When Talents Disappear, Part One

October 14, 2020

I just saw THE SOUND OF MY VOICE, the new documentary about Linda Ronstadt’s career, which was pretty good if you’re a Linda Ronstadt fan (and who else would wander into the theater? "I hate Ronstadt’s voice, but I’ll give this a shot, maybe it’ll surprise me." Nah.) I’ve been a fan of her singing since her mid-1960s Stone Poney days, and I still find her, purely as a singer, one of the most riveting performers around. I can’t really specify what it is that I like about her voice—I just think she’s got a fabulous set of pipes.

As you may know, she’s retired from singing because around ten years ago she came down with Parkinson’s Disease, and found that she could no longer sing professionally. The final segment of the film shows her with two musical members of her family singing recently in a private setting (looked like her living room to me) and it was true—the lady can’t sing any more. She still carried a tune, and she was audible, but the voice was no longer Linda Ronstadt’s voice. She was just another lady in her seventies trying to harmonize with her nephew’s and her brother’s voices and guitars. It was sad, which was the point of the segment. She couldn’t bring it anymore.

More than anything else, I was reminded of a great athlete losing his skill, and I thought about how universal that was, how the ability to throw or field or bat a ball or to sing with power and conviction and perfect control is a kind of miracle that exists only for a short time, even for those most blessed by that miracle, and how suddenly it can just up and leave.

Parkinson’s is a kind of injury, not one we see much of on the baseball diamond, and I was going to expand on this similarity of musical and athletic skills, but as long as I’ve got you (if I still do), I’d like to riff for a bit on my reaction to THE SOUND OF MY VOICE.

Pop music lyrics kinda suck.

I say this as someone who has written several songs over the past fifty years, none of which I’m very happy with and all of which I’ll take the full blame for, but part of the general problem with song lyrics is the low standards. Is there another line of work in which "almost competent" is the standard of excellence? Lyrics are mediocre because mediocrity is all that’s required. With Ronstadt, the schlocky lyrics really stand out because she wrote virtually none of her own lyrics (and none of her own music for that matter), so we can distinguish easily between the extremely high quality of her singing and the abysmal quality of the words she was singing.

The Stone Poneys song that first made my ears wiggle was her first hit, "Different Drum," written in 1965 by Monkee-in-waiting Mike Nesmith, and it played throughout this movie as a kind of refrain. In a way, it’s an appropriate theme song for Ronstadt, who never married and who lived out the philosophy of the song, which is basically "I’m breaking up with you, baby, not because of anything personal but I just don’t see myself as part of a couple, sorry, have a nice life."

An odd theme for a pop song, most of which extol the virtues of attachment, not of separation, so no complaints there, but the more I listened to the lyrics, the more I came to realize their sappiness, their clumsiness, their sheer incompetence at conveying what should have been an intriguing philosophical point: monogamy isn’t for everyone, and this is the rare song that says so. In other words, Nesmith came up with an original idea, and wrote a pretty catchy melody to make that idea into a hit song (#12 on the pop charts) but his versifying stinks. Ronstadt’s superb singing delayed this observation for the past five decades or so, which is a great testament to her talent.

Let me explain "stinks":  the first dictum of Ezra Pound (an uneven poet, but a great thinker about poetry) is "Make it new." In other words, a writer in every genre is almost certainly re-hashing material that someone, probably a million someones, has expressed previously, but everyone has the potential to express it in so fresh a way that it appears to be totally original. The counter-side to "Make it new" is "Avoid clichés like the plague." That clichéd expression, "like the plague," was once a fresh image, conjuring up panicked villagers running at top speed the very second that they discovered the place they were in was plague-ridden, and it was a forceful, direct and immediate metaphor that created a vivid image in your mind. But no more. Now, it’s just a cliché-- you don’t really think about plagues or terror or fleeing when you see it. It no longer conveys any image at all, and that’s the first big knock against the lyrics of "Different Drum." They’re cliché-ridden.

Some examples, you ask? Here’s just a few: the speaker sums up his (more about pronouns later) chief complaint as "You can’t see the forest for the trees," which doesn’t seem to tie in with the actual complaint, that he doesn’t want to settle down with one woman. I suppose you could make the case that "not seeing the forest for the trees" means that the woman who is the object of the song, keeps bringing up petty reasons the couple should stay together while the speaker insists those reasons miss the big idea, that he just flat-out doesn’t want to, despite all her reasons, but it’s a stretch to get there, and the image is clichéd besides. There are a lot of original ways to express the concept of "misunderstanding the larger problem"—Nesmith just went with the first one that came to mind.

Another quick example of the clichéd lyrics ( found in toto at https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/lindaronstadt/differentdrum.html) is

"I'm not ready
For any person place or thing
To try and pull the reins in on me"

Well, a lot of problems here. The image of "pulling the reins in on me" is where I was going to start—it’s just been done to death, another easy cliché—but the ineptness of "any person, place, or thing" is kind of a howler. It’s the grammar-school definition of a "noun," of course, which pulls you out of the song and the emotion and sends you back to the third grade momentarily, but it’s also kind of stupid in itself. How can a place "try to pull the reins in on me"? Or a thing, for that matter?  I suppose you could conceivably say something like "New York City is pulling the reins in on me" but can a place be trying to restrict the speaker in any way? To have volition, by definition, a place or a thing must have consciousness. No, this is just padding out the line "I’m not ready for anyone to try and pull the reins in on me" with a few awkwardly funny inappropriate extra syllables inserted to make the line scan correctly. For that matter, the volition is irrelevant: the speaker is complaining about the song’s object "pulling the reins" in on him, not complaining that she’s trying to do that. If she were doing that accidentally, somehow, he would still have just as valid a complaint. Just more line-padding, far as I can tell. 

