Great Lyricists At the End of the World

One of the best rock n roll books I’ve ever read is Bill Flanagan’s U2: At the End of the World.  The book is written as Flanagan follows U2 on their groundbreaking Zoo TV tour.  However, the fact that the book is about U2 is almost secondary to the enjoyment of the book.  Flanagan is a first class writer and in using U2 as a jumping off point he dives into music criticism, politics, history, the music business, famous writers, and a whole host of other topics.  Even if you are indifferent to U2 you would probably find this a fascinating read if you are interested in music and a wide range of topics. 

There is a passage in the book, which I could not find this Saturday morning, where they talk about lyricists.  Bono, full of the blarney as always, makes the claim that Jewish people are the best lyricist.  He lists Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, among others, as examples.  He also talks about how there is a strain of Judaism that looks for the truth wherever it leads someone.  Bono makes a pretty good case for his point, and then Flanagan decides to call Randy Newman, a great lyricist who is also Jewish.  Newman brings up the Neil Young as one example of a great lyricist that isn’t Jewish.  Anyway, after all of them debate they decide that great lyricists come from many walks of life.  What they do decide though is that white American Christian males usually don’t make the best lyricists.  It pays to be an “outsider.” 

This book is full of all kinds of political, historical, and musical debates and ideas.  Reading this book is like having a great bullshitting session at a pub with a bunch of curious and intelligent people.    

Morality and Censorship in Art

Should art have any kind of moral compass?  I’ve mentioned in recent posts that I’m currently going through a thrash metal phase.  I’ve been listening to albums by the Big 4, which is Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.  Many songs by these bands depict the horrors of this world, and the next one, without any kind of commentary on how they feel about these horrors.  That’s not to say that these bands don’t also have socially conscious lyrics as well, but there are many that simply paint a picture and leave it up to the listener to interpret them. 

In particular I am thinking about the Slayer song Angel of Death.   The song is about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.  This song talks about the horrors of the Holocaust without any kind of commentary by the band telling the listener if those deeds were good or bad.  Although Slayer would later go on to write things that had more of a point of view, at this point they were just writing brutal lyrics filled with horrors.  Because of listening to this song and others I have begun thinking about whether or not this kind of thing is responsible.    

In thinking about it I have decided that art, as long as it is art and a form of true expression, does not need to have a moral compass in the standard sense.  An artist’s only responsibility is to express themselves in the truest way that they can.  I would like to explain why I think this. 

First of all I am talking about art and not about commerce.  If something is done just to make money this is a betrayal of the talents of an artist.  All artists are lucky and are blessed with a talent.  Whether you deem that that talent is the result of hard work, DNA, fortunate circumstances, or some higher power, the ability to create something is a gift.  Using this “gift” for anything other than creating something that is true is not valuing the talent that you have been lucky enough to have bestowed upon you.  I am a realist.  I understand that in this day and age there are circumstances where the artist might have to occasionally cash in so that they have the freedom to nurture their true gift.  In the music business, for instance, it is growing harder and harder every day to make a living.  To create something to make money, so that you can survive, take care of your loved ones, and nurture your talent further, may not be ideal, but it may need to be done on occasion.  The line where this goes from being survival to exploitation of your talent is a murky one.  At the end of the day each individual needs to live with their own decisions. 

Also, there are plenty of things out there that have no artistry to them whatsoever and are simply done to exploit the public in some form or fashion.  Most reality TV is like this.  It creates the opposite of thinking.  It leaves the mind in a dulled state so that it can be more easily influenced by the advertising that is this forms true aim: To make money for large corporations.  Plus these things take many people that may have talent, and while possibly providing them with a living, uses those talents towards an idiotic end. 

So let’s get past that and take the exploitation of talent by commerce out of this.  Should an artist use that talent to try to make the world a better place, and if so how do they do that?  Again, I have already answered no.  That is not to say that I don’t idolize people like John Lennon and Bob Marley who inspired people with their calls for social justice.  But I would say that the art that they created was a natural extension of who they were and what they believed in.  Because of this their work is organic, full of passion, and rings true to this day.  If an artist gets to a place of enlightenment where they can write about topics that bring light to the world, then I am all for it.  If this kind of art comes from a true place it will have weight and validity. 

