and I think much better – the tides and stars images really work). A whole different tone really – it was about lost love and the despair of the writer that his ex won’t be coming home and he will be waiting for ever. 

So, not John D.., but Nina…? Nina, what were you doing?

John D. started it so well. Really got my hopes (and stamen) up. I do understand the decision to take the song in a different direction. That the lover is not gone forever, just maybe tantalizingly round the corner (did they have an argument?) and we’re imagining the scene when he/she reappears tonight. But…

Nina’s version is just so, well, ordinary and – for me at least – actually not good at all. Bad rhymes. Clichees. Metaphors that are really the opposite of sexy (school kids? glass of water?). Contrived lines like “you’re the one who turns me off; you’re the only one who can turn me back on”…. All sounds so rushed and careless, and so not SongExpresso. You gave me the prawn; but then the wine was rough, and the steak was (ahem) tough…

What do you think? Am I wrong? Is the opening really that good? Is the rest really that awful? What are the good bits? Could it be improved with some better rhymes and images? Should Norah have gone back to the original? How would it sound then? Do you think she considered it? But on the plus side, note the change of direction – do you have a song about “lost love” that could actually be a song about “delayed love”? Or vice-versa? Could be a great way of turning an interesting song into SongExpresso.

Here are the full texts. Have a think and let me know…



By John D. Loudermilk

©1961 Acuff-Rose Publ. Inc.

Alt. lyrics as recorded by Nina Simone (1966) and Norah Jones (2000):

Like a flower waiting to bloom

Like a light bulb in a dark room

I’m here waiting for you to come on home

And turn me on


Like the desert waiting for rain

Like a school kid waiting for spring

I’m sitting here waiting for you to come on back home

And turn me on


My poor heart, it’s been so dark

Since you’ve been gone

After all, you’re the one who turned me off

Now you’re the only one who can turn me back on.


My hi-fi’s waiting for a new tune (or tube? Ed.)

And my glass is waiting for some fresh ice-cubes.

I’m just sitting here waiting for you to come home

And turn me on


Lyrics on the original recording of Mark Dinning (1961):


Like a flower waiting to bloom

Like a light bulb in a dark room

I’ve been waiting for you to come back home

And turn me on


Like a puppy waiting to bay

Like a jukebox waiting to play

Like I’m waiting, so come on home

And turn me on


My poor heart, it’s been so dark

Since you, since you up and said goodbye

Lord, I don’t eat, I can’t sleep

I just sit here, I just sit here, and I cry


Like the moonlight turns on the tides

Like the sunset turns on the stars

I’m here a-waiting, oh, come on home

And turn me on


(source: Standard Songs Pop/Country/Blues/Folk/Instumentals/Novelty, Acuff-Rose Publications Inc. 1956-1973)  http://www.ihesm.com/jdllyr/LyTurnMeOn.html