Last example of a cliché:

"Oh don't get me wrong
It's not that I knock it
It's just that I am not in the market
For a boy who wants to love only me."

Gliding right past the tortured rhyme of "knock it" and "market" (they rhyme perfectly but only in Boston), the key cliché here is "not in the market." In other words, "not interested in." It’s a cliché, and one that Nesmith might be able to get away with using if he’d been writing a song whose general imagery was commercial in nature, "I’m not buying your appeal," "Don’t try to sell yourself to me," "I can’t afford to love you," etc. (without the clichéd words, of course. I’m just supplying hasty examples of commercial images, not re-writing Nesmith’s lyrics.) Again, it’s just a clichéd expression of a lack of interest—there are other trite images throughout the song, which has only three verses. It’s actually hard to squeeze that many chestnuts into such a small bag.

But the "for a boy" line gets us into the gender/pronoun problem: it’s not unusual for a male songwriter to find his song being sung by a female singer, with attendant gender/pronoun issues. Some female singers resolve this problem by singing the song to a female object, i.e., as a lesbian love-song (or in this case, as a lesbian breakup song), some interpret the lyrics as not being romantic in nature at all but rather being about a friendship between women, some try to exchange the female pronouns for their male counterparts (which works sometimes but not always, especially when the pronoun is a rhyme-word, "him" rather than "her," etc. Gender-specific songs like "My Girl" or "The Girl from Ipanema" would make that simple switcheroo impossible.) Ronstadt switches the genders here, but there’s still a problem, one that doesn’t relate to the pronoun, but rather to the adjective "pretty."

It’s simply not a word that applies to males, not without some eyebrows being raised. Speaking of being raised, I was raised to take the word "pretty" as an outright insult when applied to me, as in Newman’s definitive putdown of Keith Hernandez: "Nice catch, pretty-boy," so when Ronstadt sings "I’m not saying you ain’t pretty,"  I’d imagine her male object responding, "No, that’s fine, go ahead and say I’m not pretty, that’s really OK with me, please." The word "pretty" raises questions that the songwriter really doesn’t want to be raised in this song, but he’s trapped by his own gendered construction. (Or Ronstadt is, here; the change is hers, I suppose, not Nesmith’s, but there are additional problems with the adjective anyway.)

Another issue with the word "pretty" is that it only sorta-kinda rhymes with the word "ready." It’s not an awful rhyme (in spoken English, we don’t really distinguish the pronunciation of medial "d"s and medial "t"s most of the time) but it is a lazy rhyme. The entire pretty/ready verse is lazy—for one thing, it introduces the concept of "prettiness" as the basis for a relationship: there must be another basis or two for a monogamous relationship ("compatibility" or "shared interests" or "liking each other" come to mind) but the speaker reduces the range of reasons down to one, "prettiness," and all for the sake of an off-rhyme. If he’d given it a few more minutes’ thought, he might have come up with "steady" as a rhyme for "ready" (as in "You keep saying you want to go steady") or better yet, just come up with a better pair of rhymes altogether—the point of the song is not that he isn’t ready for monogamy yet, but rather that he doesn’t see it in his future, ever. Instead, he makes the weaker point for the sake of the rhyme.

I could go on and on in this vein, because there’s more to  rag on here than there is to praise. (Even the song’s title is bit of a literary cliché: it derives from Henry David Thoreau’s observation in Walden that if "a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer," and for all I know Thoreau swiped it from someone else.)  But I love the song, especially in Ronstadt’s rendition, and my love is all for the singing and the tune. The lyrics smell a little off to me, but they’re actually superior to most pop lyrics of that time or any other.

There’s a major grammar-and-logic error, though, in the title that clearly contradicts the theme of the song: "You and I march to the beat of a different drum," Nesmith begins, trying to make the point that he and she are incompatible, but unfortunately his words do NOT mean that the two are marching to different beats but rather to the same beat. If he wants to stress how different the beats are that he and she march to, he has to make clear that there are two drums beating, not one: "You and I march to the beats of different drums" would make that point, while "a different drum" implies that the two lovers are actually in synch with each other. The implication of "a different drum" is that there is one singular drum the lovers march to, while the rest of the world, or perhaps other lovers, march to another singular drumbeat that differs from the lovers’ drumbeat. He says, in other words, the opposite of what he intends to say—we don’t catch it because it’s a pop tune, and no one (well, almost no one) is paying that much attention to the words, but once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.

One of the finer tropes in the song, especially in Ronstadt’s rendition of it, is the line "We’ll both live a lot longer, if you live without me"—what I like is the ambiguity of her immediately repeating the words "if you live, you live without me," which could mean that there’s a possibility that her object may well not live if they break up (and that she doesn’t much care). But the larger implication here is the threat that, if they don’t break up, one of them will murder the other one: "We’ll both live a lot longer, if you live without me" is kind of scary. The flip side is "If I have to stay with you, I’ll strangle you, or you might strangle me." It’s great, the way she sings that line, but it’s a pretty nutty idea, breaking up to prolong one’s own life and the life of one’s partner.

Rather than continue to prick logical holes in Nesmith’s song, I’d prefer to expand my theme and instead go on and on about the simple reason that pop lyrics are as mediocre as they are: because they’re written by musicians. Occasionally, you get skilled lyricists who collaborate with musicians—Robert Hunter or Bernie Taupin come to mind—and sometimes, you do get gifted lyric-writers who are primarily musicians—no one’s going to argue that Bob Dylan or John Lennon or Joni Mitchell or John Prine or Leonard Cohen aren’t prolific and inventive lyricists—but in the main, they’re artists who invent melodies or chord-structures or harmonies and then fit in the lyrics as best they can, which is often serviceable but not distinguished. (Cohen’s the only real poet I can think of who also writes decent music.)  Most lyrics become memorable because of the musical qualities, rather than being memorable themselves. It’s only on closer analysis that song lyrics reveal themselves to be clichéd, or convoluted, or illogical, or sentimental, or ungrammatical, or just downright dopey. But by that time, we’ve been humming the tune or singing it in the shower for so long that it seems more inspired than it really is.

When I was a kid, I remember jotting down snippets of popular songs in my notebooks for school, and admiring their brilliance, but looking back, I’m shall we say under-impressed by what I recorded as gnomic wisdom. "Not to touch the earth, not to see the sun/ nothing left to do but run, run, run" for example, impressed me no end when I was fourteen, but now it (like almost all of the Doors’ lyrics) just seems vapid and pretentious to me. But at the time, I took it for profound. (Or, as I might have phrased it, "Oh, wow, man. Heavy.") "I’m going to love you," speaking of the Doors’ lyrics, "’til the stars fall from the sky/ for you and I" is one of those grammatical goofs that never fails to land with a THUD! on my ears, not just because Jim Morrison (who considered himself a poet, and actually got some of his portentous and pretentious lyrics bound into a book, which makes him seem like one—NOT!) committed the case-error ("I" for "me") I catch in every other freshman essay. No, the part of this goof that sticks out to me is how easy it is to fix. If Morrison needs the line to end with "I" (and he does, to rhyme with "sky") he could use "for" in the only slightly archaic sense of the word (to mean "because," which my freshmen are also excessively fond of, for they are trying to impress me) and continue the line "for you and I/ Can never die" or some such. (He has a few beats left over in the line, as it happens, for the extra syllables). Or he might just use a different rhyme, allowing him to use the objective case he needs, perhaps "’til the stars fall to the sea/ for you and me." But I don’t think the problem ever occurred to him. I think "for you and I" sounded right to him. There is more bad grammar and pointless philosophizing in the Doors’ lyrics than in most other songwriters’, and as a teenager I gobbled it up with a spatula-sized spoon.

I wrote down pages of such quotes, and I’m sure some of them were more profound than others, but few of them stand up as models of brilliant writing anymore. (Oddly, I just moved house and packed up some of those old notebooks—I know precisely where they are, in a box on my kitchen table right now, but I lack the guts to peruse them. My fourteen-year-old self just makes me wince, which is true of most of us. If you can face the evidence of your wince-inducing stages, my hat is off to you, sir.) The standard that pop lyrics have to meet is just about as low as low can get: impressive to fourteen year olds. ("Different Drum," I just noticed, was released the summer I turned 14. I’m sure I was moved mightily by Nesmith’s verbal brilliance at the time.)

Roughly, I’d estimate that one-third of pop lyrics are technically flawed (squeeze too many syllables into too little metrical space, or vice-versa, awful rhymes, accent the wrong syllable, rotten grammar, etc.), another third are terminally vapid (silly, sentimental, clichéd, occasionally out-and-out nonsense), and a third third are passably original and competent. Because of overlap between the first third and the second third (many songs are both lyrically flawed and lyrically vapid), there’s room for a fourth third, brilliant, entertaining, insightful poetry that sometimes makes its way into song lyrics, not to mention that most of the time we ignore the lyrics entirely because we’re so hooked into the music.

Often, we don’t even know what lyrics say. With some singers, we’re reduced to guessing what they even are. We’ve all misheard or misunderstood or misremembered pop lyrics without appreciating the songs one tiny whit less, the Lady Mondegreen phenomenon.  We’re in it for the melody, the harmonies, the beat, which is what songwriters understand:  a song with a great musical hook can tolerate the dopiest of lyrics set to them. It doesn’t work like that the other way around.

For my own amazement, I’ll sometimes pick out a tune on a guitar and try to copy some of my favorite musicians’ riffs—lately, I’ve been playing some of George Harrison’s licks on classic Beatle songs, tight, restrained, musically inventive variations on the songs’ chords. I think Harrison’s contributions to the Beatles’ work has been massively understated, or at least massively misunderstood by me for decades before I tried duplicating some of them. As I understand the process (I might be wrong about some of this), in the early days, Lennon or McCartney would bring a new song into the studio, complete with lyrics and melody, and let Harrison (and Ringo Starr) work out their own parts to the song. Inevitably what they would work out, classified under "arrangements" and not "song-writing," would be the more memorable parts of the hits we remember—Harrison’s contributions include the fabulous "Day Tripper" riff, the lead break from "I Feel Fine," the poignant guitar part from "And I Love Her," and a zillion other five-second bits that got burned into our brains. (This contribution seems to me as important to the songs’ total effects as the original lyrics and melodies, but what do I know about song-writing credits? The more I listen to these parts, the more I think that Harrison and Starr "wrote" a goodly chunk of the work credited, and deserve the money paid, to "Lennon-McCartney." But what do I know?)  My point here is that Harrison had a kind of genius for creating inventive and memorable riffs.

He also had a kind of anti-genius for writing lyrics. Lyrics didn’t come to him readily, and I suspect that he viewed writing them as a necessary evil, an irritating chore that was essential for a pop song, so he did it but he would rather have written letters from the gulag. The chore of writing lyrics was, I think, what held him back for years from song-writing entirely, and lyrics never came to him easily or even competently for the most part. The dominant theme of his lyrics, over the course of his thirty-odd year songwriting career was complaining about other people—people are spiritually vacant ("Isn’t It a Pity?"), they want to date him but he’s not interested ("If I Needed Someone,") they screw him out of royalties ("Only a Northern Song,") they’re late to appointments ("Blue Jay Way,"), they let others starve to death ("Bangladesh,") they often drop dead on him ("Don’t Bother Me,") they take taxes out of his paycheck ("Taxman,"), they’re inherently selfish narcissists ("I Me Mine,") they lack self-awareness ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps,") and most of all, they’re insignificant bugs compared to the Lord God Krishna Jesus Cthulhu Yahweh Whomever ("My Sweet Lord," etc.) Bitch, bitch, bitch.

He was often irritated by people, but it worked for him. He’d turn those irritations into lyrics that fit into these riffs that came so readily to his brain and to his fingers. My favorite theory about a Harrison song-title stems from the simple misspelling in the title "Love You To." As the tale goes, he hated particularly coming up with titles to his songs—the hateful work of devising lyrics was done with and now he had to come up with a title? Ugh. According to Wikipedia, the working title to this song was "Granny Smith," invented by the Beatles’ recording engineer after the variety of tart apple, but when the time came to devise an actual title, I theorize that someone, perhaps that self-same recording engineer, told Harrison he had to come up with a real title now--when Harrison gave him a blank look in response, he offered, "Unless you’d like me to come up with a title for you?" and Harrison answered, "Love you to," which became the published title. Makes as much sense as any other theory.

Another tale, that has since been refuted, is the one about the Cream song "Badge," which he co-wrote with Eric Clapton—the way I first heard this story,  Clapton read the chords "B-A-D-G-E" that Harrison had scrawled on the song’s lyric sheet and mistook it for the song’s title, for which Harrison was grateful, but unfortunately the song’s chords don’t happen to be B, A, D, G, and E (though those chords do work together pretty well). The real story is almost as good, and just as explicative of Harrison’s distaste for inventing song titles: he had written "BRIDGE" on the lyric sheet, meaning that the musical bridge between the verse and the chorus belonged at that point in the song, and Clapton misread that upside-down as "Badge." (The song has nothing whatsoever to do with badges of any kind. Badges? We don’ need no steenkin’ badges.)  Harrison’s gift was essentially a non-verbal gift, but he had to work with words as a condition of being a song-writer—instrumentals don’t cut it-- so he’d excrete a few for every song. But he didn’t like writing lyrics, he didn’t do it naturally, and he didn’t do it very well. Luckily, that doesn’t make any difference—he was a great writer of music.

Harrison stands as my prime example of how someone can write wonderful songs without much talent for crafting lyrics, but I think the tendency I’m describing here is common to pop composers across the board. Understand where I’m coming from—this approach may seem elitist, condescending, even sneering, at Harrison’s verbal shortcomings, and it is elitist in a sense: during my long training in Creative Writing, I sat through many a seminar on the technical characteristics of poems, a fairly dry subject to most Ph. D. candidates and a colossal bore to anyone else, though I kind of enjoyed the subject. We would take apart centuries’ worth of world-class poetry, analyzing the precise techniques that came out of the minds of poets like Keats and Pope and Yeats and Byron and Sidney and Spencer, distinguishing between their technically-flawed early works and their eventual mastery of meter, lineation, diction, as well as imagery, and syntax, and allusion and a hundred other subjects that most folks just assume we’re talking bullshit about.

As I say, I kind of enjoyed doing "close readings" of poems more than your typical grad student, even though I was mostly studying the composition of prose, not verse—and after you’ve written a couple of dozen close-reading technical analyses of timeless poems by gifted poets, and have read hundreds more analyses by world-renown critics and scholars, you tend to be dismissive of pop lyricists. Tell you the truth, after grad school, I couldn’t listen to even my favorite pop song-writers without wincing once in a while. I still hear verbal clunkers in some of Dylan’s lyrics, awkwardness in Carole King’s, incompetence in Lennon’s, howlers in Paul Simon’s, ineptitudes in Joni Mitchell’s, illogic in Springsteen’s, and gaffes in Ray Davies’.  Not all the time, of course, and I do take pleasure in their crafting of clever lyrics throughout their thousands of great songs, but sadly my appreciation of even their talents has been tainted. Like a well-trained auto mechanic examining your car engine, I can find things wrong with it that you will never see or feel, and you’ll protest that (in order to justify my own profession)  I’m making up problems where none exist.

