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Friday, January 10, 2003

Been thinking about lyrics, since I write some myself. Mostly I consider them secondary, and I'll buy many a bad-to-mediocre lyric if the music carries it (seldom does it work in reverse). But I wanted to mention some of my favorite lyrics, and before I do, I'll lay out my prejudices and opinions on the subject. Be aware that I confess to having broken every rule I'll mention, not through perversity but through ineptitude. Every example of "bad lyrics" I cite could have been replaced with any number of my own embarrassments. Few if any of the sterling examples are rivaled by anything I've made. This is neither false modesty nor self-doubt; it's just my opinion. There are several times when I've reached the goals I set below. Too few for my satisfaction, but considering how rare a good lyric is, having written any at all is a point of pride.

"Poetic" lyrics are generally a big mistake. Sometimes you'll get a Van Dyke Parks feat like the kaleidoscopic "The Attic," which (like most of Song Cycle) achieves bewitching effects with wordcraft above and beyond wordplay. When evoking memory or considering large topics like history, his brand of punning, cross-reference, cascades of images, etc., works better than a direct lyric might. That direct approach might run the risk of bathos or overreach (respectively regarding the two topics mentioned), so Parks pulls off a verbal counterpart to the Ivesian music of that album. He recreates processes of thought and tides of emotion rather than plunking down conclusions; try Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" for a ham-handed stab at historical import. Yech. Elvis Costello, who is often brilliant, is not above things like "A butterfly feeds on a dead monkey's hand... Jesus wept; he felt abandoned" which I can't fathom (maybe that's my own fault) and which distract me from the very touching moments elsewhere in the same song. In general though, somebody like Dylan grabs me more deeply with lyrics like those of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" than with those in "Desolation Row." A personal preference... I'd never want to ooh and ahh over someone's smarts if I could be transported by a shared feeling.

A good lyric interacts with the music, creating something neither could evoke alone. This can be achieved through the kind of perfect match in a song like the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" where the early lines (there's a somebody I'm longing to see... etc.) are delivered in an uncannily speech-like rhythm, with the upward melody peaking on the words representing the emotional peak of the set-up (... LONGING to see....) and then stepping down and expanding into a broad reverie on the title line: the real nugget of the character's wishes. This method is so subtle it often avoids detection; we just feel it. But it can work without the amazing craft of George and Ira, too. "Oh How Happy" by Shades of Blue is colossal to me, as the combination of simple, exuberant lyric and simple, exuberant music genuinely lift me into happiness whenever I listen. There is no higher art. It borders on magic. Conversely, the grinding, churning angst of much hard rock works to illustrate how ridiculous the lyrics are by redoubling their already terminal self-importance. Howzabout: "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage!!!" All that energy spent for what? To give me a headache? To surrender? O Nobili. A better effect is achieved by the flat-out evil song "Don't Fear The Reaper" (let's ignore the dippy middle part), which uses light, appealing music to convey a persuasive invitation to suicide.

Another, trickier technique that impresses critics even though it's often poorly handled (critics usually like when it's poorly handled, because then it's obvious enough for them to congratulate themselves on "catching") is a contrast between music and lyric. An overt, fairly egregious example of the contrast idea is Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again Naturally," which aims for pathos by setting lyrics of abject, suicidal surrender against a jaunty little ditty. This cheesy Chaplin gambit touched America's Jarvik heart to the tune of 7 jillion bucks and counting, so who am I to scorn it? A better use of this tension is "Sunday Morning" by Lou Reed, where the twinkly pop melody enhances lyrics of implied dread and paranoia. Gene Simmons of Kiss likes to shit on the Velvets because his sole measure of success is "success." Which is like saying a McDonalds burger is better than yer home-grilled sirloin because the masses are "right." Why a spectacularly successful hack like that needs to attack actual artists is one for the shrinks. Maybe it indicates the hollow inside or betrays some personal wound, but that's a digression I'll skip.

