by carl wilson

Right In Front of All the Blogboys

Franklin Bruno steps up with a list of Current Rock Lyricists Who Fail To Suck Massive Ass that is pretty close to the one I'd assemble, though I'd put Franklin himself on the list as much more than an afterthought.

Which brings a semi-demi-mea-culpa, reflection-on-the-from-the-hip-nature-of-blogs (of which fair'nuff) and mocking reference to The View from SFJ, although he still thinks rock lyrics suck ass.

Now, he may be right that Pavement has wreaked havoc by licensing gibberishy stuff - but that doesn't mean Malkmus didn't make a lot of scores along the way. I hate the snicker-snicker lyrics about the Smashing Pumpkins, but I sure like, "I was dressed for success/ But success it never comes" (Here) or "Glance, dont stare/ Soon youre being told to recognize your heirs/ No, not me/ Im an island of such great complexity/ Stress surrounds/ In the muddy peaceful center of this town/ Tell me off in the hotel lobby/ Right in front of all the bellboys/ And the over-friendly concierge" (Shady Lane).

R. Buckner, whom both FB and SFJ praise in their different ways, is a big Malkmus-lyrics fan. Buckner also likes Bill Callahan (Smog), who's not on Franklin's list, and I'd add, for instance, Jay Farrar although SFJ almost certainly wouldn't. (Plus he is way wrong on David Thomas [pic above]. So there.)

But beyond all our listmaker-collector trivial pursuits lurks the question of what makes a good lyric anyway. Can we agree right now that it has almost nothing to do with how it reads on the page? (That's what Greg's spam-lyrics quiz points up. And by the way, most spam-like lyrics award definitely goes to the Fall. It's not nec. a bad thing.) Franklin sometimes talks about the way the rhythms of good lyrics will sound conversational when matched with the music, but that's a rule so often honoured in the breach (from Merritt to MF Doom) I'm not sure what to do with it except to say good lyrics almost always demonstrate an awareness of how people speak.

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.

I've written about this a couple of times. Once was an earlier stab at the Lit Rock theme, in 2002, about the false battle of lyrics-vs-poetry - I'll post it after the "Read More" button for those who really want to get into it. The other was in a column about Lambchop (see FB's list) that includes this passage:

Then lead singer Kurt Wagner, who helms this house-party-cum-orchestra, enters in his singular, half-spoken drawl: "Well thank you thank you very much/ Little spiders making little webs/ Nuts is what you have become/ Kind of fractured of the facts."

Whom he's thanking or for what is unclear, since these lines follow a half-verse (about an "albino butterfly") that didn't amount to much. Whether the "you" he's thanking is the same "you" that's off its rocker, or one is a kind of "I" - well, who knows?

What counts is the disturbingly pleasant way these lines fall, as if on the back of the listener's neck or some other tender part, someplace where true gratitude and sarcasm blur, where cool savvy could quickly become complete lunacy.

The moment is re-enacted at 2:50, but it pales the second time. For one thing, it lacks the dubbed second voice echoing Wagner's words a split-second behind, like a doppelganger - the only time on the song that effect is used. Besides, as so often on Is a Woman, interest has been worn down by repetition.

But I'm still left hum-singing, "Thank you thank you very much," or sometimes an Elvisian "Thank you thank you thank you very much" just for fun. It's like the day a few weeks back when I left a show compulsively chanting "Or-nette Cole-man/ Or-nette Cole-man," in the cadence that the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble had kept going for half-an-hour.

Aboutness is overrated. What lingers of art is often not deep analysis or complex narrative, but perfect fragments - Lou Reed's "coloured girls" going doot, doot-doot, doot-doot. Great songwriters line those moments up like dominoes, and they needn't even follow logically. They fall where they must.

Great art moments are solid and clear, in sensation if not sense, sculpted the way Inuit carvers supposedly do it: To get a seal, you carve away all the stone that's not a seal. Art appears when you've done enough, but may vanish again if you go too far.

All right. Enough from me. Old column on the flip.

Anyway, consensus of the day: Darnielle rules.


SCENE: The sounds of poetic licence

9 May 2002
The Globe and Mail
Metro R8

When you give your band a name like Rainer Maria, after German symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you're really asking for it.

You risk coming off like those young would-be writers who name their dogs Emily Dickinson and their cats Young Werther and dress in pyjama tops or carry walking sticks and collect kitschy signs from restaurants as "found poetry."

(My own recent favourite is from a novelty shop in Yorkville, in which spray cans that claim to issue an, er, hilariously suspicious stench are flanked by notices in block letters: "DO NOT TRY. No matter how curious you are. Trust us, it really does smells bad. Parents, watch your children. Adults, watch yourselves." Volumes of tragic desk-clerk experience, summoned up in so few words.)

