It’s always bothered me that I can’t write a song. Not one. I’ve been playing piano for over 20 years and I just don’t have whatever genius it takes to come up with music and lyrics on my own. I can play other people’s stuff and sound really great, but never have I sat down and seriously composed anything.
My brother is likely to point out that I have, in fact, in my life, written two songs, but I don’t know that a verse consisting of two chords and the repeated lyric "This is not a happy home, oh dear" really qualifies.
So I’m somewhat jealous of people like my friend Michael, who just think up lyrics and melodies while sitting on the subway. The only thing I ever think of on the subway is, "Hey, that girl’s not wearing a bra," or "Did I want uptown or downtown," or "Damn, she caught me staring."
For me, I think, the thing is the melody just never pops into my mind. I could probably write at least passable lyrics (hey, I write one of these a month; I would just have to get it to rhyme). Lyrics, in fact, are often a major reason why I like a song. A specific line, sometimes, has even redeemed a song that I would have otherwise found mediocre.
I know there are people out there who hate Billy Joel with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but it’s hard to deny that some of his lyrics are fairly well authored. I always loved his song Close to the Borderline for nothing more than, "I got real close friends that are gettin’ me high/They don’t know how to talk and they ain’t gonna try/I shouldn’t bitch/I shouldn’t cry/I’d start a revolution, but I don’t have time."
Another favorite of mine is a Jim Steinman song called Surf’s Up. Not only is it terribly pretty, but you have to admire a writer who can pen a beautiful song about being with the girl you love on the beach and still include the refrain "Surf’s up/and so am I." It actually took me a few listens before I said, "Wait a minute…."
So I listen to these guys, and I feel fairly inferior. I can’t even come up with an "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." Of course Lennon had dropped two tabs of acid before coming up with that gem. And before you Beatles fans get on my case, I am the Walrus might actually be my favorite Fab Four moment. I would love to be the guy who wrote "Elementary penguin/singing Hari-Krishna/man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe."
As you can see, while my songwriting abilities are about on a par with my childbearing abilities, as a student of the written word, I love lyrics. My advice for today, hidden in the middle of this column (yes, you’re only halfway done) is for any aspiring pop culture writer or journalist: study your song lyrics. Tons of ideas have floated through my head because of something I heard on the radio or something I discovered buried in some random track on one of my CDs.
Sometimes what hits me are really well-phrased lines like the John Faye Power Trip’s Miss Catch-22: "The coast is never clear/I didn’t volunteer/to never get to hear/ The trouble in your mind/I keep an open blind./I’m caught between the lines/Of what you leak/and what I’ll find."
Other times, it’s the absurdity of a lyric, as in Phish’s Cavern: "Exploding then, through fields and fen/and swimming in the mire/The septic maiden’s gargoyle tooth/demented me with fire…/the flesh from Satan’s dogs/will make the rudiments of gruel/Deduct the carrots from your pay/you worthless, swampy fool."
‘Course those are just a couple of lines that do it for me; maybe your favorites are "smokin’ the kind buds/kickin’ back in the sand/in the sun" or "I could hide beneath the wings/of the bluebird as she sings" or "I’m the cream of the crop/I rise to the top."
When you finally come down to it, it’s all about finding what inspires you and embracing it. Yes! Yes! Carpe Formicam!
(Actually, I believe that means "Seize the Ant." I didn’t mean anything by it. Sorry.)
One final thought: I just felt I couldn’t end this column without paying homage to those artists whom I felt missed the mark on a specific occasion. Maybe they were trying a little too hard to be meaningful. Maybe they were having an off day. Maybe I’m just petty and I like to point out the shortcomings of others. Ironically, all of the lines in my top 5 list come from relatively popular songs; I’m pretty sure they’d all be on these artists’ respective "Best Of" collection. They are (in no particular order):
1) "Do I really feel the way I feel?" – Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis. Why yes, Marc, I expect you feel exactly the way you feel.
2) "Until it ends, there is no end." – Cyndi Lauper, All Through the Night. But after it ends…that’s when the ending really starts.
3) "Only time will tell if we stand the test of time." – Van Halen, Why Can’t This Be Love? Oooh, Sammy. That’s way deep, dude.
4) "Just sweet sixteen and now you’re gone/ They’ve taken you away/I’ll never kiss your lips again/they buried you today." – Mark Dinning, Teen Angel. Eeew. I know fewer of you probably recognize this one than the others, but eeew. (Actually, the award really goes to Jean Surrey & Red Surrey who wrote the song. Keep in mind, it did reach #1 in 1960.)
5) "You’re so vain/you probably think this song is about you." – Carly Simon, You’re So Vain. There are rumors about who the subject of the song is. Whoever Carly was really singing it to is irrelevant. Ultimately, he probably thinks it’s about him because it is. Duh.
So there you go. My top five. Remember, there’s a lot you can learn from song writers, both good and bad. And just because it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it doesn’t mean it can't also be the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. Amen.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.10.00 @ 2:10a
Good lord. I thought I was the only person in the world who knew who Jim Steinman was. Wanna get together for coffee?
