Sunday, 6 March 2011

Where's Runnicles Gets Lyrical (a little behind schedule)

For several years now, Edinburgh's UNESCO City of Literature trust has run an annual reading campaign. Last year's Carry a Poem was rather fun, not least for the way SCO programmes that month carried the conductor or soloist's favourite poem, which was a nice insight. This year the campaign fits even better with our primarily musical focus: it is Let's Get Lyrical. I say is, more properly I mean was, since it ran throughout February and it's now March!

For various reasons, I never got around to blogging my favourite lyrics. However, there seems no particularly good reason not to do so now. Great lyrics are, after all, timeless. For good measure, I've put together a Spotify playlist of my selections (well, most of them - an annoying number are unavailable).

Where to start, though? Well, it's hard not to opt for Leonard Cohen, as much poet as songwriter, whose lyrics more than stand on their own without music. There is a phenomenally rich tapestry to choose from, be it Democracy's description of America as "the cradle of the best and of the worst" or the simple power of "please don't pass me by". However, I'm going to try and limit myself to just one song per artist, otherwise it will be next year's campaign before this post is finished.

So, I'll turn to Cohen's first, and still arguably best, if not most imaginatively titled album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Even here, with Suzanne, Teachers and more, one is spoilt for choice, but my personal favourite is One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong. However, trying to blog about it presents something of a problem: since Cohen never puts a foot wrong in terms of its haunting beauty, it's very difficult to single anything out or add anything to it. If you don't know it, and frankly even if you do, you should probably just listen to or read the whole thing. Right from the outset:
I lit a thin green candle to make you jealous of me
But the room just filled up with mosquitoes
They heard that my body was free
it has that hallmark of great poetry, powerful imagery, perhaps nowhere more so than here:
An Eskimo showed me a movie he'd recently taken of you
The poor man could hardly stop shivering
His lips and his fingers were blue
I suppose that he froze when the wind took your clothes
And I guess he just never got warm
The refrain at the end is as bleak and moving as they come:
But you stand there so nice in your blizzard of ice
Oh please let me come into the storm

From there to something altogether simpler: "I wanna hold your hand", which I hopefully don't need to tell you is by The Beatles. Simple, catchy, to the point and something that speaks to me. Yes, in the obvious romantic context, but in other ways too. Indeed, somewhere lurking at the back of my mind is the germ of an idea for a collection of short stories on the theme.

Comedy is a rich lyrical area, and Tom Lehrer's discography is one of the richest. It ranges from the likes of It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier, the World War Three song We Will All Go Together When We Go and the hymn to the boy scouts or America Be Prepared, to the secret of success in mathematics: "plagiarise" (from Lobachevsky). However, for its sheer tastelessness and wrongness, composed as an attempt to address the poor box office performance of a film of the same story, I'm going to pick Oedipus Rex:
There was a man, though, who, it seems
Once carried this ideal to extremes
He loved his mother and she loved him
And yet their story is rather grim
Half of the humour is in the enthusiasm with which Lehrer sings the words "loved his mother". True, it doesn't showcase Lehrer's habit of splitting words to get them to rhyme, though he does manage to stretch the language so as to make Oedipus fit with duck-billed pledipus.

Many of the songs of my next choice are also comedic, such as Geoff, a tale of envy of a friend endowed with a better house, car and wife, or The Laughing Song. Others, such as the one I'm picking, are political. Seven Signs of Ageing is a furiously passionate tirade against consumerism, neo-colonialism and, most of all, the Iraq war. It's full of fine lines, but for me the following rather summed up the mood a few years after the invasion:
Until one day you find your freedom fucked with freedom fries

Staying with the political, but straying in to the arena of musical theatre, one more or less has to visit the work of Stephen Sondheim and his musical Assassins, whose dark subject is people who have killed, or tried to kill, an American president. The Ballad of Czolgosz, superbly performed by Neil Patrick Harris on the broadway revival recording, is particularly fine. Telling of a poor immigrant who decides to kill William McKinley, and does so by standing in line to shake his hand and then shooting him, it is remarkably realised by this refrain which sets the ambition of the American dream against its failure in this case:
Some men have everything
And some have none,
But that's just fine:
In the U.S.A.
You can work your way
To the head of the line!
The genius, of course, is that this is exactly what Czolgosz has done, succeeding in a far more chilling sense.