As an artist I think you should, despite the television and your gut often tells you the opposite, treat people like they are intelligent beings capable of reasoning on their own.  Another way to exploit talent is to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator.  If you are creating something you should not let your ego tell you that you are smarter than everyone.  You should assume that there are enough people that are as smart or are smarter than you that will get what you are doing.  If you look out at the world and see some kind of void in what you want you want to hear or see, then you should try to fill that void as best you can.  Even if this provides you with a smaller audience it is out of your control.  Sometimes, like Bob Dylan, the world will reward you.  Sometimes, like Vincent Van Gogh, the world may not catch onto what you are doing until you are long gone.  And there are sometimes when you may not ever be acknowledged, but that is ok.  At least you were trying to do something of value.  Success is not an indicator of anything.  The Backstreet Boys sold way more albums than The Velvet Underground, but only one of them moved the cultural needle. 

So now let us get back to Angel of Death.  Is a song morally reprehensible because it depicts a real world horror without any social commentary?  Again, I say no.  In doing so you would wrongly be assuming that everyone was stupid.  In doing something like this you are causing people to think for themselves.  Someone may or may not want to listen to something like this, but in hearing it they have to at least confront the issue.  They can’t ignore that something like this happened in the world.  This is not escapism, which too has its place and time.  I know enough about Slayer to know that they are not Nazi’s and that they actually wrote songs later that did express a point of view which was in no way associated with fascism.  They were simply depicting something, which in and of itself means that it is not necessarily moral, but it is not immoral. 

Two of my favorite bands of the last year have been The Angelic Upstarts and The Cockney Rejects.  These are two second generation British punk bands that are often associated with the Oi! Movement.  The Oi! Movement is really misunderstood as it was primarily a working class movement.  However, there were Oi! bands that were racist skinheads.  The Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects both actively fought against the right wing aspects of this movement, sometimes literally!  The Angelic Upstarts in particular were very political and often sang about supporting unions and other important working class topic matters.  They even have a song called Anti-Nazi

But what about the bands that were racist?  Should this music have been prevented from being made?  Although I would never listen to such things, I would say that art, if it is true expression, should never be censored.  If someone has a feeling, even an ignorant backwards feeling, if it is expressed truly in the public eye than it brings it out of the darkness.  Art is a conversation that often takes place in the public eye.  Where hatred and the less noble human emotions can often fester in back rooms, if it is created as something for mass consumption, as something tangible, it has to at least be acknowledged.  If you know something exists you can fight against it.  It has been given a form and a name.  All censorship does is give more power to those that are being censored.  It makes it a cause for those that are being censored, instead of maybe a silly little group of idiots on the fringe of society.  It also is an attempt to whitewash something that may exist.  It is far better to confront things and try to prevent what is causing something, then to ignore its existence.  It may someday, if not acknowledged, become a problem that you can’t ignore. 

So I started talking about the morality of art and ended up at censorship.  I always like to remember the Flannery O’Connor quote, and I’m paraphrasing here, that if an artist writes about dirt it is often because that artist despises dirt and not because they love it.  Although we should want love and joy out of art, we should also realize that those that are diving into the darkness of the human condition have a value as well.  We live in a capitalist society where you often vote with your dollar.  You should only vote for things that you think bring value to society, but that is for you as an individual to decide.  More often than not I would rather hang Vincent Van Gogh on my wall, but occasionally I want to stare transfixed at The Raft of the Medusa.  The duality of man fascinates me.  The world is such an interesting place! 