They do exist, though you’ll probably never notice them.  I can’t un-see the things that I’ve been trained to see, and to analyze, and to explain. They’re there (there, there) whether you’re aware of them or not. Think of this capacity as the verbal equivalent of sabermetric analysis, garnering the same kind of hostility and mockery that sabermetrics first received (and still does, to a much lesser degree) from the baseball world and from the average fan. It’s all BS, it’s not real, it’s pretentious nonsense that you can’t ever prove –and slowly the world came around to accepting some of it, and then most of it, and now (for some of us) all of it. I’m far from an expert "close reader" of lyrics, almost as far as I am from a true sabermetrist, but I’ve got enough experience in both fields to appreciate the observations of my betters, and to dabble in some of my own now and again.

OK, I’m done here without writing a word of the analogy between Linda Ronstadt’s career-ending injury and that of MLB players that I intended this article to be about, so I promise to get cracking on that topic exclusively in my next article.

(That "next article"—for reasons I’ll probably also explain eventually—was also finished by last November, but it just became oddly relevant, even a hot topic, on BJOL, which reminded me about this somewhat old pair of articles that I might as well publish 11 months late. But here’s a link to an additional article about Ronstadt by my friend the brilliant writer Ron Rosenbaum if you haven’t had your fill of Ronstadt-adulation yet: http://www.thestacksreader.com/melancholy-baby/ )
 
 

COMMENTS (33 Comments, most recent shown first)

pkkennedy
Love this article.

Four Ways to Sing "The Girl From Ipanema"

1. Third person, boy to girl
Astrud Gilberto, 1964
"But each day when she walks to the sea/she looks straight ahead, not at he" (nice grammar)

2. First person, boy to girl
Sinatra, 1967
"But each day when she walks to the sea/She looks straight ahead, not at me"

3. First person, girl to boy
Diana Krall, 2009
(retitled Boy From Ipanema)
"But each day when he walks to the sea/He looks straight ahead, not at me"

4. First person, girl to girl!
Amy Winehouse, 2011
"But each day when she walks to the sea/She looks straight ahead, not at me"

Also I’m pretty sure Robby Krieger wrote both Touch Me and Light My Fire.

Again, great article.
3:15 AM Oct 19th
 
mahdishain
I generally agree with you that pop music lyrics kinda suck but I think that if poetry had the widespread popularity of pop music your subject might have been poetry kinda sucks.
8:51 PM Oct 18th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Can't tell when folks are agreeing or disagreeing with me here--I think we're all on the same page, though maybe the disagreement has to do with my provocative summary of my thesis, "Pop music lyrics kinda suck," with which I disagree myself as a defensible all-inclusive statement.

I was just on the phone for an hour with a friend who makes her living (well, some of it) as a lyricist (for off-Broadway musicals) and we shared the high level of awareness that non-rock lyricists have of standard grammatical and usage "rules." That is, on the rare occasions that they break them, they know what they're breaking, whereas untrained lyricists (i.e., most rock lyricists) are just taking wild stabs at what the "right" way to put things is, not much better (as someone pointed out below) than your average high schooler. When I told her, for example, of the case-error in "Touch Me" she instantly understood what I meant, whereas Morrison must have skipped that day in high school English.

The real difference was that Cole Porter (whom I revere, though I don't actually listen to him very often--I should) would write draft after draft, until it met his standard, while someone like Morrison (and my college freshmen) finds it grueling and unnecessary to write anything beyond his first draft. "Hey, what do you want? I finished the assignment, I have a complete set of lyrics that can be sung to the melody, and you want more work outta me? I got parties to go, drugs to smoke, chicks to bone. You want to me to do WHAT? Sit down with a grammar book to understand 'case'? Yeah, right."
3:06 AM Oct 18th
 
willyjw2019
I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Jim Morrison line “If I was (sic) to say to you, girl we couldn’t get much higher” from Light My Fire as “one of those grammatical goofs that never fails to land with a THUD! on my ears.”

To illustrate what Mikeckaw said “I would argue that pop lyrics don't necessarily suck, but that we must remember that song lyrics are not the same as poetry or prose. The most original and eloquent song lyrics still don't work if they don't "sing" well. This is the purpose of writing them - to make a good song.”), consider the lyrics from the song “7 and & Is” by Love from 1966.

When I was a boy I thought about the times I'd be a man
I'd sit inside a bottle and pretend that I was in a can
In my lonely room I'd set my mind in an ice cream cone
You can throw me if you wanna cause I'm a bone and I go
Oop-bip-bip oop-bip-bip, yeah!

If I don't start cryin' it's because that I have got no eyes
My father's in the fireplace and my dog lies hypnotized
Through a crack of light I was unable to find my way
Trapped inside a night but I'm a day and I go
Oop-bip-bip oop-bip-bip, yeah!

Perhaps not the “most original and eloquent song lyrics,” but what a great song!

In the book [i]The Age Of Rock[i], published in 1969, there’s an article “Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe)” by Robert Christgau that you may find interesting. It’s also in the currently available “Is It Still Good To Ya.” https://www.amazon.com/Still-Good-Ya-Criticism-1967-2017/dp/1478000228

11:15 PM Oct 17th
 
LanceRichardson
As a music and literature obsessive sort, I've long felt that people who marveled at lyrics were often looking for something that simply isn't there. Brilliant prose and poetry is difficult enough to pull off without the constraints of adhering to the structure of a musical piece. When lyrics are genuinely great, I am rightfully impressed, but I give a pass to most lyricists, as my expectations aren't very high.
8:10 PM Oct 17th
 
mikeclaw
Agree to disagree. I think a lot of the great showtunes and big band classics, the American Songbook as they say, has lyrics that come off as mediocre posey when stripped of the melody and cadence. Yes, there's Sondheim and others, but as you point out, popular music over the past half-century has Cohen and Dylan and Elvis Costello and Springsteen, to name a few who I think qualify as very strong lyricsts. I could name more, but to what end?

