Rock and roll lyrics run the gambit, from positively poetic to brazenly banal. A friend of mine once made the claim that song lyrics are never poetry, which is a pretty bold statement and a pretty dumb one, I think, but there’s no denying that often song lyrics are embarrassingly bad:
Time to find the right way
It seems to take so long
When I find the right way
I know I will be strong
- Head East, “Lovin’ Me Along”
But it in the hands of a gifted lyricist, meaning and imagery jump from the speaker and grab you by the gut:
There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets
- Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”
Sometimes lyrics can reach us on a very personal level and describe us more succinctly than we could ever hope to achieve on our own. A woman once gave me a hand-written copy of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Code of Silence,” explaining that the words described her “to a T.” I had already owned Joel’s album, The Bridge, but had never really studied the lyrics before, and upon reading the feminine script on a pink sheet of notepaper with no musical accompaniment, I was given insight into a human being who was clearly wrestling with a difficult past (I never found out what it was, but I can take a wild guess).
But you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say?
Many times lyrics – even good ones – are unimportant to me. As a rule, as long as lyrics don’t overtly suck, then it’s the tune that matters. So, for instance, the band Yes typical composes songs whose lyrics are so esoteric and so stream-of-conscious that they’re virtually meaningless. Take the opening lyric for Yes’s “Going for the One”:
Get the idea cross around the track
Underneath the flank of thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as the river flows.
Would you like to go and shoot the mountain masses?
I don’t know exactly what goes on in Jon Anderson’s head, but I suspect it’s been aided by lots and lots of drugs. But his lyrics lead to images that are malleable, subject to the listener’s own experience, so that as long as the words aren’t blatantly bad, to me it doesn’t really matter what they say. But what if, for instance, the opening lines to “Going for the One” were the following:
Get the idea come and take me back
Underneath the sheets like thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as my love blood flows
I would like to go and shoot your mountain masses
Well, now, that would lead to a very different image, and it would suck! There’d be nothing left to the imagination except an overwhelming desire for the song to finish as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter how good the tune is, the lyrics would make it completely unlistenable. Ridiculous lyrics are the main reason why I could never get into the big-hair metal bands of the 80s; the words were so pitifully bad that I couldn’t possibly excuse them.
The lyrics to Prince’s “Darling Nikki” were no doubt titillating to me when I first heard them as a sixteen-year-old:
I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine
Hearing it today, it may turn you on, it may turn you off, but there’s no denying what the lyrics are about. There’s nothing left to the imagination, and really, there’s nothing to be moved by. It’s just…there.
But then I consider a pop song like “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” by ELO, and I realize that even the worst words in the world can sometimes be rescued by a great melody:
I was searchin’ on a one-way street
I was hopin’ for a chance to meet
I was waitin’ for the operator on the line
She’s gone so long
What can I do?
Where could she be?
Don’t know what I’m gonna do
I gotta get back to you
Pretty soul-grabbling stuff, huh? And yet, it’s a fun song! Why can I overlook terrible lyrics in some instances but not in others? What’s the secret?
And then, why can I overlook great lyrics in some cases but not in others? Take “Limelight” from Rush, a fantastic tune whose lyrics I never really thought too hard about until I saw the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Sure, I had known some of the words and I got the Shakespearean reference, but I never knew that the chorus had the word “seem” in it, as in:
Living in the limelight
The universal dream for those who wish to seem
Didn’t know it, never thought about it, didn’t care. I just knew that Geddy Lee was singing Neil Peart’s lyrics, the music was unbelievable, and the message was something about fame or something. It didn’t really matter to me. And even now, the lyrics aren’t so important to me. I just know the song rocks and the lyrics don’t suck, and that’s enough for me in this case.
But then I look at another Rush song, ”Subdivisions,” whose lyrics are so strong and whose message of suburban conformity is so relatable to me, that they elevate the song to new heights:
Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone
When I consider lyrics that have reached me over the years – songs like like “The Logical Song,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Read Emotional Girl,” etc., – the words are simple, direct and heartfelt. Take Elvis Costello, an undeniable wordsmith, but who often packs way too many words into a song, with too many syllables, too many metaphors, and stories that are too abstract to understand just what the hell he’s so pissed off about. Ah, but then he offers us a respite in a song like “Painted from Memory,” co-written by Burt Bacharach, and you have – in my mind – lyric perfection: simple, meaningful, relatable:
Such a picture of loveliness
Didn’t you notice the resemblance?
Doesn’t it look like she could speak?
Those eyes I tried to capture
They are lost to me now forever
They smile for someone else
And that’s often what it takes: simplicity and directness, not only for the lyric, but for the tune. Sometimes the simplest forms of human expression are the most pure and most effective.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to my favorite power pop album, On by Off Broadway, and sing along to the deeply moving “Full Moon Turn My Head Around”:
We got a beat, we got a good good beat, we got a good beat.
We got a band, we got a good good band, we got a good band.