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Monday, 3 January 2011

Songwriters and Poets

Every time I tried to tell you,
The words just came out wrong.
So I had to say I love you
In a song
Jim Croce                              

Those involved in creatively making pop and rock music can be divided into a number of categories. There are the classical bands, whose members (or some of them at least) generally write their own songs, record and perform them – bands like the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, REM, U2, Coldplay, etc. There are bands, often put together for commercial purposes, who don’t produce original material and often don’t have much to do with playing it either, a lot of boy and girl groups for example, like New Kids on the Block or The Spice Girls. There are also many solo artists who fall more or less into this category, like Brittney Spears or Justin Timberlake. These need the support of professional songwriters, session musicians and – above all – producers. Producers can indeed be seen as an almost separate category and some of them are of legendary genius; like Phil Spector, George Martin, Brian Eno, Alan Parsons or Quincy Jones.

Alanis Morissette
And then there are the singer-songwriters, in many ways a crossover group into modern music from a much more ancient tradition, the bards and the minstrels. The Germans have a lovely term for them; Liedermacher, songmakers. They are the original man or woman with a guitar (or often a piano – though pianos have the disadvantage of not being particularly portable), the successors of the men with a lute or harp. There’s something pure and honest about them, their whole art being predicated on their original individual ability to create a song and personally reach out to enthral and delight others with their performance of it. Firmly rooted as they are today (well, most of them anyway) within popular music, they form an unbroken tradition going back to Orpheus and Oisín, Homer and David. And what a roll of honour they present to us in the past fifty years!; Billy Joel and Sheryl Crow, John Denver and Joan Armatrading, Donovan and Melissa Etheridge, Don McLean and Kate Bush, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Enya and Elton John. A disproportionate number of the very best are, for some reason, Canadian (and I would be very grateful if anyone could offer a good explanation for this phenomenon); Avril Lavigne, Gordon Lightfoot, Bryan Adams, k.d. lang, Neil Young, Alanis Morissette.

Ah, but you are certainly thinking, he has left most of the very greatest out! This is because, in my opinion, there is only a small group of true royalty among the musical aristocracy of singer-songwriters who can also be truly regarded as poets.

Spontaneously one might tend to regard every songwriter as a poet, yet good poetry and songs do not necessarily go easily together. Of course, at a very basic level, the lyrics of every song are a kind of poetry, dependent as they generally are on very strict adherence to rhythm and, usually, rhyme. But the poetic possibilities of songs are limited by the very form of the song itself and the poetry becomes just one element among many in the synergy of factors which makes a song “work.” This is even more the case in modern pop or rock where the character of the performers, the interplay of the instruments and all the digital possibilities of the sound-studio come into play – not to mention issues like video or the theatrical planning and execution of live shows. And sometimes, working too hard on the poetic possibilities of a text is just pretentious and silly. Consider

Sweet Loretta modern thought she was a woman,
But she was another man.
All the girls around her say she’s got it comin’
But she gets it while she can.
Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged;
Get back, get back, get back to where you started from.”

It’s stupid, pretty devoid of any deeper sense and certainly not the most poetic of Lennon and McCartney’s efforts. But it’s not important because, in the whole musical context of the song, it does its job. (As an aside, Lennon – the better poet of the two – jokingly suggested the alternative, “Sweet Loretta modern thought she was a woman, but she was a frying pan.”)

But the greatest of the singer-songwriters are possessed of the genius to be able to marry good poetry with arresting images and language, metaphors and expressions which pull you up, leave you amazed, wondering, awestruck, wanting to weep, with the music so that the whole becomes something very special indeed.

Looking at a few of these true creative giants, I suppose you have to start with Dylan. The only problem with His Bobness is that some may regard it as a little charitable to describe him as a singer-songwriter, since his singing prowess is … limited (I’ve written on this before here). But as to his poetic qualities – when he is at his best – there can be no doubt. Out of dozens of songs which I could take to illustrate that, let’s just revel in one verse of Mr. Tambourine Man – though if you really want a good jingle jangle version of the song, listen to the cover by The Byrds

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

The next musical poet I want to take a glance at is Paul Simon. Simon has a beautiful sense for language and themes and a genius for mixing them with an unerring sense of melody and subtle and refined musical arrangements. One could take half a dozen examples from his time with Art Garfunkel – I am a Rock immediately comes to mind – but the opening line of his solo hit Graceland stands alone as sufficient witness to great poetic skill

The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar …

These nine words have so many resonances they just leave you dizzy.

