During the recording sessions for my album Grand Hotel a few years ago, I had lyric sheets sitting out on the console in the control room. One of the musicians playing on the album picked up the sheets and started reading the lyrics while I was out of the room. When I came back, he told me he’d just read the lyrics and was happily surprised to find out how cool the words to the songs were. This guy had probably already played those very songs 50 times or more with me in concert. He just hadn’t ever paid any attention to what I was singing. It’s not really that rare. I’ve met a lot of people claim to not really care at all what the words to a song are.
Personally, I’ve always cared about the words to songs. There’s an incredible feeling I get when I hear a well-crafted line sung or read. I got hooked on that feeling at a very young age and I’ve never been able to kick the habit. Have you ever seen a well-turned double play in a baseball game? A well-turned lyric gives me a similar feeling, but on many more levels. Maybe it’s like the taste of a fine wine for a wine connoisseur or a rich Columbian coffee for a coffee freak. When I hear or read a great line, I feel a heightened sense of wonder and a deep gratitude for being able to be here to experience the delight. When a great lyric sits upon a delightful tune, the pleasure is even more exquisite. Give an Irving Berlin song a shot sometime, or a Bob Marley song. You might feel it.
People have found delight in rhyme and they’ve written and sung verse of some kind or another for centuries. Truly gifted poets have always been rare. It seems like they get more and more rare. In recent years what’s most often called “poetry” is some kind of faux intellectual exercise, usually the opposite of well-crafted lyric expression. It’s a shame. I heard Joni Mitchell talking on the radio the other day. She was saying all kinds of nasty things about poets, quoting put-downs about poets from Nietzsche. When I was in high school, Joni came out with a record called Night Ride Home. I can still remember the lyrics from several of the album’s tracks.
Is this just vulgar electricity?
Is this the edifying fire?
Does your smile’s covert complicity
Debase as it admires
Are you just checking out your mojo
Or am I just fighting off growing old?
All I ever wanted was just to come in from the cold…
…Sounds kind of like poetry to me, Joni…really good poetry.
Lyrics can lift you up; they can knock you over; they can blow your mind. And they don’t have to be lofty or intellectual or academic in any way. Willie Dixon didn’t study verse at a university, but his great lines get me every time I hear them…
I was accused of murder in the first degree
The judge’s wife cried “Let the man go free”
I feel an equal lift from the lyrics of an old folk song “Shady Grove”
Peaches in the summertime
Apples in the fall
If I can’t have the girl I love
I don’t want none at all
A truly poetic moment of lyric craft is an arrangement of words or word images that moves us, that speaks to us in a way more profound than conversational words might. Well-crafted lyrics have a rhythmic sense and an aesthetic sense and they lead us to a truth or truths we may have trouble articulating otherwise.
For all we know this may only be dream
We come and go like a ripple on a stream…
A great deal has been conveyed in two pretty little lines. The last two lines of that same song hold a lot of weight too:
…Tomorrow was made for some
But tomorrow may never come for all we know.
Simple, yet expressive and beautiful lyrics are extremely hard to craft. Writing really good lyrics requires clearing away all of our own personal bullshit and tapping into a kind of collective dream so we might speak on a broader level to a host of people outside the particulars of our own experience. That’s always been a fairly tall order and it’s only getting taller in the individualist consumer societies we’ve set up.
You can have the best there is but it’s going to cost you all your love
You won’t get it for money.
Most people aren’t up for giving anything all of their love, or even beginning to find out how much love they have to give. But ol’ Bob was right, the best of anything real can’t be bought, however well the illusion of store-bought experience is woven into our imagination by generations of our own lore and advertising. So maybe all of the lame “poets” that abound today and have annoyed Joni & Nietzsche so much historically are people who aren’t willing to give “all their love” to their lines. Poetry, the really good stuff, is a serious dedication for sure. Words can be a whole lot more than just babble, but it’s going to take some work. Getting at what Van Morrison aptly called the “inarticulate speech of the heart” takes a kind of digging and searching few will be up for.
When I cannot sing my heart
I can only speak my mind
That’s very true. We may dedicate our lives to attempting to sing our hearts and end up just speaking our minds over and over again. Just speaking our minds all the time won’t be enough to make anything as meaningful and durable as a beautiful Beatles song. And while we’re talking away, we might miss something really great being spoken in our midst. In 1963, Bob Dylan heard “10,000 whispering and nobody listening.” Imagine how many whispering non-listeners he’s heard by today. If we talk without really listening, we will only ever be able to whisper and never be able to speak with any kind of voice that carries. The words and the songs are everywhere if we can find them, but we won’t find them talking. If we ever hope to have something to say, it’s going to take some serious listening…
Up above my head I hear music in the air
And I really do believe there’s a heaven somewhere
It’s up there for us to hear, if we can remember to turn off the talk radios that are inside us and all around us sometimes. The more we listen, the more we’ll hear and the better messengers we can be of what we hear. The more we listen, the more we’ll be able to make out what our own words sound like. If we listen with sharp ears, open minds and open hearts, we will find a vast expanse of garbage that stretches beyond the horizons all around us. We’ll also find a vast wealth of wonderful things to listen to. “There are heroes in the seaweed” if we can find them. I’m pretty sure all of the answers are still “blowing in the wind” to this day. But who among us will ever cultivate the kind of listening ability it will take to make out anything the wind is saying?
 In a June 4, 2013 interview on CBC radio with Jian Ghomeshi, Joni Mitchell attributed two quotes on poets to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Sarathustra:
1.”The poet is the vainest of the vain. Even before the ugliest of water buffalo doth he fan his tail…I’ve looked among him for an honest man and all I’ve dredged up are old gods’ heads.”
2.”He muddies his waters that he might appear deep.”
 From the song “Come in from the Cold” by Joni Mitchell
 From the song “The Back Door Man”
 From the song “For All We Know”, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis
 From the song “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan
 From the song “Julia” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney
 From the song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan
 From the song “Up Above My Head” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, crica 1945
 from the song “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen
 from the song “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan