Monday, December 7, 2009


Neil Young--"Words" (mp3)

I was driving back to school after picking up some doughnuts for my advisee group the other morning, when I started looking through Ipod songs for one to kick off the shuffle back to campus. In the "R"s, there were the Doors waiting with "Roadhouse Blues." Seemed like a good choice. Hadn't heard it in a long time. So off we went. Good driving song, harmonica, basic blues pattern, distinctive guitar licks, Jim Morrison, the whole package. And then late in the song, the lyrics distilled into this:

"Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.
Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.
The future's uncertain, and the end is always near."

Yeah, I thought. Now we're at the crux of the matter. It's not just fun and games anymore. Now we're back in the mead hall with Hrothgar and his men, knowing that Grendel could bust in anytime he wanted to. By title, by subject matter, "Roadhouse Blues" seems like a girls-n-partying kind of song if you don't pay attention, but there's always at least a little more to a Doors song.

I think it was Eddie Murphy who used to do a schtick about how white people listen to lyrics and black people don't. He made the point in the context of why white people can't dance. They're focused on the wrong thing and missing the rhythm. But if that accusation is still out there, mark me down as 'guilty.'

I can't help but listen to the lyrics. I'm obsessed with them. I doubt that this comes as a surprise to those of you who know me or have read this blog for awhile and found me trying to squeeze deep meaning out of the nearly-dry sponge of a cheesy Jackson Browne song. I used to try to make sense of the early, impressionistic R.E.M. songs, which might not have made any sense at all. But, at least, I knew the words.

Often, I am disappointed when I know that there is a good line coming in a song and I try to get someone I'm with to listen, but people have other things to say, other things to think about (and maybe their own favorite words), and so something else will come up before we get to the line. Lyrics, I guess, are meant to be mulled over in private, to be dissected and applied privately.

But a lyric freak wants more. He wants to world to pay attention to the "poetry" that goes along with the melody and the beat. He wants the recognition that popular music can offer insights worth more than a momentary consideration, insights that are worth coming back to again and again. Often, the insights come in small snatches, couplets or turns of phrase or pithy sayings. I always think of Dylan's genius of insight in "Positively 4th Street:"

"I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes;
You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

But sometimes, somebody builds an entire song where he or she is really trying to say something, even say something amidst a mid-tempo, a variety of guitars, a good-rocking sound. Take a look at this little gem of a passage that opens Aimee Mann's very last song, "It's Not Safe," off of I'm With Stupid:

"All you want to do is something good,
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood.
'Cause don't you know that you're a fucking freak in this world
In which everybody's willing to choose swine over pearls?
And maybe everything is all for nothing,
Still you'd better keep it to yourself,
'Cause God knows it's not safe with anybody else."

I can almost imagine someone cruising along with Aimee in the background, not paying attention, just kind of going, "Da da da da da da da, duh da da da da da da da da da da da da, duh da da da da da da fucking freak da da....wait, what?" Yeah, there's insight and powerful words there worth stopping for.

You know, popular music doesn't have to be an either/or, as in, either 'I like songs that make me move' or 'I like songs that make me think.' Well, I guess some of it does. But when you listen to the lyrics as a matter of habit, you not only enjoy the good ones, you get to make fun of the stupid ones. But those moments are hardly worth mentioning; all of us have been tuned in a little too carefully to some crappy words. Instead, I prefer to dwell on the opposite--those moments when the words shine, when the songwriter transcends the form and offers us true wisdom. That's the joy of listening to the lyrics.

Neil Young's "Words," from Harvest, is available at Itunes.


Daisy said...

Love this post! I too am lyric obsessed. I was once told that everyone needs a theme song. I'm not sure that I have a theme song, but I have a mental collection of lines and lyrics that have defined me over time. Do you have a theme song?

troutking said...

I love this post too. I don't think I have a theme song but I like that idea of a collection of lines and lyrics. Maybe part of the reason we seize upon certain lines or a couple lines is because the whole song has to be more about what the artist intends, but a couple lines can be interpreted to mean something personally to us. The first lyrics to really hit home to me are a good example. In college (yes, that's late but that happens when you spend high school listening to Huey Lewis, Bryan Adams, etc), I first heard Bob Dylan's My Back Pages. The closing line of the chorus "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" really spoke to that time in my life. I know the whole song is about his alienation from folk music and political activism, but to me those lines spoke to my learning to have fun and enjoy life after a repressed, grade-obsessed high school career. Today, probably my most repeated song lyric mantra is from Elvis Costello's Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes: "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused." It works better than "serenity now!"

Billy said...

Individual songs are better as snapshots into a single moment or memory or era, don't you think? Hard for a single song to comprise a life. So yeah, I also find myself compiling lyric snippets.

The longest-running part of my "life" collection is from Bruce's "Better Days": "A life of leisure and a pirate's treasure don't make much for tragedy. / It's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin and can't stand the company."

troutking said...

We work at the same place. How do you have a "life of leisure and a pirate's treasure"?????

Billy said...

Leisure and treasure are relative. I've been to Kenya. Many days I feel pretty leisurely and quite wealthy.

Other days I stare at Guidestar and cry.

cinderkeys said...

Hey, as a songwriter, I'm glad *somebody* listens to the lyrics. It's weird sometimes. I slave over some line, wanting it to say something meaningful and beautiful, something that will make the listener think ... then realize that almost no one who listens to the song will really hear it.

jed said...

i think that lyrics are a very private thing, unless it's Sir Mix-A-Lot.