A Lyrical Education
The power of rock and roll, a force long acknowledged by astute listeners, may be broader than many had originally believed. It seems that in addition to providing us with enjoyment, empathy and inspiration, rock and roll can also play a critical role in our education, a thought that occurred to me recently after witnessing my daughter’s defeat in a hard-fought game of Scrabble. An unused “Q” left her with a ten-point deduction, a tough lesson for an eleven year-old, but it reminded me of another Scrabble contest from long ago.
In this particular match, my mother held a slim lead over my brother, who was having difficulty using his letter Z. He couldn’t manage any of the usual words – zoo, zone, zip – in the crowded board of letters, but after pondering his predicament for a moment, he turned to his old friend rock and roll. “I got it!” he shouted, and placed two letters on the board. “F-E-Z. Fez. Double word score – thirty points!”
He had no idea what the word meant, but he’d heard it on a recently acquired album by Steely Dan. To prove it to my mother, he took out the album, The Royal Scam, and spun it on the turntable. There was Donald Fagen singing, “I’m never gonna do it without the fez on.” (a fez is a rimless hat, the kind Sydney Greenstreet wore in Casablanca).
My mother, a fierce competitor, was no match against the power of rock and roll. Upon reflection, I now realize that fez was only one of probably hundreds of words I was introduced to as a child through music. For better or for worse, rock lyrics helped educate me. Words I’d never heard before – or at least never considered – crept into my consciousness in parallel to my musical immersion. Just a cursory stroll through my memory highlights some of the words that were unknown to me before music:
Cynical – from Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”
Elusive – from Rush’s “The Spirit Of Radio”
Elude – from Pink Floyd’s “In The Flesh”
Coy – from Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover”
Melancholy – from Moody Blues’ “Melancholy Man”
The list could go on and on.
But in addition to expanding my vocabulary, lyrics helped educate me on other matters, providing an impetus for future explorations. The Police exposed me to the author Nabakov. The Alan Parson’s Project clued me into Edgar Allan Poe. Rush inspired me to read Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway. 10,000 Maniacs introduced me to Jack Kerouac and the other beat writers. It was as if rock and roll helped to fill in the gaping holes left by my educators.
Music also helped enhance my proficiency with sexual phrases. Over time, I began to understand what “sugar walls,” “spread your wings,” “every inch of my love,” “red light,” and “love gun” implied, and other words entered my vocabulary. In a family where the talk of sex was just short of taboo, music played an important role in helping me grow a bit more confident on the topic of sex by mastering its nomenclature, if not its practice.
Lyrics even put the fear of God into me, albeit briefly. In the 80s, the world of music couldn’t stop talking about bands hiding satanic messages in their songs, and my friend and I wore out record needles trying to decipher the backward messages in “Stairway To Heaven” and “Hotel California.” State legislators apparently ruined a few needles of their own, for a bill was introduced in California to prevent subliminal messages that could “turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.” I’m sure the taxpayers of California appreciated that.
I guess the talk of Satan got to me eventually, for in high school I attended a pastor’s lecture at a local church on the topic of “Lyrics In Rock Music.” The pastor, a decrepit, old man who probably considered Sony and Cher children of Satan, preached to the kids in the audience and warned them to guard their souls against the evils of rock and roll. He was particularly critical of a Pink Floyd song I owned, “Sheep,” whose lyrics included a rather brutal version of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”), and I left the lecture feeling doomed.
When I came home, my mother asked how things went.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m going to hell.”
She could have said something poetic, something about how the moral compass of a person comes from the inside, or some such message. Instead, she simply said, “Don’t worry about it. You’re a good kid.” And it was exactly the right thing to say.
I continued to listen to whatever I wanted, and grew up to be a reasonably decent person. Today, my children enjoy a lot of the same music I listened to as a kid, and we’ve added other artists to our play lists who would no doubt have been the subject of the rock-hating pastor’s scorn years ago (something tells me the irony of Ben Folds’ “Satan Is My Master” would have been lost on this guy).
Now as I approach middle-age, music continues to shape me. Just recently I listened to a Jason Mraz song called “Butterfly” – a sexually explicit tune that I must admit made me feel a little uneasy when first listening to it with my daughters – and I heard the word “vivify,” a word meaning “to bring to life” or “to animate.” What a great word! Rock and roll continues, ever so slowly, to educate me.
And I can’t wait to use it on a triple word score.