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

Thursday, August 26, 2004


The most immediate regret is a too-hasty comment last night about the folly of describing and prescribing what makes good song words. In my haste I missed that the instigator of this rocksongword discussion, Carl Wilson, had made some good, positive suggestions on the topic, to wit: “My inclination, I think, is toward lyrics that do two things: 1. amplify musical effect, by their own inherent musicality and compatibility or contrast with their setting; and 2. offer something emotionally or intellectually unexpected. In general lyrics need to give you substance without giving so much substance that they overcrowd - you can lead up to the killer line with a lot of vague atmospherics or even cliches, then yank the scaffolding out with a turn of phrase, a pun, whatever ammo you've got.”

This makes sense to me but something nags that it's not exhaustive, and I doubt that Carl would suggest that it is. One of the best lyrics I ever heard: About 5 years ago, listening to the local high-school-student-run dance music station, a heavy riffing techno tune with one line repeated over and over, a woman wailing: "Remember me? I'm the one who had your baby." It made me cry.

Another regret: A few nights ago I made some sardonic ironic remarks about Bob Hope’s role as a wartime entertainer. Around the time he died, I watched some of those TV tributes. He could be funny, he could sing, he could dance, and -- humblingly -- he had the courage of his convictions. He put himself in harm’s way to entertain people he believed in. My sardonicism is sheer sneering arrogance. (I’ve gone back & edited the comment out; suppressed it; something I rarely do.)

On to amplifications. Regarding early REM’s difficult-to-decipher words, Franklin Bruno makes the following very interesting observation: “Stipe banning ‘I’ and ‘you’ for a couple key years (not denying the lyric self, I think, but doing an end run against the most uncritical ways of constructing one).” Which strikes me as a move reminiscent of Mallarme’s reticent hermeticism. It’s still lyric, yes yes.

Poet Jordan Davis, as well as saying all sorts of other interesting things on his blog, points out that “Stipe always acknowledged Wire, Roky, and Robyn Hitchcock as his leaders in willful obscurity.” Didn’t know that either; happy to learn it. To which I would add (as a precursor if not a consciously regarded influence on Stipe) the Jagger of “Get Off Of My Cloud” -- probably an influence on Roky too.

Amplification 2: After listing my few favorite rock lyricists of the last 15 years, I thought of two more, slightly less obscure (though much more obscure than Sheryl Crow): NYC (now Nashville) country-rock singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, and Fred Cole of Portland’s classic punk band Dead Moon. My initial list consisted of one megastar, two local Seattle writers, and an old friend. The second layer of listing includes a Portland writer who’s played Seattle many many times (great shows) and a singer on whose debut album my oldest friend in the world played guitar. This local-personal focus leads me to believe that there are probably a lot of other really good lyricists out there, and I have no reason to doubt the quality of Franklin Bruno’s or Jessica’s lists.

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