7.10.00 @ 9:36a
Actually, turns out Steinman graduated Amherst with my uncle. I hear he was a strange, strange guy, even then. For me, it's all about "Total Eclipse".
Oh, and coffee? Sure. Do you live close by, or will we be doing this in a mid-point, like Kentucky?
7.10.00 @ 9:44a
I wrote bad songs in junior high, at the same time I was writing bad poetry and bad short stories. You should maybe be glad you didn't indulge that desire. I came up with "For Amanda your smile is as sweet as the sun/For me as cold as ice/And when you threw my heart away/It wasn't very nice." Ageless, timeless, senseless.
7.10.00 @ 10:25a
As someone who wrote bad songs in junior high and still writes bad songs today (but with less frequency, I might add), I find that the more obscure the lyrics are, the more of a genius one is considered to be. For exhibit I present Paul Westerberg, Evan Dando, J. Robbins, Kurt Cobain, and Bob Mould. To counter, I present Rush.
7.10.00 @ 10:31a
I'd also like to add, and I know this might turn into a lyricfest, but Andy Partridge from XTC blew me away lyrically again: "Don't you know/ 'bout a zillion years ago/ Some star sneezed now they're paging you in reception/ Don't you know/ Jack-and-jillion years ago/ Some dinosaur dropped the pail when it saw our reflection/ Don't you know/ We're all light/ Yeah, I read that someplace" - I'm plugging XTC's new Wasp Star.
7.10.00 @ 12:45p
Okay. a) Are you giving an exception or saying that Rush's lyrics suck? Because Spirit of Radio is actually pretty clever: "Invisible airwaves crackle with life/bright antennae bristle with the engergy/emotional feedback/this timeless wavelength/bearing a gift beyond price/almost free". I like that description. b) are you saying that the lyrics have to be obscure, or that the artist has to be obscure? c) Whatever happened to Bruce Springsteen's epic poetry, seriously? Listen to For You and then listen to I'm Going Down. I'm not saying that I like one better than the other, but lyrically, there's no contest.
7.10.00 @ 1:16p
I think Joe's saying that if people don't understand the lyrics they think it must be brilliant writing. (A generalizable phenomenon, also applicable to Toni Morrison's Paradise.) My counterexample would be LEN's "Steal My Sunshine," which just really really doesn't make sense. "And the fuzzy stare/from the gleaming tare/just staring at the heap/involved an underusual feat." Don't get me started on Rush, either. I had an ex whose religion involved worship at the First Church of Rushmania. Ehhhchch. That damn song about the red car, or something.
7.10.00 @ 2:11p
Adam, a) All I'm saying about Rush is that, from 1981 on, every other song was about electrons. And while I will concede that Moving Pictures and Power Windows have lyrical highlights, I profess that Rush is the 15-year-old white male's Hemingway and thus the envy of Spinal Tap. b) when the lyrics are obscure more meaning is subconciously attached by the listener c) I don't know.
7.10.00 @ 2:50p
Good answers one and all. I see what you're both saying. There is a difference, I should point out, between obscure lyrics that probably don't mean anything (Phish: "Won't you step into the freezer?/Seize her with a tweezer") and those that probably do (Cream: "Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes/
Dawnlight smiles on you leaving, my contentment."; Marrillion: "Huddled in the safety of a pseudo-silk kimono/wearing bracelets of smoke/naked of understanding").
7.12.00 @ 11:11a
I just remembered -- I have, in fact, written a song in the past couple of years. The chorus: "And I wrote this bad-ass love song just for you/And I think you're gonna think it's pretty rude/But I think that I should mention/At the last Boy Scout convention/My scoutmaster told me I was one bad dude." Poetry in motion, this stuff.
7.12.00 @ 11:25a
Oh, Jael. You just reminded me that I have at least 10 grand worth of blackmail on you when you get famous --- part of this post deleted before posting to protect Jael and my "investment" --- And I realize I owe you something too. Sorry to be cryptic everyone. Carry on.
7.12.00 @ 12:06p
Thanks, Joe. In truth, I also wrote one other "song" - in jest by the way - the lyrics of which were, "I wanna live in Lower Slabovia/I wanna run with the chimpanzees/I wanna learn to grow hair on a billiard ball/and bring the Arabs to their knees." It probably sounds a little better than it reads. Picture a Bryan Adams sort of feel.
7.12.00 @ 12:48p
Joe, considering that a copy of the Declaration of Independence just went for $8 mil, I'd say 10 grand is an extremely modest goal. It depends on whether you think blackmail or Ebay would be a more lucrative approach. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Welcome to Intrepid, where there's no such thing as off-topic.
7.12.00 @ 1:44p
Hey - I know some things about Jael, too. Can I get in on this?
7.12.00 @ 2:15p
7.12.00 @ 2:45p
So how about those Mets?
Speaking of off-topic, Phish.net actually has a full page dedicated to understanding what those guys are saying. "Wash Uffizi, drive me to Feirenze."