One nice trick is the character stance, which - in first-person mode - permits either deep irony (Randy Newman) or - in third-person - a safety screen. What I mean by that is something like "Ruby Tuesday" creating one of the first and finest hippie chick prototypes (like 20th Century Fox, Suzanne, the Cowsills' "flower girl" and others: patchouli-scented blow-up dolls invented by slick seducers to surely seductive effect), Mick and Keith express wide-eyed sentiments otherwise alien to their usual hard, dark POV. Not only does this allow them to offer thoughts like "catch your dreams before they slip away" - which would sound too wussy for them to admit first-person - it also gets us off the hook. We can relish this sweetness without surrendering the grim, jaded coolness we pretend to share with the Stones otherwise. One outstanding (in kind, not quality) example of "I'm so tough" listener-flattery is "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics, which lets us feel like the wizened cynics we wish we were, temporarily unbothered by the vulnerabilities that squirm inside us. Never underestimate how much music you love because you feel cool enjoying it. "Clever" lyrics serve the same end.

One writer who made a career out of "look ma I'm clever" stunts is Sondheim, an annoying-ass songwriter if ever one lived. His stuff dates quicker than an SNL catchphrase yet people keep falling for it. I just watched a broadcast of one of those revues of his work that pop up so frequently. These twitchy contrapuntal examinations of the secret thoughts of bitter married people at cocktail parties grind my nerves like nothing else this side of Judge Judy. Oddly, the one song of his I can stomach (really, a particular version of a song) is "Not While I'm Around" (from Sweeney Todd) as performed by Streisand, a performer from whom I otherwise run screaming. She sings as if there's no irony in it at all, though in the show it was intended as a plaint of doomed naiveté. So a songwriter I can't stand is interpreted by a singer I skeeve, and the result moves me. Go figure.

People seem to think that you can't have too much irony or garlic. Bullshit. Used very sparingly and cunningly, both enhance the dish, but some people let them overwhelm everything. Randy Newman often impresses me more than moves me, but something like "Sail Away" works mightily because of his bravery in wedding such a caustic lyric to such swooning music (which is truly a composition, more than an arranged tune). Most of us, if lucky enough to pull such music from the ether, would set it to words more apparently ingenuous (which he did, in fact… nearly rewriting it as "Louisiana 1927" a few years later). Given that lyric inspiration, we might put it to a tune that reinforces the bleak humor, just so nobody misconstrues it. Newman shows cojones on that score. On a tune called "Pretty Boy" Newman skips irony, putting vaguely anxious, oppressive music behind a scenario of threats and thuggery. It's unnerving, as are tunes like "Old Man" that drop the shield and lay bare something brutally true.

Really BAD irony can be heard in "It's A Beautiful World" by Devo, in which that band of smart stylists inexplicably flogs a dead hamster of an idea. Then they further overdo it all in the video, which pushes the nothing so far I'm almost tempted to view it as an infra-clever exercise in über-satire. But truly, irony in song is the oldest and un-fun-est monkey in the barrel. A rule of thumb should be: "Unless there's no other way to get this idea across, let me just be forthright." Or maybe just skip substance entirely, and stick to the cute jackanapes of "Jocko Homo." Better yet, the irresistible idiocy of "I'm Too Sexy." Nothing wrong with that, either.

I have enough arrogant views on this to fill a hundred tedious volumes, naturally, so enough for now. Maybe I'll do more of it some other time. What I want to do is mention specific lines I love from various songs. The reason is that these are gems I like to roll around in my hand and enjoy; one always wants to point out things of beauty. Since much of my general logorrhea is devoted to pissing and moaning, it might be nice to spend time on stuff I just plain kvell over. I'll just do a few for now.