Since we've made it to musical theatre, it is but a short step to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and, more specifically in the context of this post, the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert. Again, this is a lyrical goldmine, but I think I'll head for my favourite of their operettas, H.M.S. Pinafore, and the song of The Rt. Hon. Joseph Porter K.C.B., who sings of his ascent from "office boy in an attorney's firm" to, well:
I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough to parliament.
I always voted at my party's call
And never thought of thinking for myself at all.


I thought so little they rewarded me,
By making me the ruler of the Queen's Navee

And, since we're now at operetta, why not my absolute favourite: Britten's Paul Bunyan. Favourite in no small part because of the libretto, or rather the lyrics, which are provided by that superb poet W. H. Auden. So we get poetic beauty:
Since the birth
Of the earth
Time has gone
On and on:
Rivers saunter,
Rivers run,
Till they enter
The enormous level sea.
Where they prefer to be.
At other times, there are thought provoking lines that still resonate today. This is, after all, a myth about America's foundataion:
From a pressure group that says I am the constitution,
From those who say Patriotism and mean Persecution,
From a Tolerance that is really inertia and disillusion

Of course, it is but a short step from operetta to opera, and so to one of the greatest examples: Verdi's Don Carlos, based on Schiller's play. Its epic plot folds in a tragic love story, oaths of blood-brotherhood, disguises and political intrigue. The latter comes to a head in the climactic confrontation between the King Philip of Spain and the Grand Inquisitor, who wields the real power, as he knocks aside the King's concerns at giving up his son:
Can I as a Christian sacrifice my son to the world?

God sacrificed his own, to save us all.
There follows a bitter quarrel during which the Inquisitor suggests that even the King is not beyond his reach and the King begins to regret his words, asking "may peace be restored between us?" In reply the Inquisitor, turning as he leaves, utters one of the most chilling words in all of opera: "Perhaps."

From the most chilling word in opera to one of the most amusing. It comes approximately three quarters of the way through Wagner's epic Ring cycle at the climax of the opera Siegfried. The story so far, well, it would take too long, but suffice to say our eponymous hero (who, as will become apparent, is not the sharpest tool in the box) has heard tell of a beautiful woman who sleeps, surrounded by fire, atop a nearby mountain. He heads off to seek her, but finds only an armoured warrior. Gradually he removes this protective shell to reveal the valkyrie Brunnhilde, recoils in shock and utters the words:
Das ist kein mann!
(This is no man)
Quite what on earth he was expecting is unclear, or rather quite why he was expecting a man. I'm not convinced Wagner intended it to be a humorous moment either, but it most certainly is. One can forgive him though, as it is followed by Brunnhilde's glorious greeting of the sun.

One of my favourite operas is Beethoven's Fidelio (the libretto coming from the pen of Joseph Sonnleithner, who himself drew on a French text by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly). It tells of the triumph of love and freedom over oppression and political tyranny as Leonora frees her husband Florestan from prison:
Love gave me the strength
to free you from your chains
The lyrics themselves are perhaps not as remarkable as some, but the work carries a special resonance for me. Last year I saw a production in Dresden that was originally done in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall. It updated the action to a modern setting that was clearly meant to be a camp for East German political prisoners. Thus, the added weight of a massed chorus of prisoners and the public rejoicing in the freedom of a political prisoner was, to say the least, powerful. Not to mention brave. Braver still, the lead artists took to the stage after the premiere to call for greater freedom, despite the East German dignitaries doubtless sitting the royal box. It remains an intensely moving production more than two decades later.

Since we're on opera, I'll cheekily segue to that great rock opera Tommy, by The Who. But what to single out? Tommy Can You Hear Me? Or perhaps the extremely disturbing Fiddle About. Really, though, I think it has to be Pinball Wizard. After all:
Ever since I was a young boy
I've played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all
But I ain't seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf, dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball

Perhaps I should have included my next choice when discussing musical theatre, but so brilliantly crazy is it, that will fit in as well here as anywhere. The music comes from Jeff Wayne but the words, by and large, are those of H. G. Wells. Brilliant right from the opening narration which tells us:
No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space.
And that:
minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.
Dum-dum-dah, dum-dum-dah! But then, of course:
"The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one," he said...... but still they come.

For a final classical choice, and a selection of less than cheery lyrics, we can turn to Gustav Mahler. The obvious choice might be his settings of Rückert's Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children), especially the devastating I Often Think: They Have Only Just Gone Out. However, I will opt instead for his third symphony, with its Nietzsche setting that includes the chilling:
Die Welt is tief!
(The World is deep!)

