Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Notes from the Rock Hall 2: Music and Lyrics

So, you don't have to know me very long to learn that I love music. Whether it's a lovely cello recital by Yo-Yo Ma, an evening with a legitimate guitar god, or a road trip across the Midwest to experience the glorious roar that is a Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band concert, there is pretty much nothing I love more than music - preferably live.

My recent trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was such a feast of memories for me. Everything from the Beatles memorabilia (the Beatles being the first rock band I really fell in love with) to the audio stations where you could listen to little snippets from various influential radio DJ's of past decades (and I remembered secretly listening to my little transistor radio late into the night when I was supposed to be asleep, sometimes pulling in stations from far-off mysterious cities like Chicago) to the extensive artifact-driven exhibit tracing Bruce Springsteen's history, I was reminded over and over of the hours I spent immersed in music as a teenager. Bruce sings "We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school..." and it's true, you learn so much from anything you immerse yourself in like that, it marks you forever. Some of the guitar licks I've listened to a million times have probably managed to sink into my bones and change the actual way that I walk. (My poem in the new issue of New Madrid, "The Roar the Day After," is about being in high school and the way that music just doesn't leave your head and you walk around in it all day.)

But I realized more than anything, especially as I pored over the handwritten lyrics of a bunch of different artists, how that immersion in music is what made a poet out of me. I say that instinctively, but what does it mean? Well, rock & roll gives you permission to obsess, for one thing - to listen over and over, to pick apart the little nuances, to explore the same damn theme over and over (how many love songs are there anyway?) - and I don't think you can be a poet without understanding obsession on some level. At least I can't.

And, the songs gave me little templates to follow. Yeah, a lot of what I wrote in high school was intended as song lyrics, but even when I moved past that, the music had taught me something about sound and rhythm that I would never have understood had I spent the same amount of time strictly counting iambs or whatever. The sound and rhythm gave me a template, but they also gave me enough freedom to deviate where necessary; instead of slavishly sticking to "da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM" I had something more fluid to work with, something that felt alive. And even when I moved past writing verse-chorus-verse songs and started writing poems, music gave me a sense of structure: understanding how you move from the beginning of something to the end, how you can tell a story even while you loop back and repeat yourself now and then, and how the same words and lines repeated can carry different intent and resonance depending on where they fall in the structure of the thing - look at how the last chorus of a song can have an entirely different feeling from the first instance of the chorus, depending on where the song has gone in between times.

The music gave me, too, an instinctive understanding of how different sounds convey different kinds of meaning. How a staccato line of short syllables and lots of consonants has an entirely different emotional weight and resonance than a slow line with vowel sounds that are crooned and sustained. That's equally true in music and in poetry.

Now, I'm not going to make a case for song lyrics being poetry. Maybe sometimes they are, but I think 99% of the time they are different beasts entirely (which is why I think a lot of "poems set to music" fail). Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan - all of them write wonderful images and tell great stories, and the lyrics are often worth studying and thinking about and considering possible interpretations. And a few of the musicians I love are legitimate poets and/or writers; Patti Smith was a published poet before she became a musician, and Rosanne Cash was writing well before she took up music (though she didn't publish extensively until she'd become known as a musician - her collection of short stories Bodies of Water is worth picking up, and I've just started reading her brand-new memoir, Composed, which is beautifully written).

But songs are not poems. To say this is not to take anything away from them; the lyrics aren't any less masterful for being songs and not poems. You can read the lyrics on paper, but that's like viewing a painting in black and white. You can appreciate it, and you may even gain a new understanding and appreciation of it because taking away certain dimensions of the work lets you see things you might have missed otherwise. But you're not experiencing the whole work of art if you separate the music and the lyrics. No matter how great the lyrics are, they are meant to be a part of the larger whole.

At the Rock Hall, I spent hours studying handwritten lyrics (I looked at a lot of people's; it may not surprise you to know that Steven Tyler couldn't spell for crap when he wrote "Walk This Way" or that Jimi Hendrix had large, somewhat self-consciously ornate, very distinctive handwriting). As I stared at the pages of the actual spiral notebook in which Bruce Springsteen drafted "Born to Run" - pages upon pages of the thing; that song did not come easily for him and he wrote and revised and wrote and revised for what must have been months - the thing that struck me the most, and startled me the most, was how familiar those pages felt. I looked at Bruce's notebooks from his early twenties, and thought about my notebooks from my early twenties, and realized how very similar they really were. For just a few moments, I thought, "wow, Bruce Springsteen and I are, at the heart of it, in the same line of work."

And after all these years, I liked that a lot.


Lyle Daggett said...

Great stuff here, Anne.

I'd been writing poems for a year or so by the time I was in high school, and I could never have gotten through high school (or much else in life) without poetry -- or without music. I likewise went through all of high school with the music moving through me, it never left me. (I was in high school from fall 1969 through spring 1972.) I can't count the number of moments in my life that are indelibly associated for me with a particular song.

"Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" at a party one mild summer evening during high school. "Woodstock" (the version on Joni Mitchell's album Ladies of the Canyon) on a particular warm slightly muggy morning, mingled with the scent of juniper bushes. "Jokerman" while watching big puffy clouds cruise overhead above the Olympic mountains in Washington. Just to pick three random examples.

I've never attempted to write song lyrics as such, though music has never been very far away when I've written poems, however much it may or may not be evident in the poems themselves.

Among the mild chaos of books here are the five volumes of the Child ballads (English and Scottish Popular Ballads compiled by Francis J. Child sometime upwards of a hundred years ago), which are one of the great groundwater sources of poetry in English. I dip into them from time to time to drink the ancient music. If the day ever comes when I can't find anything else to write, I'll go deep diving there. I imagine I'll find something.

Diane Lockward said...

Love the new look for your blog.

Jessie Carty said...

Really fantastic stuff :) thanks for sharing. I love seeing the handwritten notes of writers of all kinds as they go through the revision process so that is fascinating!