Sunday, May 29, 2011

When Words Are More Than Words.....

I have had this idea in my head for some time--- a rundown of the importance of lyrics in rock music.  I was going to title it Lyrics 101: The Bottle In Front of Me or Frontal Lobotomy, the purpose being to show how important it is to get lyrics right and how few have the patience to do it.  It should be simple, I thought.  String together lyrics of a few songs which are enhanced by lyrical structure and compare them to the many that fail.  Well, simple it isn't.  To write lyrics or to critique them.  If it was simple to write them, the world would be buried beneath albums of worth.  If it was simple to critique them...  ah, but it is not. 

Have you ever thought about what it is that makes a song important to you?  Do you even know?  More importantly, do you even care?  For most of us, music is the background of our lives--- no, not soundtrack, but background.  Music is the white noise which makes everyday life a bit more palatable.  It is a variation on the hum of tires or the clacking of train wheels.  For most of us, when life is good, the music is good.  It doesn't seem to matter which songs or genres.  Good equals good.  For some of us, songs are benchmarks.  A song played enough today will inevitably create nostalgia tomorrow, regardless of quality--- formula music and mundane lyrics acceptable.  

For myself and others like me, music takes on an importance beyond the norm.  Each song becomes more than an entity, in fact almost a person, with a personality and a life and a reason for being.  My mother told me when I was very young that some people are good and some people are bad for various reasons.  So it is with music.  When it is everything good--- when lyrics and music work together--- it becomes a favorite uncle or a best friend.  When things don't exactly mesh, it becomes the annoying cousin or the bully down the street or even the person you fear because he or she is just downright creepy.  The difference between the extremes can be slight, but it doesn't matter.  A near miss is as unpalatable as a clunker.  When it doesn't work, it doesn't work.

Here's the rub, as they say in Jollye Olde:  What doesn't work for me could easily work for you.  You want simple?  Music is not always about the song.  It is about what you bring to the song.  If there is a reason you like a song at first listen, it is more than likely because of something you heard in the past.  You may not realize it, but that new song you can't get out of your head may have that Beatles sound in the chorus or a guitar riff that you swear you've heard someplace but can't quite pinpoint.  It could be that opening line, that emotional grabber, or the voice.  It could be the sound or the production.  More than likely, though, it won't be the lyrics.  Appreciation for lyrics usually comes later.  They sink in after a number of hearings.  They grow on you and make a good song great.  They have to be absorbed rather than heard.  Good lyrics.

Unfortunately, really good lyrics are rare and because we have been trained by the media to cling to something new as much as something good, we as humans accept the mediocre.  It is so much easier to accept that thrown at us than to find the good and the great, is it not? 

But I'm getting away from my point, that being that we all have lines drawn in the sand regarding every facet of life.  When it comes to music, my lines are drawn a bit closer than others'.  I use what I call the Cringe Factor when critiquing music.  If it makes me cringe, I steer clear.  If I was a normal critic, I suppose, I would wade in and verbally destroy those giving us heavy-handed or mundane words to accompany otherwise quite acceptable music.  I would destroy words with words, ideas with words, songs with words.  But I don't.  I learned long ago that what I hear is not what everyone else hears and I have learned to accept that.  No, I have another way of handling the mediocre or downright bad.  I ignore it.  I cringe once, maybe twice, and throw it on the scrap heap.

When I hear the good and the potentially great, though, I grab onto it like a nicotine addict to his last cigarette.  I fondle it and nurture it and savor it and make it last.  I listen less than I might normally, and enjoy the anticipation.  And, yes, I feel the high and maybe the low when I allow myself the pleasure. 

There is no high in music with words which do not fit.  I want to tell songwriters that they are missing the chance, that different words--- better words--- might be the difference between one listen or more.  As egotistical as this may sound, I want to say this song is not ready, that they can do better.  But all I can do is think it is not ready for me and bemoan an opportunity lost.  Of course, in my less egotistical moments, I accept what is there.  And I ignore it.  There are too many great songs to hear and critique to waste my time with the mundane. 

Which brings me to the real reason I am writing this.....

I read a blog this morning by one Christien Gholson and I was carried away.  Gholson is a writer and a poet, which normally would have had me running for the woods (who needs poetry. right?) but for his insights into words and his love for them.  I started reading expecting to stop at the end of each paragraph and click away, but something kept me scrolling and the next thing I knew, I was done.  There was something in the way he wrote which got under my skin and the more I read the more I understood. 

You see, Gholson's love of words parallels my love of music.  He didn't start out to be a poet or a writer, but words kept blocking his path toward a safe and accepted position until he broke down and accepted fate.  He tells of his acceptance of that fate, his existence before and after that acceptance.  He traces the paths that led him to poetry and beyond:  Gary Snyder to Kenneth Rexroth to Ezra Pound; Denise Levertov to William Carlos Williams to Robert Duncan.  So many paths with so many false endings.  And he uses his words so expertly that it is a pleasure to just read (I had the same experience reading Susan Casey's astounding account of life on The Farallones (The Devil's Teeth) and the sharks who inhabit the ocean surrounding them--- her ability with words painted much more than just pictures). 

My immersion in music paralleled that of Gholson's in poetry.  My paths, though, were from The Blue Sky Boys to Leroy Anderson to The Living Strings to every fathomable rock-related artist and band I found the need to pursue.  It wasn't words, no, but music included lyrics most of the time and, man, when it was done right, the music was every bit as important to me as Snyder and Rexroth and Duncan is to Gholson. 

The point being that as much as I know lyrics are important to music, I mostly forget.  I live for the guitar riffs and the soaring organs and the driving rhythms and appreciate when the lyrics fit, I guess, but let me play that guitar riff again.  Until someone like Gholson reminds me.  Words are sometimes more than words.  Gholson and I share that much.  I think we share more.  I shall endeavor to find out through Gholson 's works and future blogs.  I do believe I shall learn something in the process.

A Side Note:  I became aware of Christien through a Facebook post by his sister, Kirsti Gholson, who is presently torturing me by holding back release of a much anticipated album.  I have been waiting a good two years and Kirsti has been kind enough to provide me with rough cuts (probably hoping to curtail stalking tendencies and keep me at a distance), but those have only fanned the flames.  She released what she deems a demo back in 2000 or so, a collection of songs written only in what I can describe as Gholson.  She has a touch all her own.  Does Kirsti understand the importance of lyrics?  Oh, yeah.  Check her out at cdBaby and watch for her impending release.  It is going to be worth the wait.  Well worth it.

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