Popular music is not without its equally depressing lyrics though. Take Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats' I Don't Like Mondays, with its tale of a high school shooting:

And he can see no reasons
'cos there are no reasons


Tell me why
I don't like Mondays

Though, lets face it, far superior when sung by Tori Amos as opposed to Geldof.

This next song also tells a story and has one of the best twist endings there is. It begins as the simple tale of Lola, who Ray Davies of The Kinks meets "in a club down in old Soho" and who strangely "walked like a woman but talked like a man" in addition to having uncanny strength. The reason, of course, being:
But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man
And so is Lola

Also coming from a slightly weird and dark place is Pink Floyd's The Wall. There's lots of great stuff here, of course, from the classic Another Brick in the Wall, Part II to Comfortably Numb and Mother. However, from a lyrical perspective, it is difficult to top the evocative power of Roger Waters' words for The Trial:
The prisoner who now stands before you
Was caught red handed showing feelings
Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Shame on him
This will not do

How could any survey of lyrics be complete without something sung by the incomparable Billie Holiday. It's difficult to pick anything other than Strange Fruit, based on a poem by Abel Meeropol about the lynching of two black men. The words, speak for themselves:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. 
It is to the lasting shame of Colombia, her record label, that they were unwilling to record it (though they did release her from her contract so she could do so for Commodore).

And while we're in the area of great jazz vocalists, let's get another two in one go with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and what better for them to be singing than the lyrics of Ira Gershwin. So, let's remember:
The things that you're liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain't necessarily so
Since we've got two vocalists here, I think we can get away with bending the rules and having two choices. Surely the second has to be:
Summertime and the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the coton is high
Oh your daddy's rich and your ma is good lookin'
So hush little baby, don't cry.
Of course, one of the most amazing things about that song comes from George's music and the incredible feeling of temperature it evokes. But this post is about lyrics, so best not to get too distracted.

Paul Simon's Graceland is one of my favourite albums. In part for the great music and lyrics, in part also because it always makes me think of the Fantastic Four. If you're scratching your head at this point, that's okay since it isn't an especially natural association. What happened was this: some years ago, when I was still at university, I borrowed the CD from my then flatmate. At the same time, I'd just started collecting Fantastic Four comics, so I was reading a lot of them while I was listening. Indeed, I used to have a ritual of listening to the album while I read new issues (something I still do from time to time). It's true, the lyrics to things like Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes and the superb Myth of Fingerprints don't really fit. Yet, as a whole it seems to, and perhaps nowhere more so than here, with The Boy in the Bubble:
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slow motion
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don't cry baby, don't cry
Don't cry

Another favourite that also gets its appeal (to me) from a similarly roundabout route is Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms. It appears in two of my favourite TV shows. It is relatively well used in The West Wing when, as a storm lashes Washington DC, the president makes his way to a press conference to reveal if he will run for a second term. However, a far superior use comes in Due South. Again, there is rain (unsurprising since there's also rain in the background of the song). Here, it underpins the climactic shootout in a woodland setting as Fraser and Ray attempt to protect a federal witness from his brother who, it turns out, does not have his best interests at heart:
We're fools to make war
On our brothers in arms

That, you may be relieved to read, is more or less it. But what survey of great lyrics would be complete without a shameless plug for my uncle Thomas Dolby, who, in my admittedly biased opinion, is a pretty great lyricist. There is so much to chose from, but some ground, such as Eastern Block, has been covered in part already (in that case by my Fidelio selection). For reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has seen anything in my handwriting, "I can't read my writing" from Dissidents particularly speaks to me. I'm very fond too of Close But No Cigar, and the lyric "There are no fucking lifeboats" from his recent To The Lifeboats (on his new Oceanea EP) is a rare and beautifully judged expletive, sadly having to be edited out of versions for radio play. However, my favourite probably comes from Airhead, an ode of sorts to dumb blondes. Dolby sings:
quad erat demonstrandum, baby
To which the eponymous lady replies:
ooh, you speak French?
It never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Of course, this has been an eclectic and personal selection. Hopefully you won't, to take the words of Nick Cave, feel the need to "call upon the author to explain" further.

If next year's campaign is half as much fun, we're in for a treat. Hopefully I'll get round to blogging that before it's all over. It must be said, though, that it's a shame that both Let's Get Lyrical and Carry a Poem only last a month. There's no good reason why we shouldn't do either all the time.

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