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

Monday, August 23, 2004

NEWS FROM BLOGVILLE: TALKIN' 'BOUT ROCK LYRICS

Sasha Frere-Jones probably started it, by saying (intemperately, by his own later admission) that rock lyrics for the last 15 years have sucked massive ass.

Franklin Bruno said, hey, here’s a whole bunch of people who don’t suck ass, and then he said a bunch of other interesting things.

Carl Wilson jumped in with stuff about, among other things, how now that teen-idol generation of Britney fans are heading off to college, we should be getting some more rockin’ lyrics again -- Springsteen rather than Monkees, for inst. (Actually, Sasha’s original post was inspired by an article by Carl lit rock.)

And Sasha kept on saying interesting things too.

Me, I’m a dilettante, and I haven’t *heard* most of the rockers of the last 15 years, except in passing as I desultorily listen to college radio. (I haven’t even read all the posts in this discussion.) But has mere ignorance ever stopped me from jumping into a fray? No.

So. Non-suck-assitude is a pretty freakin’ low bar. I’m interested in whatever happens to rock my boat, or float it, as befits my sailing conditions. And, as it happens, one of my favorite rock lyrics ever is that of a Monkees song (since Carl Wilson mentioned them), “The Last Train to Clarksville.”

I’d never really thought much about the song, never really even liked it, not nearly as much as other Monkees faves, such as “She” or “Steppin’ Stone” (which my high school band played a la the Sex Pistols’ version) or “For Pete’s Sake,” until I heard Cassandra Wilson’s moody jazzy cover of 10 years ago or so. And hearing her version, I remembered something my old friend John de Roo (lead singer of my band in high school, who introduced me to the Pistols and Dylan and the British Invasion bands, 13 years after the fact in the latter instance, when we were 14 ourselves) told me one night 10 or 15 years after high school: That the Bacharach/David Dionne Warwick classic “I Say A Little Prayer” had been a favorite among American soldiers in Vietnam. If you know the song, you can imagine why: The singer is going through her day, full of its daily details -- putting on makeup, catching the bus to work, taking a coffee break -- and all the while, “I say a little prayer for you.” And that prayer, BANG, it’s explosive, Dionne wailing at a peak of emotion, in a rush of syntax -- together together, forever forever, that’s how it must be, to be without you would only mean heartbreak for me. What in heck is that all about? Ah, her boyfriend (or husband) is a soldier. And he might not come home, ever.

When I heard Cassandra Wilson’s cover of “Clarksville,” a song that had never touched me suddenly did. The singer URGENTLY wants to see his beloved. (I prefer the Monkees’ version, even though I never really HEARD it until Cassandra’s.) He has one more night, he’s leaving, he’s at the train station, they’ll have one more night together, time only for some coffee-flavored kisses and a bit of conversation (great, beautiful detail, and no money for a hotel room), he’s calling his beloved on the payphone, it’s noisy in this lonely railway station and “I’m feeling low. Oh no no no no!” And, crucially, “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.”

And thinking of "I Say A Little Prayer" and the comfort it gave to the freaked out American soldiers in Vietnam, and hearing Cassandra Wilson’s seriousness, it suddenly struck me. The singer’s been drafted. And he’s leaving to report to duty.

Now THAT’S a great song lyric.

(Other possible scenarios don’t make it: He’s leaving to dodge the draft. But he wouldn’t sound so scared. Or, he’s on the lam. But he wouldn’t take the train, and he wouldn’t wait another night. So -- drafted it is.)

Last 15 years -- rock only now -- my favorite lyricist is probably Sheryl Crow. The gorgeous Whitmanesque epiphany at the end of “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun.” The piercing pathos of “If It Makes You Happy.” The exuberantly hopeful sorrow of “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” The awesome line in “Leaving Las Vegas,” bellowing at the top of her lungs, “I’m standing in the middle of the desert waiting for my ship to come in” -- the wit and despair and desperation. (Anyone who says Sheryl Crow isn’t rock -- and they’re out there -- is a metaphysician who isn’t much interested in how music SOUNDS.) (Not to be argumentative or anything.)

My other rock fave lyricists range from quite obscure to totally -- Christie McWilson, formerly of the Picketts (local Seattle, country-rock); Gary Heffern (Seattle singer-songwriter); John de Roo (childhood friend, unsigned singer-songwriter living in Tucson, who’s probably stuck in the Folk genre since he hasn’t had a band in forever and plays solo acoustic). These are the ones who make me think most often, damn, I wish I’d written that.

As for non-suckitude, I tend to prefer teeny bop lyrics to college rock -- open lust and heartache to muffled “je ne sais quoi.”

Cutting the discussion off at 1989 keeps us from what I think is the biggest influence on rock lyrics and rock vocal production of our period -- early REM. They were the ones who popularized obscurity and low vocal mixes. You can really hear it if you surf from college rock to Top 40 to country to Oldies on the radio -- one of these genres is not like the others in that it’s hard to understand the words at all. Or harder, anyway. And that’s REM’s influence.

Words, words, words.



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