Why Song Titles are Important

1.  WORLD PEACE IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS
2.  NEAL CASSADY DROPS DEAD
3.  ISTANBUL
4.  I’M NOT A MAN
5.  EARTH IS THE LONLIEST PLANET
6.  STAIRCASE AT THE UNIVERSITY
7.  THE BULLFIGHTER DIES
8.  KISS ME A LOT
9.  SMILER WITH KNIFE
10.  KICK THE BRIDE DOWN THE AISLE
11.  MOUNTJOY
12.  OBOE CONCERTO

 

Above is the track listing for the new Morrissey album, World Peace is None of Your Business, was just released.  One thing I have always loved about Morrissey is that he provides his work with many interesting titles.  Song titles are important.  Other than New Order, who to me have a certain communist bloc aesthetic in the sense that much of their artwork, music, and lyrics have a certain blankness to them that I believe is on purpose, I usually cringe when I see simple one word titles.  90’s bands often did this with songs titles like Sliver.  (I can’t remember if that is an actual title or not, but that was the kind of thing you would see often during that period.) 

Occasionally you can have something simple and it will have depth to it.  Bruce Springsteen’s The River has a certain carved in stone biblical nature to it.  Most of the time though a good song title can raise interest in a song and sometimes even provide added meaning to it. 

A song title is also a great way to start writing a set of lyrics.  If you have a strong title in mind quite often the lyrics will write themselves.  Sometimes I will come up with the chorus to something last, which often is where a title might originate from, but this is challenging.  Verses and bridges can often have various ideas that work together, but need some strong theme to tie them together.  A great title line or chorus is the thing that usually becomes the thread that runs through a piece.  If you can come up with that thread first then you can venture out from that unifying idea and know if something works or not.  Think of it like this:  If you know that you are writing an autobiography, a work of fiction, or a history book, then you already have some idea of the content that you can put in it.  If you have that strong song title then it already will start to direct your ideas in a certain way.  If you start with verses first, which can often lead to great writing as well, you will find yourself looking for that unifying idea later, which, at least to me, can sometimes be a challenge.  There is no right way to do things.  It is only that coming up with a great title first can be a way to get the ball rolling. 

I often find that a strong title will get me interested in something.  Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall captures the imagination is a way that pulls you in.  Sure, once you have pulled people in you need strong work or you will lose the attention of the listening.  However, getting people to take the time to check something out is important.  When I see the song title World Peace is None of Your Business, there are many ways in which that could be interpreted, and my curiosity is peaked.  A song title is like a headline to an article.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the article is any good, but it gives it a better possibility of it being given a chance. 

 

 

How Nostalgia Influences Critics

When trying to assess art, nostalgia plays a heavy role.  In Shinyribs I am in a band where I am the youngest member by about a decade.  I was born in 1978 and I feel nostalgia for the early 80’s, the first music I heard as a little kid, where the rest of the guys in the band do no share that nostalgia.  While 80’s drum sounds drive those guys nuts, I am reminded of watching MTV for the first time with my Mom.  (That’s not to say I don’t get it that 80’s drum sounds are really bad, they just don’t get in the way of me enjoying a song.)  Meanwhile, they might play something in the van that is really cheesy and bad from the 70’s, but for them I am betting the power of nostalgia is taking hold. 

I have also noticed that when a person discovers a band with a large catalogue, and really falls in love with them, it highly influences their opinion of what period of a band they like the best.  For example, I remember working with a producer who loved U2.  However, he loved the 80’s sound of U2.  This was the sound that influenced him in his formative years and everything else after that was not as good.  I came in around Achtung Baby and for me the best things that U2 ever did was their trio of 90’s records.  I love The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree as well, but I don’t really listen to their records much before that.  I also am not as big on their recent records.  However, I am sure that out there is a kid that didn’t discover them to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and probably loves their new stuff as much as anything.  I can intellectually defend my position about why their 90’s records are their best work, but I also can’t completely rule out nostalgia.  I remember walking around Vienna listening to Achtung Baby for the first time.  The European vibe of their 90’s records mixed with my first experience of Europe is a powerful memory. 

You often see in music criticism many records that are maligned upon release only to be reevaluated years later.  This could be because the records are able to be viewed outside of their particular time and place, but this could also be because the critics that discovered these records in their formative years have also come into power.  Nostalgia can influence someone’s view of something to the point where they can’t see something’s true value or lack of value.  I would bet that more than likely this happens across all fields of art.  When someone reads a review of something, one should remember this powerful force and take it into account of how a certain critic is perceiving something.  On that note I am going to crank up Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque and fly around the living room.  “It was on the northern border of Texas where I crossed the line!”  

