Thursday, July 11, 2019

Rock Lyrics as Poetry

A colleague asked another for his favorite poem (we are an eclectic collection of English teachers, mind you). My colleague’s fave is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and immediately upon his admission of the T.S. (that's Tough Shit) Eliot tome, I blurted out, as a fellow English teacher will do: "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons." Though hardly lighthearted, "Prufrock" is one of Eliot's most accessible poems (aside from Cats), a far cry from the preposterously sullen The Waste Land, his most critically acclaimed work. I would agree that "Prufrock" is an astute choice.

The other teacher's response to the question was "Sounds of Silence." I forget the word my colleague used to describe the choice; pedantic, maybe, or sophomoric. His response to me was that no rock lyric could rate beside Eliot or Dylan Thomas, et al. Despite his opinionated brilliance, I couldn't disagree with him more. I took the defense of the other teacher to heart, quoting Springsteen, "The screen door slams,/ Mary's dress waves./ Like a vision she dances across the floor as the radio plays/ Roy Orbison singing, 'For the Lonely.'" Eliot, the disenfranchised American from Ohio, may indeed expertly capture the Brit soul, but "Thunder Road" is pure Americana, and like "Prufrock," plays with words and phrasing in an equally stylistic manner. The subtle rhyme, the enjambment within the lines making "as the radio plays" an American expression of incidental background music in general, but then, in the next line peppering the small town feel with Roy Orbison's iconic single, is genius.

My colleague's view is that it's always the music, and not the lyrics that provide the greater emotional impact, and yet the phatic is common to both song lyrics and poetry; music aids the lyric, condemning it to be not quite poetry – forever – while poetry is its own pseudo music, damning it to a netherworld without melody. That in mind, maybe the choice of "Sounds of Silence" is indeed pedantic. The lyrics themselves sophomoric; one might call it kitsch. It’s not Simon's strongest lyric by any means, but that doesn’t discount Simon. From his play with John Donne in "I am a Rock," dismissing Donne’s ideology that no man is an island, to the sublime "America," which, like "Thunder Road" captures American Youth in its most restless, the twenty-five-year-old Simon was equal at least to the worst of Dylan Thomas, himself a drunken rock star, and rivals at times Thomas at his most okay, that “second chair” that Thomas, based on his alcohol distraction, sat in on many occasions.

The songwriter who captures best the idea of the poet is Bob Dylan (whose name, of course, comes from Dylan Thomas). Dylan is such an idiosyncratic genius that it's perilous to imitate him; his faults, at worst annoying, at best invigorating, ruin lesser talents. But contrary to the mythology (and to the Nobel Prize), the man did not revolutionize modern poetry, American folk, popular music, or the whole of modern thought; and the Village Voice, prattling on about "new plateaus for poetic, content-conscious songwriters" and "the bastard child of Chaplin, Celine and Hart Crane," is nothing, if not ludicrous. However inoffensive (at worst) or haunting (at best) "The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" sounds on vinyl, it's plain silly without the music. Conversely, "My Back Pages" is a bad poem, though it's a great song with an unforgettable refrain. Music softens our demands, the importance of what is being said somehow overbalances the flaws, and Dylan's delivery adds an edge not present in the words. Add to that the premise that if the words don't work, one can always mumble, and you've realized the perfect formula.  (That said, when Dylan won the Nobel Prize every poet and novelist in the world, myself included, threw up a little in his mouth. I mean really? Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Kipling, Hemingway, Camus, Faulkner, Eliot, Churchill?)

In the same vein, The Mamas and Papas are full of diversions: contrapuntal arrangements, orchestral improvisations, odd rhyme schemes and John Phillips' trick of drawing out words with repetitions and pauses. In songs like "California Dreamin'," "12:30" and so many others, Phillips is obviously a good lyricist, though his lyrics are rarely easy to understand. I wonder how many are aware that "Strange Young Girls" is about LSD. No secret about it; it's right there out in the open in the first stanza: "Walking the Strip, sweet, soft, and placid/ Off'ring their youth on the altar of acid." But no one notices because there's so much within the song’s stellar arrangement. On a crude level, this vagary permits the kind of one-to-one symbolism of pot songs like "Along Comes Mary." 

All this in mind, one is indeed hard-pressed to take a stance for rock music as poetry. Morrison’s "The End" is pedantic, to use my colleague's words, and The Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me," sophomoric. But I can indeed go back to Simon: "What a dream I had… Pressed in organdy/ Clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy/ Softer than the rain/ I wandered empty streets down past the shop displays/ I heard cathedral bells tripping down the alleyways/ As I walked on…"  It’s Simon but it could be Shelley; alter the demeanor or the known cadence, it could be Emily Dickenson.

I don't even have to say a thing about Sincerely, L. Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat": "It's four in the morning, the end of December/ I'm writing you now just to see if you're better/ New York is cold, but I like where I'm living/ There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening. - I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert/ You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record. - Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair/ She said that you gave it to her/ That night that you planned to go clear./ Did you ever go clear?

Tom Waits wrote "Tom Traubert's Blues" after visiting Skid Row in Los Angeles, drinking a pint of rye and throwing up: "Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did, I've got what I paid for now/ See you tomorrow, hey Frank, can I borrow a couple of bucks from you/ To go waltzing Mathilda, waltzing Mathilda,/ You'll go waltzing Mathilda with me." It’s Bukowski, that (but does it fly without the Aussie nursery rhyme?).

For simplicity through repetition on the basic human desire, maybe McCartney did it best: "Why don't we do it in the road?/ Why don't we do it in the road?/ Why don't we do it in the road?/ Why don't we do it in the road?/ No one will be watching us,/ Why don't we do it in the road?" It's Twain simplicity and honesty, and daring for the 60s, with the next progression of theme and style going to Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers: "Let me shine your diamond/ The girl got a scratch/ Slap that cat/ Have mercy - I want to party on your pussy, baby/ I want to party on, party on your pussy/ I want to party on your pussy, baby/ I want to party on your pussy, yeah, yeah, yeah."

From Joni Mitchell's Blue to Dark Side of the Moon, the poetry is there, often hidden within the music or the arrangements; what an unfair advantage. Poetry without it is a dying art. Ho-hum. I guess we will be seeing a lot more Dylans joining the 113 recipients of the Nobel (hopefully there are budding Plaths and Cummings out there to prove me wrong). In the meantime: "My head is my only house unless it rains." Yep, sheer poetry. 

My favorite rock lyrics? Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." I have no delusions about Nicks' lyrics vs. any "great" poetry, but the question was my favorite lyrics; not the greatest. My favorite poem, btw? "Shake and shake the ketchup bottle,/ None'll come and then a lot'll."