My recent post about The Wrestler featuring Springsteen’s lyrics, the interview with Max Ryan – Chains of Flashing Images and my ticket to tomorrow night’s Neil Young Concert at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre have got me thinking about song lyrics as poetry.
I like many others feel that songs are the first exposure we get to the use of poetic language, but take the lyric from many of the songs that you love and slap them on a page sans the music and they are often found wanting. Some even develop a contrivedness and lose the tone with which they are delivered by the author. In short, without the music, most lyrics lose their explosive nature.
That said, there are exceptions to the rule. Bob Dylan is the obvious example. Take the opening lyrics to Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands:
With your mercury mouth in the missionary times,
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes,
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes,
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last,
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass,
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass,
Who among them do they think could carry you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands,
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?
Here, the imagery and power of the words remain true to the authors vision. None of the magic is lost.
Other songwriters who have been called poets include Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young & Tom Petty. All rightlfully so. I would certainly love to lay claim to any of these lines:
Even before my fathers fathers
They called us all rebels
Burned our cornfields
And left our cities leveled
I can still see the eyes
Of those blue bellied devils
When Im walking round tonight
Through the concrete and metal
(Tom Petty, Rebels)
The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway
He walks through town all alone
He must be from the fort he hears the high school girls say
His countryside’s burnin’ with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide
The hit and run, plead sanctuary, `neath a holy stone they hide
They’re breakin’ beams and crosses with a spastic’s reelin’ perfection
nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception
And everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood
Sticker smiles sweet as gunner breathes deep, his ankles caked in mud
And I said “Hey, gunner man, that’s quicksand, that’s quicksand that ain’t mud
Have you thrown your senses to the war or did you lose them in the flood?”
(Bruce Springsteen, Lost in the Flood)
And then there are the many Australian artists including Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, Nick Cave, Steve Kilbey and David McComb to whom the label poet has been assigned.
The lyrics to Wide Open Road lose none of the fire and yearning with which McComb delivers them:
I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin
I cut them off as limbs
I drove out over the flatlands
hunting down you and him
The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road
(The Triffids, Wide Open Road)
And Kilbey’s opening lines from Aura continue to damn and probe:
We all came back from the war
I wish somebody would tell me the score
(The Church, Aura)
So just what is it that elevates a lyric to poetry?
For me a lyric establishes itself as a poem when the words on the page create their own music. When they have the intensity and distance that Wordsworth so beautifully described as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’. When they make my head spin and my body sigh.
So what are some of your favourite lyrics? What makes a lyric really sing?
Love to hear from you…