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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

FURTHER WORDS ABOUT ROCKSONG WORDS

Sasha Frere-Jones agrees with me that REM is a source of recent rock's muffled verbal incomprehensibility, and asks what REM's source was. (Like Mr. Frere-Jones, I love REM, and even forgive them for copping "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" on one of their Eponymous hits.)

Carl Wilson answers, Pere Ubu, one of those bands I've heard of for 20 years but have never tracked down. (Why is that? Random -- I've tracked down a fair amount of stuff, and some I just plum haven't. Henry Cowell was another -- champion of Ives, teacher of John Cage -- I first read about him in high school and finally heard him for the first time last week -- and he's gorgeous!) Carl quotes Ubu singer David Thomas: "Rock music as an art is designed to communicate that which is beyond words. It's visionary, nonlinear, nonverbal, non-narrative, inarticulate. We're dedicated to the art of cohesive, intelligent, nonverbal communication.... I wouldn't know a thought if it came up and bit me. When you ask a question the answer springs out of nothingness and I flap my gums. If I like the sound of what my voice speaks then I learn it by rote so that I can roll it out like a monkey the next time. The form of the words triggers a recognition of meaning."

This catches my interest, being midway between Diderot's proto-romantic theory of lyric-poetry-as-interjection as proposed in Rameau’s Nephew (a central text in the history of western thought & sensibility, and a funny bit of music criticism to boot), and Mallarme, Hugo Ball, and the Cocteau Twins. (Thomas's "monkey" is in the middle, but then, like a Homeric beginning, aren't we all.)

Carl then wins me over forever with his very next sentence after the Thomas quote: "I think the precedent you'd track for that stance has to be Louie Louie." All right let's give it to 'em right now!

Franklin Bruno brings it all back home when he points out my mistake in attributing the words of "All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun" to Sheryl Crow. Says Mr. Bruno: "[R]ecall that 'All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun' may be the only recent hit based on a pre-existing, on-the-page poem, by one Wyn Cooper, a workshoppy sort with several collections to his credit." Not being a Platonist, I can't recall if I never knew, but thanks for the information! And as Franklin says, this does "bring it around," since the whole big wordy blogfest was initiated by Sasha's reaction to Carl's piece on a new album coming out with lyrics all by novelists.

Carl’s original piece (which is linked in the post below, as "lit rock") tells an interesting story well, of a band that got friendly with a bunch of writers and decided to make an album with the prosers writing the lyrics. In objective journo mode, Carl didn’t seem to weigh in too heavily as to whether this was a good idea or a bad idea -- it’s just an interesting story, right? Though shining the light of publicity on anything implies positive vibes unless otherwise stated -- and that’s fine, right?

I’m curious to hear the results of the novelists’ rockwords, but I’m not too optimistic. My reasons why have to do with an observation that Franklin raised in an earlier post, that we don’t call songwords “words,” we call them “lyrics,” implying that they have a special sung (or rapped) status, not just recited or silently read. This reminded me of a story: Shortly after Irving Berlin first hit it big, the Tin Pan Alley sheet music publishers started saying “lyrics by” instead of “words by.” Irving complained, thinking the new phraseology pretentious. (Don’t remember where I read this. Sorry.)

I feel Irving’s discomfort, but the verbiage is etymologically sound. Song lyrics are, by and large and for the most part more-or-less, lyric poems, as opposed to epic, epigrammatic, philosophical, or dramatic. They’re in the tradition of Sappho rather than Homer, the Greek Anthology, Parmenides, or Aeschylus. They’re all about “I love and I hate,” to quote the paradigmatic Roman lyricist Catullus. And they’re often addressed to “you,” and used to be addressed to “you” a lot more, before Wordsworth (in poetry) and REM (?) (in rock) turned inward, introspective, soliloquacious. (This is mostly cribbed from classics scholar W. R. Johnson’s excellent book, “The Idea of Lyric.”)

Lyric poetry is in the language of feeling, and is somewhat allergic to the language of fact. (Calling Hugh Kenner, whom I blogged about recently; calling Wyndham Lewis, Kenner’s inspiration with his anthology of “bad poetry,” “The Stuffed Owl.”) Facts are fine in poetry, as long as the lyricist (page-poet or song-) feels strongly about the facts and can convey the feeling in her or his idiom.

THIS is what makes me skeptical about novelist-lyricists. Many novelists are described as “lyrical,” but they’re still (by and large for the most part more-or-less) dealing with the language of story and fact more than the language of feeling.

In fact (FACT!), the only recent songs I know with lyrics by a professional proser are a couple songs on the next-to-most-recent Klezmatics CD, with lyrics by playwright and essayist Tony Kushner. Facty lyrics. They don’t really work. But it’s hard to tell whether the fault is in the words themselves, or in their musical setting & delivery. Setting lyrics is a delicate thing, and one thing about Sheryl Crow, she did it real well with that big hit song, and facty and storyfull as those words are, a lyric poet wrote them as a lyric poem.

(Personal note: I’ve set poems by Shakespeare, Dickinson, Mother Goose, Edward Thomas, J. M. Synge, Blake, James Whitcomb Riley, and others to music, as well as theatrical lyrics in plays by Caryl Churchhill and T. S. Eliot. Words words words!) (BTW, Eliot was a kick to work with -- tea breaks during rehearsals, a droll sense of the absurd, sly jokes at the expense of the Roundheads; he originally wanted George Jones to write the music -- a meeting of the Old Possums, but, well, you know.)

Thanks, fellow bloggers, for the gourmet all-you-can-eat-buffet-for-thought.


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