Writing poetry and writing song lyrics are two different skill sets. They might overlap to a certain degree, but they are two different things. Many great poems wouldn't work if you set them to music, and many great song lyrics don't work if you try to recite them as spoken word. Doesn't make either one of them better or worse.

Believe me, I love the songbook. I'm married to a Sinatra fanatic so I hear great versions of all those classics, and they're great songs, and many many many of them include the same kind of cliches and drippy phrasing that you point out in Different Drum. You don't notice it, because when it's sung it sounds great. But forced rhymes and clumsy phrasing isn't specific to popular song.

(You pointed out a grammatical error by The Doors, and I would point out to you that the first way I impressed my wife was by knowing, before she pointed it out, the grammatical error in Billy Joel's "Allentown.")
5:11 PM Oct 17th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That's true, too, Mr. Claw. (Or Mr. Law?) But all you need do is to look at lyricists in other genres, such as W.S. Gilbert, or Stephen Sondheim or Lorenz Hart, to realize how wide the gap is between the quality, intelligence, wit, attention to detail, etc. of them and that of pop lyricists today. And I prefer pop music to those other genres! But it's obvious to me that the other genres had people who could really write lyrics, who put in effort to learn their craft, who had total technical mastery of the language, and we've got a bunch of stoners who (for the most part--Leonard Cohen fans, be gone!) can't poke their way through a paper bag with a pen even if you told them which end to use.
2:55 PM Oct 16th
 
mikeclaw
I would argue that pop lyrics don't necessarily suck, but that we must remember that song lyrics are not the same as poetry or prose. The most original and eloquent song lyrics still don't work if they don't "sing" well. This is the purpose of writing them - to make a good song. Chuck Berry, for example, wrote lyrics and lines and rhymes that just sounded amazing when sung in the right cadence and tempo. Try to read the same lines as poetry and they don't work. So many of Bernie Taupin's lyrics sound like gobbledegook when read as poetry, but when you set them to Elton John's melodies and layer on the orchestration, there's this magic that happens.


On "Different Drum" … yeah, the line about "person place or thing" is clumsy, and the rhyme of "knock it/market" is labored. But it sings so well. And it's not just Linda's lovely young voice. Listen to Susanna Hoffs sing it as part of her Sid & Susie collaboration with Matthew Sweet. Same words, same melody, but coming from a grown woman instead of fresh-faced youngster, the sentiments take on a slightly different tone. But it's a great record and a great song because those words just sing.


Anyway, I could go on and on but I'll spare you. I really enjoy the essay.

1:04 PM Oct 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
By chanting the name of my Lord, Biff Pocaroba,
And praying that this song will soon be over,
I hope that you poor fools will awaken and see
That you will never be as enlightened as me

(case-error, on purpose, if you care)
8:24 AM Oct 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
"By chanting the name of the Lord you will be free." I understand Charles Manson tried this technique, never worked out too well for him. Oh, well, it was worth a shot.
3:52 PM Oct 15th
 
John-Q
Yeah, Harrison is a hard one to pin down. He definitely wrote as the observer rather than the participant in his songs.

I never really interpreted his songs as “judgmental” per se but I could see how you can interpret them that way. I interpreted them for the large part as detached lamentations. Along the line of “why do we do this” or “why do we do that to each other”. I don’t think he was the kind of song writer who would have written and used a lot of first person subjective type of writing.

I guess my one problem with him is that he never really offers any solutions to the problems or questions he writes about. If he does they tend to be fairly simplistic like chanting. Like all the worlds problems will be solved if we just chanted a few hours a day.

Then it seemed like he would disappear from the public eye for years then he would pop back up 5 years later.

He seemed like a contradiction as well. On the one hand he wrote songs that sounded so innocent but on the other hand he could be very cynical and sarcastic.
3:45 PM Oct 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sorry should have read--"We were talking about the people who never glimpse the truth" sounds a lot MORE judgey than "They were talking about the way I find it hard to glimpse the truth," and a lot less self-critical, don't it?
2:31 PM Oct 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I think that's it--the external perspective on problems he was lamenting. If he had written "I look at myself, see the love there that's sleeping/ While my guitar gently weeps..../I don't know why nobody told me/ How to unfold my love" etc, that would have been a very different, certainly less judgmental, tune, but George didn't roll that way. "We were talking about the people who never glimpse the truth" sounds a lot less judgey than "They were talking about the way I find it hard to glimpse the truth," and a lot less self-critical, don't it? First song I ever figured out how to play by myself, btw, "Within You, Without You."

2:29 PM Oct 15th
 
John-Q
Steven G,

Yeah, Harrison does come off a bit judgmental is some of his songs. I think most of the time it comes off as a lament rather than a admonishment. I’m thinking for the most part he wrote from the point of view of an observer so there was a bit of non-attachment in his songs. That might have come from his meditation practice. I’ve never fully understood his spiritual practice because it never seemed grounded in one particular discipline. It seemed like he dabbled in various Eastern practices mostly centered on Hinduism.