Suzanne Vega
Although she’s not as famous as the others I’m looking at here, Suzanne Vega is one of my favourites. She too is a poet-singer-songwriter with a great feeling for themes and the language and music to give them deep expression. Luka is a heart-wrenching treatment of the theme of child-battering and the wonderful voyeur image of the woman hitching up her skirt to straighten her stockings in Tom’s Diner gives the picture-poem a realistic immediacy which is unsurpassed. As a small example of her poetic prowess I’ve chosen an extract from one of her less well-known songs, playing with an arresting image which leaves you savouring it for a long time afterwards

Today I am
A small blue thing
Like a marble
Or an eye

With my knees against my mouth
I am perfectly round
I am watching you

I am cold against your skin
You are perfectly reflected
I am lost inside your pocket
I am lost against
Your fingers

But at the summit of this musical Olympus, playing the roles of Hera and Zeus are – inevitably perhaps – two more Canadians, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Joni’s music is exciting, challenging and, for someone who sings and plays a modest bit of guitar himself, often quite difficult to cover. This is because, like every singer-songwriter, Mitchell writes primarily for herself and her own voice and style and her music, with various influences, is multi-layered. She is also renowned for using numerous strange open tunings on her guitar, a phenomenon she herself calls “Joni’s weird chords.” But she has also written beautiful more accessible songs and Both Sides, Now belongs for me to that select number of songs the singing of which have helped me win a way to a girl’s heart. The example I’ve chosen here is an excerpt from Chelsea Morning, a sensuous celebration of spontaneous unworried love

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and
the first thing that I knew
There was milk and toast and honey
and a bowl of oranges, too
And the sun poured in like butterscotch
and stuck to all my senses
Oh, won't you stay
We'll put on the day
And we'll talk in present tenses

When the curtain closes and the rainbow runs away
I will bring you incense owls by night
By candlelight
By jewel-light
If only you will stay
Pretty baby, won't you
Wake up, it's a Chelsea morning

And the greatest of them all, at least for me, is Leonard Cohen. He’s been back on the road for the past couple of years and his concerts are reported to be something very special. Cohen has always been a poet and writer, as well as a songwriter and performer. It’s over thirty years since I came across his novel Beautiful Losers in a second-hand bookshop and I remember being deeply impressed at the beauty of his literary style. But even before that I had been deeply impressed by his music.

Leonard Cohen
I started teaching myself guitar at the age of sixteen and some of Cohen’s songs were among the earliest I attempted. They were good, not too difficult to play – rudimentarily at least – and offered the additional hopeful prospect (never far from the male 16-year-old mind) of helping win the way to girls’ hearts – and other interesting parts of their anatomies. What I did not know then – how could I? – is that while it’s quite easy to play and sing Cohen, it is another matter to play and sing Cohen well, not because the songs are so musically difficult in themselves (they aren’t) but because the depth and beauty of his songs demand respect, practice, hard work and a certain degree of self-knowledge and honesty to begin to interpret them adequately. You’ve had to have some experience of love, and women, and the world before you can even begin to understand what songs like So long, Marianne, Hey, that’s no Way to say Goodbye, or Suzanne are really about.

Some can write and sing beautifully and frankly about sex (arguably Cohen’s most famous musical description is that of his affair with Janis Joplin in Chelsea Hotel: “You were talking so brave and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.”) Some can write beautifully and frankly about God. Only Cohen can do both in three short lines (maybe you have to be Jewish to be able to do this!)

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah is an amazing song, written by Cohen in the 80s, long after he had composed most of his other classics, and at the foot of this post I’m putting a sublime live cover of it by k.d. lang. I have one friend who never tires of quoting

There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

And there’s depth enough of meaning in that to meditate on for quite a while.

But I’ll finish this with the last verse of Suzanne, another marvellous word-picture in a song-poem full of beautiful images. They don’t get better than this

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.



If you really want to pig-out on music, there’s a song behind every link - though because Sony won't let me access stuff they have title to in Germany, I wasn't always able to get the YouTube version I wanted -  (just click on the words in purple, but do it with a right-mouse click and open a new tab, otherwise you’ll have to keep reloading here). If you don’t have the time or inclination for that, do take the time at least for k.d.’s Halleluja. Believe me, it’s worth it.

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