A Clown Reflects on Lyrics

I just walked my dog in an outfit that could only be described as a clown suit, though even clowns would be disgraced by such garish colors and patterns.  I thought I had made it back to the house without being seen, but low and behold, there came two sharply dressed businessmen who pretended I wasn’t there.

While walking I was listening to the Melanie song Lover’s Cross.  It made me think about songwriting and how my favorite kind of songwriting, though by no means the only kind I like, is when writers are able to make each couplet or two count on their own, whether or not taken in the context of the larger piece.  Let me give you an example from Melanie’s Lover’s Cross:

Tables are meant for turning
And people are bound to change
Bridges are meant for burning
When people in memories are’t one and the same

(Spelling of are’t same every place I looked, which isn’t to say it is right.)

Morrissey is really the best at this kind of writing, which is one of the reasons that I like him so much.  Two examples of many from him will follow.

The first is from The Smith’s Nowhere Fast:

Each household appliance is like a new science
In my town

The second is from his own I’ll Never Be Anybody’s Hero Now:

Warm lights from the grand houses blind me
Haves cannot stand have-nots

With any of the above lines you don’t need the whole song to understand them.  They are perfect in and of themselves.  Lines like this will come back to you as life throws fitting situations your way.  Leonard Cohen, who takes a novelist’s hours to complete a set of lyrics, also excels at this.  Take these lines from his First We Take Manhattan:

They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within

Such an economy of words.  A whole worldview and universe created in two short lines.  Cohen and Morrissey are people that can create almost whole songs of such quotable lines.

There are, of course, other ways to write great lyrics.  Dylan manages to do so, often with sheer numbers.  One of my favorite sets of lyrics is his A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.  However, you would have trouble picking out a couplet that has the power of the whole.  It is image steeped upon image that creates the overbearing sense of dread.  Sure, each set of lines has power, but of themselves they are just snapshots and it is really the accumulation of lines that create the masterpiece.

I also love surreal lyrics, but they create a mood and an emotion, not an outlook, and are again based on the power of the whole.  Lyrics that are nothing but imagery fall apart if the writer loses touch with the unconscious stream they are tapped into.

Aimee Mann, an average lyricist, once had the great quote that lyrics should either be, “true or witty.”  There are many ways to read into the word true, as a short flick of the TV remote will often show you a world in which truth can be completely surreal and absurd, but in general I agree with that quote.  If you can’t bare your soul or reflect the world as you see it, at least have some respect for a turn of phrase.  If you want us to listen to what you have to say, it’s not too much to ask is it?

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Titanic Days

I just know though I can’t see but I can feel his hands all over me
His hot breath on me, I can’t resist his rope, my wrists
I never knew there might be days like this
“Dream on” he says, “Dream on” he says
Will I be saved from these titanic days

A violent frenzy in a none too cheap hotel
He says it’s hazy but I remember it so well
His arms, his face, the way my words got twisted out of place
“Dream on” he says, “Dream on” he always says
It’s sink or swim in these titanic days

So hot so hungry, so fare thee well goodbye
I got so angry, now I sit here and sigh
My love, always, we should rejoice in these titanic days
“Dream on” he says, “Dream on” he says
Will I be saved, will I be saved
“Dream on” he says, “Dream on” he says
Do you ever get that sinking feeling?

Titanic Days by Kirsty MacColl.  If you have never heard of Kirsty MacColl you are missing out on one of the great treasures of pop music.  I intend to write a long piece on her at some point.  She is one of the few artists that can fill me with absolutely ecstatic joy and make my eyes well up with equal measure.  The more one hears something the more one usually becomes desensitized to it.  Kirsty is always able to bring my emotions to the surface, no matter how many times I hear her, from whatever deep dark place they are usually buried.  This is the title track to one of the greatest breakup albums ever.  Yes, I would put it up there with Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks.  Like Dylan, she is dealing with the dissolution of a marriage in the most strikingly adult terms.  This is not the end of teenage puppy love.  Whenever my life feels on the verge of a new chapter, good or bad, I can’t help but think of the title of this song.  And although musically the song itself captures that mixture of emotions that such transformations bring about, the strings at the end leave you crumpled upon the floor.  In those final moments falling apart sounds beautiful and glamorous, as the saddest of string arrangements feels as if it were transported from the golden age of cinema.   The end of an era.