It would be interesting to go through his discography and see how often he wrote from the point of view of an observer or how personal he interpreted his songs. Even a song like “When We Were Fab” sounds a bit more like an observer of the Beatles rather than an actually member of the band.

Lennon by contrast was much more personal about his song writing.

The thing I never quite understood about Harrison was his spiritual/maternal duality. On the one hand he came across as a very spiritual person who was into various Eastern philosophies and meditations and yoga etc. He didn’t have much need or didn’t get hung up on the material world because “All Things Must Pass” etc. But then he was this guy who lived in this enormous Victorian mansion on acres of land with fancy cars etc. He didn’t have any qualms about cheating on his wife with numerous women numerous times.

It’s easy not to get hung up on the “material world” when you can take off on a yacht and spend the summer on holiday in Australia. Then you can go have sex with Madonna and Belinda Carlisle and your wife doesn’t goes along with it.

Harrison could always be very taciturn, bull headed and stubborn about things as well. If he didn’t want to do something he just wouldn’t and didn’t care the ramifications or what you thought. Harrison also seemed to enjoy The luxuries of fame and wealth but hated all the trappings and responsibilities that went with it. He seemed to love the special access and benefits he received from auto races but hated having to deal with the media.

It’s ironic in the end that McCarney was really the peace-love guy who stayed loyal to his wife and was friendly and accommodating to the media & fans etc.
1:21 PM Oct 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Imagine what a shock it was to me, evanecurb, to find that I had written 2000 words about pop music, hadn't said all I had to say about pop lyrics yet, and hadn't gotten to baseball at all.
12:19 PM Oct 15th
 
Manushfan
I thought this might be about whether Linda R belongs in the Rock Hall(Spoiler Alert-Yes), and branching off from there. I remember liking George Harrison's tunes when I did my obligatory Beatles phase in HS, Crackerbox Palace is still a nostalgic go to whenever I stumble across it.


11:59 AM Oct 15th
 
evanecurb
I was halfway through this before I realized the stuff about pop lyrics wasn't a brief digression and Mr. Goldleaf wasn't returning to the topic of fleeting abilities. Pop lyrics are mostly written by people under the age of 25 and are not intended for mature audiences. I listen for the music. I mean, I ain't sayin' you ain't pretty, Michael Nesmith, I'm just saying you probably wouldn't have written those lyrics if you'd been a little older.
11:30 AM Oct 15th
 
Steven Goldleaf
You're kind of making my point for me, Marc--actually, no "kind of" about it. You ARE making my point: very little about pop lyrics rises to the level of poetry, or even tries to, nor are pop lyricists capable of coming up to that standard even if they wanted to, or if they knew the difference, and very few of them do. Sure, listeners easily understand the meaning of cliches, But every poet worthy of the name would prefer eating Drano to using a cliche unironically--it's just not an option, but for pop lyricists it's often option #1. Neither do poets write ungrammatically (again, they'll do it sometimes ironically, or when making a point about language, or in poems that are intended t be in someone else's voice) but it's fingernails on chalkboard stuff otherwise. Messrs. Morrison and Nesmith weren't making deliberate mistakes, I don't think. They just didn't understand what they were doing that was incorrect (by poets' standards). One of my professors in grad school, who had been an amateur jazz drummer before turning famous novelist, had an expression "Close enough for jazz," usually uttered when someone in his class made a mistake of a technical nature, meaning "We'll let that slide for now, as a work-in-progress, but you know you need to clean that up before submitting it to any respectable editor, who will mark you down forever as an incompetent or as a slob." It's a peer thing more than a readership thing. You write grammatically, you avoid cliches, etc. so other writers recognize you as a pro--you might get away with it with your readership (and you might not) but you don't want your fellow writers thinking poorly of your work.






10:07 AM Oct 15th
 
Marc Schneider
This isn't really relevant to the article, but I had a friend in college (in the70s) who was a big Ronstadt fan until she (my friend) discovered fundamentalist religion, decided Ronstadt was evil, and burned her records. This song could have been one that pushed my friend in that direction.

I agree that most rock song lyrics are silly and pointless; in many cases, I have really loved a song without knowing or understanding the lyrics and, then, one I see the actual lyrics, the songs lose their appeal to me, in part because the songs are often politicized in ways that bother me. For example, when I hear "The Times They Are a Changing", it comes across as threatening; ie, "if you don't agree with us or at least get out of our way we will crush you."

I don't however, necessarily agree with Stephen's point about cliches. I think cliches communicate their meaning easily and quickly. Yes, no one really thinks about actual plagues when they hear "avoid it like the plague" but they certainly understand what the message is. It would be sort of hard to communicate without cliches, I think.

I hear women often refer to men as "pretty." I don't think it's as big a deal as Stephen seems to.
9:35 AM Oct 15th
 
malbuff
After 40+ years in and out of the pop music business, I go with something Robbie Robertson once said: "I learned the words to Little Richard's songs as best I could, and what I couldn't figure out didn't matter." Words serve the song, not the other way around.
8:40 AM Oct 15th
 
bearbyz
As a below average American male I would think it would be great if Linda Ronstadt sang the line about being pretty to me. Even if she said it.

I agree, she had a great voice.
9:16 PM Oct 14th
 
ajmilner
Pop music lyrics kinda suck.

