Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Garden of Words: Song Lyrics are 'Writing,' and We Remember the Words

            If song lyrics are a kind of literature, then the Nobel Prize Committee is right. Bob Dylan is a Nobel Prize quality songwriter. Frankly, measured against living American writers in any genre, whose voice has had a bigger impact?
            Novelist Michael Chabon made the case a a few years ago in an essay published in "The New York Review of Books" that song lyrics are a kind of literature. Not the same kind as poetry, and they live harnessed to their music. But their own kind or category of literature. I thought that was a brilliant insight and still do. Has there really been a more influential American writer than Dylan in the last 50-plus years?
            Chabon, the author of "Werewolves in Their Youth," "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay," and "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" -- to choose my three favorites out of more than a dozen works of fiction -- examines his own literary influences in the essay titled "Let It Rock." He recalls receiving a book of song lyrics from an English teacher, in which he was happy to find the printed lyrics by songwriters such as Dylan, Joanie Mitchell and others. From this anthology of influential songs by Sixties-type songwriters he learned that the first line of Dylan's fairly early lyrical ballad "Chimes of Freedom Flashing," a song whose lyrics I've wrestled with myself, was actually “far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll”....that is, not "broken toe," an image that had caused him some pondering. Now I kind of like "midnight's broken toe" -- you know, midnight stumbles out of bed and bumps into the china closet, causing a heavy earthen keepsake from an old potter friend's first year on the wheel to fall off the shelf and land right on the toe. Some late nights feel that way... 
              Let's be honest. Those of us who loved songs in our youth -- whether 'werewolvian' or Wordsworthian -- embraced what we were hearing even if we were not hearing it completely right.
            Nevertheless, Chabon has a larger point to make: "Now when I think about [a teacher] and the book he gave me, back when he was trying to teach me how to be a poet, the question of whether or not Dylan’s lyrics are poetry feels irrelevant. Dylan’s lyrics are writing, and as writing they have influenced my own writing as much as if not more than the work of any poet," apart from a special few. "In fact, song lyrics in general have arguably mattered to and shaped me more, as a writer, than novels or short stories written by any but the most crucial of my literary heroes."
            The key idea is that song lyrics are writing. They are a kind of literature that is not identical to poems written to be read by themselves, unaccompanied by the other elements songs are necessarily part of -- the music, and the act of singing.
            I want to make two other borrowings from Chabon's marvelously predictive essay that bear on the question of whether the Nobel prize for "Literature" can reasonably be awarded to a songwriter. (If you want to read the entire essay here's the link: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/07/11/let-it-rock/)
            He points out that song lyrics stripped of their aesthetic identity as songs and left naked on the page frequently fail to make the grade as poems:
            "I saw that rock lyrics could not really be poetry because when you took away the melody, the instrumentation, and above all the voice of the singer, a song lyric just kind of huddled there on a page looking plucked and forlorn, like Foghorn Leghorn after a brush with the Tasmanian Devil."
            A sentence, if I may put in my two cents here, that shows a novelist's flair for the kick in the pants life-giving image.
            My last take-away from Chabon's essay involves an admission that many (if not all) of us given a youth in the era of classic rock or its succeeding decades will probably cop to: committing to memory many more song lyrics than lines of 'great' poetry.
             "Song lyrics [Chabon writes] are part of my literary firmware, programmed permanently into my read-only memory.... Not just words: writing. Tropes and devices, rhetorical strategies, writerly techniques, entire structures of allusion and imagery: entire skeins of the synapses in my cerebral cortex by now are made up entirely of all this unforgettable literature."
            This is simple truth. I can't remember my own poems nearly as well as I can summon lines and sometimes whole verses and choruses of the songs consumed by a youthful psyche. Memory is a talent of youth. Particularly exact memorization. Knowing all or most of the words of a song that stirred us, and may still do, is a function of hearing them over and over again. But what else have young people done since the dawn of electronic media but play (or wait for) their songs and listen to and dig them again and again? In the days when the transistor radio was your only personal app you waited for the Top 40 station to play your song yet again. Then you switched to the next top 40 station on the dial in the hope of catching it there.  
            In the digital age, you already 'possess' this song somewhere and you play it whenever you've got a spare minute. If you have a lot minutes you are free (as Spottify, for one, exults) to play it "again and again and again."
            And since song lyrics in this age of the world have an especially strong appeal in our youth, those that have imprinted their strategies, techniques, allusions and imagery on the brains on those who read and/or write literature throughout our lives... are still around. When I think of the lyrics that "speak to me," I realize they began speaking to me more decades ago than I care to remember. For example:

"... Even when Germany fell to you hand,
consider dear lady, consider dear man,
you left them their pride and you left them your land,
But what have you done for these ones?"
"Break up, To make up, That's all we do/ ...
That's a game for fools."
"Baby, baby, bay, where did our love go? .. . ..."
"... Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Did you think that it could?"
[And pretty much every other line in "Masters of War." Which, it pains to realize, is as completely relevant today as it ever was.]
"Same as it ever was"
"You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four letter word"
[as recorded by Joan Baez]
"All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
The wind began to howl"
(Preferably Hendrix version: If you've ever read any fantasy novels, that's what they all say, only they take hundreds of pages to get there.)
"My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
should I leave them by your gate?
Or, sad-eyed lady should I wait?"
"Your faith was strong but you needed proof.
You saw her bathing on the roof.
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you..."
"I keep hearin' mother cryin'
I keep hearin' daddy through his grave
'Little girl, of all the daughters
You were born a woman
Not a slave'..."
"He's the universal soldier/ and he really is to blame/ His orders come far away no more/ They come from him and yo and me/ and brothrs can't you see/' this is not the way we put an end to war." ....

"Got up some time in the afternoon
And you didn't feel like much"
[Judy Collins version]
"I am leaving/ I am leaving/
but the boxer still remains." 
[Don't we all, though?]
"The dangling conversations and the superficial sighs..."
"And take off your thirsty boots,and stay for a while/
 your feet are hot and thirsty/ from a dusty mile."
(I had no boots. I walked no dusty miles. Did Eric Anderson? But he wrote this song and something in me believed it was intrinsically true.)
"I'm so glad, I'm so glad
I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad" 
"To be where I'm going/
In the sunshine of your love."
"Come, hear Uncle John's Band/ by the riverside
Got some things to think about/ here beside the rising tide..." 
There are scores and scores of these song lines, lyrical fragments,  including some I can't recall without a prompt, but often do return when some phrase, or image, or musical phrase starts them up inside my memory, brain, or whatever part of one's heart will always be "tangled up in blue." The first two or three notes will serve. The first two syllables uttered in a crooner's voice.
            Chabon's most original point may be that these permanently imprinted influences serve the creator/thinker/feeler within you ("and without you") by demonstrating what language is capable of. So do poems, novels, short stories, essays and even the occasional column in a newspaper or magazine. To me this recognition puts an end to the argument over whether song lyrics belong to the category of written literature or not.
            They obviously do, they are arrangements of words.         They get hold of some nexus of sense and sound; of brain cell and emotive response. And they don't let go.

[From the top: The songwriters of the lyrics above, in order: Buffie St. Marie; Stylistics; Supremes; Bob Dylan; Talking Heads; Dylan, Dylan, Dylan; Leonard Cohen; Laura Nyro; Buffie St.Marie; Judy Collins version of Leonard Cohen's song; Paul Simon, Paul Simon; Eric Anderson; Cream re-arrangement of Gospel song; Cream; Grateful Dead]