All night long
We would sing that stupid song
And every word we sang I knew was true
(Becker / Fagen - "Dr. Wu")
My all-time favorite lyric line, strangely enough. It nails with precision the exact feeling of my own love affair with song. I can mention a million nights when this occurred, but you have a million of your own. It snapshots the moment when a dear memory is born… when a friendship is sailing through its fairest waters and some random tune becomes impregnated with personal importance. Somehow, for me, this short line holds poignancy and loss along with joy and promise. Because of that, the song itself became for me what it describes; I rarely hear it without recalling youthful nights enjoying the tune alongside some friends with whom I was once very close. As the years wipe away those alliances and harden our limited memories of them, it's tough to recapture their true flavor. This does the trick for me. Whether this emotional openness was deliberate or accidental, or whether it is really a snide joke too "in" for me to grasp, this is one of those rare Steely Dan moments when the arch comes down. Apart from all that, it also serves as a crucial element of the song's narrative, so it's objectively as well as subjectively satisfying.

In the bar hangs a cloud
Whiskey's loud...

...He's trembling for the taste
Of passion gone to waste
In memories of the past
(Phil Ochs - "Pleasures of the Harbor")
Here's a classic of compression, cramming a lot into plain words and painting vivid interior and exterior scenes at the same time. There's no phrase here that holds only one meaning. The first line is a straight double metaphor: smoke-filled room, hovering melancholy. Second line takes it further, as the din of drunken barflies is applied to the booze itself. Ochs, an alcoholic, hears the whiskey screaming over the other people. The whiskey demands his attention, and all that the whiskey represents to him (relief, remorse, death, celebration, et al) creates a racket in his head. The rest of the verse these lines are from is just as good, further describing the crowd scene confronting the character. Ochs puts a distance between himself and the character by basing the vignette on a scene from a John Ford film, but the device really makes it even more personal. If this were first-person, it wouldn't sink its hook so painfully; it would be a mere whine. The rest of it, from the next verse (beginning with "And the bottle fills the glass," an ordinary image out of context, but in the song it feels almost sexual in its anticipation) can be read the same way, as an acute portrait of the alcoholic's psychology. Memories of the past are where he wastes his current passion, and his memories are riddled with passions wasted. He trembles for the taste of the whiskey and the associations it supplies. The trembling itself is fear, helpless sorrow, and straight-up boozer shakes. The whole thing is a tender tragedy, with the repeated chorus "soon your sailing will be over..." gathering importance with each passing verse, and concluding with no cheap resolution. in fact, there's hope somewhere. A genuinely great song from an artist too little understood and too seldom remembered.

He hit a chord that rocked the spinet
And disappeared into the infinite!
(Johnny Mercer - "The Old Music Master")
Mercer is about the motherfucker. Working with an incredible array of great composers, he always nailed his collaborator's individual vibe with a flawless lyric. This one is a minor one for him and the mighty Hoagy Carmichael, but it's a delight. In the song, Beethoven is visited by a "little colored boy" from the future, who teaches him how to swing. It's a dopey conceit, for sure. Hoagy sings "infinite" as "in-FIN-et" and it's not only genuinely funny (to hear, I mean, not to read), but again it does in effect what the song describes. The melody is a "classical" pastiche that opens up to a big jazz groove on the selected line, the moment Ludwig gets hep. The melody / words combo is a marvel of syllabic, rhythmic and melodic synchronization. They way the lyric lays in against the tune, it HAS to swing… swing is built in as naturally as a Monk melody. It conveys the discovery of that freedom jazz represented to those of Hoagy's time, and carries the same sense of ecstatic release Chuck Berry's "School Day" does when he hits the line "Hail, Hail Rock and Roll" and the heavens open. So it's a love song to the artist's greatest pleasure, and with bright wit it shows us exactly why he feels that way. There's almost a Slim Gaillard sense of groov-o-reenie absurdity, but it's more than simply silly fun, it's a celebration of why such silly fun is a profound gift. More than just a goofball rhyme, "the infinite" is where jazz takes Hoagy. Anyone who loves music knows what that means, and how sometimes the lightest craft can carry us to the highest altitudes.

I'll get to others as I feel like it. Mind you the blog entires are liable to get shorter as novelty wears off. Let's hope so... these long spiels must surely scare people off. Well, so what?

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