Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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Next month I will do the Stanza festival in St Andrews Scotland/. It's Scotland's biggest poetry festival. One of the events I'm doing will be a Poetry Breakfast with Ian Rankin, and Simon Armitage. I have thought about lyrics and poetry. I have argued about lyrics and poetry. Most lyrics don't work as poetry and it's not much fun trying to set poetry to music. The two aren't brother and sister, but they are sort of kissing-cousins. Don't even mention Bob Dylan. I've recently become a convert to Bob Dylan's stuff...thanks to Alec and Tai Chi Dave. What I realised is that I've always secretly liked some of it. Except for some of the words. Which I do like now. Sometimes. When, a few years ago, in an interview I said that I'd always preferred Manfred Mann's versions of Dylan songs, some people on a Dylan website seemed to become quite annnoyed with me. Good.
The Beatles were great lyricists. Especially Paul McCartney. But they don't read well. Or not to me anyway. Who cares though? They sing brilliantly. David Bowie writes great lyrics. Moonage Daydream. Great lyrics. What do they mean? Who cares? They sound great. Are they poetry? No. What does work on a page then? For me ? Seriously? Early Dr Feelgood does. Back In The Night. or You Shouldn't Call The Doctor if You Can't Afford The Bill Both of these songs are from their second album Malpractice.
"Back in the night / I lay down by your fireside/ Back in the night / Shook me like a landslide./ I nearly missed the early shift / Dreaming in the morning 'bout the things we did."
This has all the hallmarks of a great poem. Timeless stuff. Love, work, fireside, dreaming and two separate time zones melding into each other. Unsurprisingly, we find that Wilko Johnson(right up there with Keef in my top ten guitarists) was an English graduate and later, briefly an English teacher. I dimly remember one story from the 1970s of him using some of his pop star money in order to keep a set of Robert Browning manuscripts in the country. I went to check up on this, but I guess it was just a little too esoteric and too long ago for me to authenticate in a short time of research. My memory for such things is pretty good though. Anyone out there who could help confirm this story, please do.
My own job has involved lyric-writing and poetry. These days I find lyrics to be a lot more of a fiddle to do than poetry. Poetry was the first thing I wrote. From about aged 13 or so. I carried on mucking about with it till I was almost 20. I started writing lyrics when I was about 14. Lyrics sort of took over and I suppose, in the six or so years when I wrote no poetry at all. I just wrote lyrics. Lots of them. There was a burst of poetry writing in about 1979. Then I stopped again. Lyric-writing must have kept that particular mental muscle toned up, so that in 1988, when I really started writing poems again, winning a competition in the process, it wasn't an entirely alien concept to me. I never went to the ceremony to get my prize, I was helping a builder demolish a building. He paid me. So that night, I went out and drank Stella Artois instead. It was a Friday.
Most lyricists in rock bands get the job only because nearly everyone else in the band is semi-literate, or doesn't have a clue how to write lyrics...or simply can't be arsed. A handful of bands had the luxury of a band member who only wrote lyrics. Procol Harum had Keith Reid, The Grateful Dead had Robert Hunter. King Crimson had Peter Sinfield. Cream had Pete Brown who actually was/is a bona fide poet. If you study the ads in the back of music mags, you still see a fair amount of people who fancy themselves as lyricists. Mostly, unless they're musicians too, they ain't much use. This is because they don't have much idea of cadence or 'rattle'. They don't tend to know whether a line will 'sing' well. Johnny Clarke reckons that Chuck Berry is America's greatest living poet. I'm not sure whether I'd go quite that far, but he's a stunning bloody lyricist. He know exactly how cadence and rattle works. He sometimes even puts syncopation in his lyrics, which is some kind of poetic miracle. He does it too many times for it to be a fluke.
My jury's still out on Tom Waits. Fabulous words. Not sure if it's he, his wife, or the two of them together that write them. Black Market Baby from Mule Variations is a case in point. Reads pretty well on the page. Sounds great when sung. I have a lot to think about anyway, before I go off to Scotland shooting my mouth off about the subject.
The great Wilko Johnson..only the day before yesterday.