Quote

Shooting Star

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of you
You were trying to break into another world
A world I never knew
I always kind of wondered
If you ever made it through
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of you

Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me
If I was still the same
If I ever became what you wanted me to be
Did I miss the mark or overstep the line
That only you could see?
Seen a shooting star tonight
And I thought of me

Listen to the engine, listen to the bell
As the last fire truck from hell
Goes rolling by
All good people are praying
It’s the last temptation, the last account
The last time you might hear the sermon on the mount
The last radio is playing

Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away
Tomorrow will be
Another day
Guess it’s too late to say the things to you
That you needed to hear me say
Seen a shooting star tonight
Slip away

Shooting Star by Bob Dylan.  I always loved this set of lyrics.  I felt that it got across such emotional depth and feeling with fairly simple language.  The bridge is the one part of the song where he allows himself some flights of fancy, but then again, that is what bridges are for.

Quote

Cross the Green Mountain

I cross the green mountain
I sit by the stream
Heaven blazing in my head
I, I dreamt a monstrous dream

Something came up
Out of the sea
Swept through the land of
The rich and the free

I look into the eyes
Of my merciful friend
And then I ask myself
Is this the end?

Memories linger
Sad yet sweet
And I think of the souls
In heaven who will be

Alters are burning
The flames far and wide
The fool has crossed over
From the other side

They tip their caps
From the top of the hill
You can feel them come
All brave blood do spill

Along the dim
Atlantic line
The rapper’s land
Lasts for miles behind

The lights coming forward
And the streets are broad
All must yield
To the avenging God

The world is old
The world is great
Lessons of life
Can’t be learned in a day

I watch and I wait
And I listen while I stand
To the music that comes
From a far better land

Close the eyes of our captain
Peace may he know
His long night is done
The great leader is laid low

He was ready to fall
He was quick to defend
Killed outright he was
By his own men

It’s the last day’s last hour
Of the last happy year
I feel that the unknown
The world is so dear

Pride will vanish
And glory will rot
But virtue lives
And cannot be forgot

The bells
Of evening have rung
There’s blasphemy
On the end of the tongue

Let them say that I walked
In fair nature’s light
And that I was loyal
To truth and to right

Serve God and meet your full
Look upward beyond
Beyond the darkness that masks
The surprises of dawn

In the deep green grasses
And the blood stained woods
They never dreamed of surrendering
They fell where they stood

Stars fell over Alabama
I saw each star
You’re walking in dreams
Whoever you are

Chilled are the skies
Keen is the frost
The ground’s froze hard
And the morning is lost

A letter to mother
Came today
Gunshot wound to the breast
Is what it did say

But he’ll be better soon
He’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better
He’s already dead

I’m ten miles outside the city
And I’m lifted away
In an ancient light
That is not of day

They were calm, they were gloomed
We knew them all too well
We loved each other more than
We ever dared to tell

Cross the Green Mountain by Bob Dylan.  I am watching the Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War tonight.  I’ve seen parts of it before, but not for quite some time.  It’s fantastic.  In tribute of it I thought i would post these Bob Dylan lyrics.  This is a song about the Civil War and it is one of Dylan’s best songs, and least well known.  

Where I’m Coming From

I would like to explain the kind of writing I am trying to do with this blog a little more.  Think of it as a diary, but where a diary is a reflection of one’s own feelings and inner thoughts, this is a diary of what I see and think of what is going on in our culture on a day to day basis.  Where a diary would be all about me, with this blog I am trying to hold up a mirror to the world as best I can.

I am trying to write on a daily basis, without fear, on what I see, hear, and read.  All writing is biased and personal to some degree.  I don’t have a stranglehold on the truth.  I am simply trying to tell my truth as best I can.