Largely because pop music has always been about the beat, be it the waltz or hip-hop. I say this as a part-time music critic for 20-odd years.
8:33 PM Oct 14th
 
hazelmaye
Tom Lehrer: The words don't have to be clever / and it don't matter if you put a few extra syllables into a line / it sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English / and it don't even gotta rhyme
8:20 PM Oct 14th
 
frisco
Don't know if this is on point but I also thought writing the music was infinitely harder than putting lyrics down. I think crafting a melody and a chorus and a hook is something I can't even fathom trying. That's where the genius lies.

On the other hand, you could sift through some creative writing from a group of talented Grade 11 English students and come up with decent lyrics.

Barry Gibb once said most of his songs were music first with just Duh-Dah-Doo-Dah filler sounds which were nonsensical and only once the music was complete they'd fill in the words. Also, he never changed a melody to get the lyric to fit. And to me that's where the real hard part is to come up with music that grabs you.

In the same vein, I have an Abba album that has their greatest hits in Spanish. But it sounds great even though I can't understand anything.

My Best-Carey




6:55 PM Oct 14th
 
jfenimore
A long trip for a short point.
5:41 PM Oct 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
You're right, of course, John-Q, that I was exaggerating Harrison's lyrical limitations to make a point, but he is pretty judgey. One of my high school buddies used to do some fine riffing on George looking down on us poor pathetic unenlightened mortals wasting our lives because we lack his insight into what's really wrong with ourselves, and even George's biggest fans, among whom I numbered myself, had to admit he was both funny and a little bit correct.
4:57 PM Oct 14th
 
John-Q
I have to disagree with your take on Harrison the song writer. You’re missing the point of his songs by a mile if you think they’re just a bunch of songs “complaining about other people” or being “irritated” by other people. “Isn’t it a Pity” is not about complaining about other people, it’s a lament on how we treat each other.

“While my Guitar Gently Weeps” is another lamentation.

Irritations and complaints might have come out more in his Beatle stuff mainly because of his position in the band. He was only allowed 2 tracks per album while John & Paul’s material dominated. It is a bit mind boggling how “All Things Must Pass” or “Isn’t it a Pity” didn’t make the cut for the Beatles but “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was given 20-30 takes and hours of studio time.

You also didn’t mention most of his greatest songs: “All Things Must Pass”, “I’d Have You Anytime”, “What Is Life”, “Beware of Darkness”, “Let it Roll”, “Let it Down”, “Blow Away”, “Love Comes to Everyone”, “You”, “Give Me Love”, “Awaiting on you All”, “Crackerbox Palace”, “Cloud Nine”, “When We Was Fab”. To name just a few. His 33 1/3, Living in the Material World, Cloud Nine, Brainwashed and the self titled “George Harrison” were all very good albums.

“All Things Must Pass” was the best thing any of the Beatles did in their solo work. Harrison’s solo output overall was more consistently good compared to his Beatle mates.
4:29 PM Oct 14th
 
RexLittle
There are other metaphors, but none of them would flow as well into "if you live without me." The suggestion that they might literally die sooner if they were together never once occurred to me until you brought it up.

(Let me be clear that I'm just picking a nit on this one point. The overall sappiness of the lyrics was evident when I first heard the song.)

4:00 PM Oct 14th
 
John-Q
I agree with you that Harrison’s contributions have been undervalued and understated for years. He had dozens of great little riffs/interlude on Beatles’ songs that added a lot of texture and flavor in 10-15 second bursts. It’s easy to take them for granted but think about the the little solo guitar riffs on “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “All My Loving” or “Hard Day’s Night” or “Nowhere Man” or The riffs on “Day Tripper”, “Paperback Writer” or “I Feel Fine” are basically the whole damn song.
3:51 PM Oct 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Well, of course it's metaphorical, RexLittle, I don't think anyone was thinking the singer was making an actuarial prediction. But the metaphor is misleading, or ambiguous at best in that it suggests at least that staying together might result in one or the other of them literally dying sooner if they stick together, which is a creepy thought. Better to avoid it altogether, and not make the listener even think of that. There are a lot of ways to express "possible happiness" other than through that metaphor.

Glad you guys enjoyed this one--I'm always dubious whenever I post an article off the subject of baseball, so I appreciate the kindly encouragement.
2:55 PM Oct 14th
 
karlweberliterary
A couple of quick comments on this great article. One, check out Stephen Sondheim's two books about song writing, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT. He offers running commentary on his own lyrics and those of other song writers (mostly Broadway and "American Song Book" writers, but occasional pop writers as well), and I think the complaints he offers about their clumsiness, descent into cliche, etc., will resonate with you.

Two, I think one of the things that elevates Dylan a notch above other pop song writers is the way his lyrics use just as many cliches as other songs but frequently twist, spin, or subvert them in interesting ways. Something to notice next time to listen to one of his albums.

Thanks for the fine piece!
9:09 AM Oct 14th
 
RexLittle
I always considered the line "We'll both live a lot longer" from "Different Drum" to be metaphorical, meaning "We'll both be a lot happier."

8:56 AM Oct 14th
 
mauimike
Congratulations. This is the most interesting piece that I've read in a long time and I'm a world class reader. It's what I do. I seek wisdom and happily fail. Lately I've been pondering "Badge.' What a beautiful song, that makes almost no sense.
8:18 AM Oct 14th
 
 
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