It only gets worse when people find out your drummer (Bill Kuehn) and guitarist (Kyle Fischer) were previously in a band named Ezra Pound. And that the guitarist met the bass player (Caithlin De Marrais) in an actual university poetry seminar in Wisconsin, and now they've been dating for an oh-so-not-rock 'n' roll six years and live in New York.

Strike three comes when you write songs like The Contents of Lincoln's Pockets: "At the time of his assassination: Two pairs of spectacles, a lens polisher, a pocket knife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief, a brown leather wallet containing $5 in confederate money and nine newspaper clippings. This here is Walt Whitman's pen. . . . You've never been hit before. How can you deal with that kind of information?"

But one question remains. Say you also play loose, febrile, electric punk guitar and feature a singer, De Marrais, who can infuse those precocious words with the blue burn of a gas furnace, whose voice sounds like something biting off its leash and running for the wild? Say you perform tonight at the Horseshoe in Toronto (370 Queen St. West, $8, 416-598-4753, with Jim Guthrie and the Carnations), and even someone who doesn't listen to lyrics suddenly notices his neck tensing, a little ache in the corners of his eyes?

Then are you still pretentious twits?

The underlying debate here, about songs versus poetry, is weirdly never-ending and utterly undistinguished by any kind of aesthetic honesty. It's the besotted against the snots, the wide-eyed poptimists against the defenders of the citadel -- cheers versus sneers, and whoever's scorn is snappiest wins.

I first encountered it in a used bookstore where I came upon a battered 1969 paperback, The Poetry of Rock, edited by the Village Voice music critic Richard Goldstein, who did nobody any favours by including the drivel of Jim Morrison and Procol Harum alongside the more plausible Dylan and Chuck Berry.

The blather rises again every time Paul McCartney or Lou Reed -- or the best-selling poet of our time, painfully enough, Jewel -- comes out with a book, practically to the point that you want to sit critics down and say, "How did this book hurt you, exactly? Did some mean old bully smack you on the back of the skull with it this morning? If not, mind if I do now?"

That these books mostly are horrible dreck, and that most lyrics do not and aren't meant to survive severing from the music, are such obvious points that I nearly fell asleep in the middle of typing them.

So is the fact that poetry has been oral, and often set to music, for more of history than not. Or that by any literal definition most lyrics simply are poetry when they're printed out; the question is whether they're useful poetry to body and soul.

The written and sung run about even in those stats. Most people just know more bad songs than bad poems.

Finally, contemporary poetry includes countless forms -- poetry written in grunts, in Klingon, in diamond shapes, in collage fragments, in aphasic decomposing monologue -- far more cracked than are dreamt of in rock's philosophies. Spouting technical metrics means less than nothing. And hell, no less a prig than T. S. Eliot had the nerve to say the best line of iambic pentameter in English was not in Shakespeare but in W. C. Handy's St. Louis Blues: "I hate to see that evening sun go down."

Really, the whole argument is about who gets to wear the musty crown of Poet, a designation nobody with a decent haircut wants nowadays anyway except when someone tells them they can't have it.

Many of the best poets in rock -- David Berman of the Silver Jews, whose book is even better than his albums, or David Thomas of Pere Ubu, for instance -- are careful to mock themselves in advance: "Listen," Thomas warns. "Here comes the poetry!/ 'I'm a cave with the wind inside'/ 'I'm a shell with the sound of the surf inside!'/ What?!/ What's the point, hunh?/ Don't be no misery goat!"

Others take it so earnestly it can kill them. The brilliant Shane MacGowan, once of the Pogues, has drowned his gift so deep in the myth of the drunken Irish poet that his performances are like watching a battered ship run aground. (Wednesday at Lee's Palace, 529 Bloor St. West, $27.50, 416-532-1598.)

Meanwhile, Andrew Motion, the British poet laureate, makes a simple observation: "Boys who would rather be seen dead than reading poetry do lie around on their bedroom floors reading song lyrics." A long-time Dylan fan, Motion used one U.K. National Poetry Week to poll Brits' favourite song lyrics, which amounted to a free bonus for every satirist snob in the British press.

I only know that if poetry's going to be done out loud -- and surely we sometimes want it to be, to balance, against our private visits with the page, some shared trips into the dizzy heights of our common language -- most of the time I'd rather hear it with a beat and a band, a verse rapped rather than declaimed in "spoken word."

When the sometimes strained, sometimes inspired poetry of Rainer Maria comes to me through the voice of Caithlin De Marrais, it makes a compelling effort to answer the prayer of Rilke himself -- "From me, and all of this, to make, Lord/ Some single thing."

Who cares what the classifiers call it?

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Friday, August 20 at 1:32 PM | Linking Posts




Zoilus by Carl Wilson