View the culture as an ocean.  Everyone is swimming in that ocean.  It influences us in ways that we can’t even comprehend.  I am trying to help people understand that ocean and how it influences us.  In even the simplest pop song there are market forces, cultural prejudices, and tribal loyalties at play.  When someone drives a pickup truck they may be driving it for reasons of need related to work, or they might be driving it because of reasons associated with identity.

I grew up in a liberal family with mostly conservative friends.  I am from the North East, but I live in the South.  I am a musician who played sports as a kid.  I’ve worked white collar jobs and I’ve worked blue collar jobs.  My parents are Unitarian, but I have read the Bible and taken religious classes, and I don’t belong to any kind of church or organization.  I’ve read Steinbeck and I read Entertainment Weekly.  I treasure David Lynch, but I’ve watched trashy reality shows.

My heroes include Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Morrissey, Oscar Wilde, Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Nicolas Winding Refn, Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, John Lennon, George Orwell, Hampton Sides, Lou Reed, Bill Maher, Haruki Murakami, Flannery O’Connor, and George Carlin.  Those are just a few of the many people that have influenced my way of thinking.

I have an American Studies degree from PennState and am getting an Environmental Science and Policy degree from St. Edward’s University.  I play in a band called No Show Ponies and a band called Shinyribs.

This will hopefully tell those of you that don’t know me a little bit about what my background is and who I am.  I’ve always liked George Carlin’s distaste for groups and the way that he tried to treat every individual as an individual.

I have my own biases and blind spots.  I don’t claim that I have some kind of secret information that elevates me above anyone else.  If there is anything that I view as being slightly different it is that I don’t fit neatly into any tribal affiliation.  In the past year I’ve gone to art museums and drank beer on the back of a pick up truck while my friends went hunting.  Although most of my political beliefs could best be described as extremely liberal, I have friends that run the gamut in terms of their political orientation.

Every time I write something I am filled with a feeling of pride followed by a serious feeling of dread and self doubt.  I promise to write as honestly as I can in the moment and let it stand as is.  I will not revise anything, unless it is for spelling or grammatical purposes.

Hopefully those of you that read this will learn to trust me.  Not that you will agree with me, but in the sense that I will not bullshit you.  I will fail and I will succeed.  I am human.

Dreams Once Had…

Does the artist have any obligation to their fans regarding their own work?  The short answer would be no.  However, it’s much more complicated than that.  Someone wrote to me today asking what I thought of Morrissey’s album reissues.  In recent years he has rereleased albums that are not only remastered, but also feature different song orders and some are even missing tracks that were on the original albums.  Apocalypse Now has been reissued as Apocalypse Now Redux and there have been different versions of the Star Wars films.  These are just a few of the many revisions that artists of different kinds have done to their work.

The best artists almost always follow their own muse.  If we like someone that is a visionary artist it is usually someone that has broken the mold and done something in a new way.  Bob Dylan famously went electric and angered folk fans in the process.  However, now that we can view what he did in hindsight, it does not seem radical.  In fact he was doing some of his best work at the time.  He was simply moving the form forward.  Many albums, films, and novels are ahead of their time.  If these artists listened to public opinion many great works that are now part of our cultural cannon would not exist.

That being said, once something enters the public domain people start to form emotional relationships with an artists work.  These works often become part of a person’s consciousness and how they interpret the world.  Their dreams, their language, and their style, might all be influenced by these works.  Is art what an artist intends it to be what someone takes from it?  This is an old question and one that really cannot be answered.

Also a piece of art is created and influenced during it’s time and place.  Someone that is in their 20’s living in the 1960’s will have a very different outlook of the world than someone who is in their 70’s today.  We might want to know how someone later in life interprets their own work and what they would do differently.  However, we would also want to know what a person living and feeling something in the now back then had to say.

So the way I come down on this question is that an artist should have the right to do anything they want with their own work, but they should leave an original version of their work intact.  This should be done for posterity.  And although the artist has no obligation to their fans artistically, they should at least respect their audience when it comes to revisiting their older work.  Dreams once had, are a hard thing to shake.