01 May 2007

If my house were to catch fire, there's plenty of fuel.

Happy May Day to all!

I unearthed a whole folder full of horrifically embarrassing song lyrics that I wrote twenty years ago. Before I turned to poetry in my college years, I would write song lyrics obsessively, and I would date everything. Ostensibly, the lyrics were for the band my best friend and I hadn't yet formed, but by the time we'd graduated high school we'd actually recorded a few of them on a little four track recorder. I have no clue where any of that recorded material is, and my musical talents at that time were so primitive that I didn't play any of the instruments or sing on the recording. So my contribution in the studio -- aka my friend's bedroom -- was as lyricist.

Song lyrics are of course meant to be set to music, and they sound far better with a backing beat to take some attention away from the inanity of their content or the obviousness of their rhymes. There are of course exceptions; I think The Decemberists are incredibly inventive in the construction of their lyrics...I am in love with lines like "You come from parents wanton, childhood rough and rotten/I come from wealth and beauty, untouched by work or duty," from Picaresque's "We Both Go Down Together." Still, even their lyrics don't always scan well singled out from the music:
Here on these cliffs of Dover
So high you can't see over
And while your head is spinning
Hold tight, it's just beginning

They aren't bad lyrics -- in fact, they're incredible with the music driving behind them, but standing alone they're kind of naked. The proper music behind something can transform the words from bland quatrains to overwhelming angst (see: Smashing Pumpkins).

Looking over my contributions to the field of song lyrics, I'm getting the feeling that pretty much any teenager who writes a journal/diary/poetry/lyrics can seem in retrospect like a pretty despondent and maladjusted loner. I don't exactly remember it that way, but I do think that teenagers, for better or worse, have a good bit of trouble turning off the immediacy of their emotions. It's everywhere, hence the Nirvana lyric, "Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm old and gray." Or Bart Simpson's offhand remark, "Making a teenager depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel." So from 1-23-1986, I offer the following:
I've had too many chances
at too many dances
but the chances weren't right
I sat around all night

It's a sad thing to put your faith in the ceremony of the high school dance especially when you can't stand 85% of the music the DJ plays (and you can more or less guess the exact playlist for the entire year beforehand). I was the very definition of a wallflower. However, I do remember looking forward to going, if only because it was one of the few things to do in a small town on a weekend night.

I continued to write lyrics up until the early years of graduate school, at which point I ran out of spare time to sit around and play with words, and I often recorded them in a primitive way and having to sing the lyrics myself, a task I do not enjoy since my voice makes Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Tom Waits sound like the Three Tenors (don't get me wrong: I love Bobby, Neil, and Tom). Which is to say that it remained an obsession and an outlet until replaced by other writings: the dissertation and this exercise I'm currently engaged in called blogging.


Reya Mellicker said...

What a beautiful post!

I have always loved U2, but when I look at the lyrics without the music, I feel embarrassed to admit that Bono is my secret celebrity love match.

Who can write stand-alone lyrics? Very few! Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. Of course there are others, probably many more contemporary musicians I've never heard of.

I would LOVE to hear your old recordings. I bet they're great, or at least better than you remember them.

mysterygirl! said...

I was too vain and destroyed a lot of old poems soon after I wrote them-- it's too bad, I think, because I would have liked to see them today. It's neat that you have this archive to return to. Post more!

And you're so right-- one of the reasons I hate writing lyrics is that they rarely sound good alone so I think they're all banal. I always try to write tight little poems and set them to music, but somehow it doesn't work the same way (for me, as someone with minimal guitar skills, at least).