You write them a check and you then add zero
Looking For Lewis And Clark"--Sid Griffin, old Long Ryders song
I took a break from my holiday-card making tonight to watch a special about how hellish conditions are in Iraq for ordinary people. I think it's important to know these things, and yet we rarely see documentaries on the lack of rights of womens' rights in our ally Saudi Arabia, or various other of our allies.
So I took a break to look up the lyrics of songs I like. I started with the Santana featuring Michelle Branch song "Game of Love". I love this song, and yet the lyrics are far better when they are mixed into a video of Carlos playing guitar solos while Michelle sings and fireworks sputter than they are when one sees them on the printed page. They do talk about romantic longing as like being outside a candy store, which reminds me that I saw crucial snippets of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory this weekend, and I think it would be really cool if we had Santana Featuring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Talk about your childhood wishes.
Since my "cool lyrics" jag was not quite satisfied, I went to a set of websites for the old band The Long Ryders, who used to do this great post-Gram psychecowboydelia song called "Looking for Lewis & Clark". These lyrics, though, while entirely evocative, don't really say very much, so I am still in search of a hip lyric to inspire me tonight.
I suppose this is the problem with having been a teenager in the 1970s. My friends and I insisted on a certain sort of lyrical flair in any music. It's not that the lyrics had to be "artistic" to be good--but they had to have that something. It's hard to explain how both "Sweet Lorraine" and "Drift Away" could suffice lyrically, though neither is rocket science, and the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack just did not suffice. We admired songs with a hint of the literary or a gasp of wordplay or just good old fashioned fun. A long-playing record in this pre-CD era was considered defective if it did not come with a lyric sheet. Some albums, such as Patti Smith's "Horses", were more important for their lyrics than for their music (the line "Jesus died for someone's sin, but not mine", which ultimately segued into a cover of "Gloria", summed up something very important in its time, though I have no idea what it is). Elvis' Costello's entire early career was built on catchy tunes with clever, angry lyrics. The art rock bands all built elaborate constructs of music and lyrics, ranging from the deft light touch satire of the early Roxy Music albums to Peter Gabriel's "man dressed as a flower" pretense of the first Genesis albums to the cynical, literary lyrics by Pete Sinfield that set off Emerson, Lake and Palmer's organ-heavy classical rock with suitably blimp-like accompanying words.
On the "real rockers" side, Springsteen's first four albums are as important for the beat-like Southside juke lyrics as they are for their music. Even chart-toppers like Supertramp were focused very much on the wit of the lyric.
The early UK punk bands like the Pistols and the Damned were lyrically interesting, but so many times the attempts to mimic old rocker or mod modes made them hopelessly retro. The Clash could make social commentary seem as boring as early American bandstand with their pedantic lyrics, while Gang of Four eschewed the clever music in favor of full scale pontification. The New York bands like Television and Talking Heads were much more based in 70s style "meaningful lyrics", while the Ramones were a colossal (and well taken) lyrical joke.
Many of the rock bands and post-punk bands which arose thereafter re-glorified the lyric as an important part of the song. U2's first three albums were lyrically intriguing, as social and spiritual concerns were driven forward much more straightforwardly than some other rockers of their time were doing. The Manchester sound bands included some that glorified the lyric (Joy Division comes to mind) and some for whom the lyric was secondary to the sound (the 4AD bands come to mind). A series of wonderful American roots and sixties retro bands like Green on Red, Dream Syndicate, the Long Ryders, Guadalcanal Diary and the dBs tried to recapture the lyric as an important part of the pop and rock song. These bands really ended up laying the groundwork for today's "alternative music" culture. During 2002, when I have become slightly better acquainted with indie and alternative bands of today than I was when the year began, I've been struck by how this genre has become its own sort of specialists' music, a bit like be bop was to jazz. The catchy, intelligent lyric is still very much alive among these bands, as are bands for whom the lyric is entirely inessential. I think many bands were influenced by REM, which always considered the lyric an inessential part of the entire "mix" of a particular song, until quite well along in their career.
Nowadays radio music involves a good bit of that boy band and girl band stuff that is utterly without lyrical charm. Even hip hop, a lyrics-based form, has betrayed its initial promise of giving "real" social commentary and instead largely gone down a by-way of misogynistic irrelevance. I think hip hop's an interesting for with some quality practitioners, but the stuff that charts nowadays is largely disappointing.
The old question posed by the 1960s music is back with us, I suppose. Is the lyric important as something catchy and fun, or can rock and pop music really "mean" something? I am in the latter camp--music must be lyrically meaningful, or I would in the main prefer it be instrumental. But maybe the new pop and hip hop just recognizes that all music is in some ways elevator music, incapable of saving souls.
I must admit, though, that I frequently find my hymns on the lyric sheets of songs I love, and I will continue to pore over the texts of peoples with guitars until I come to dwell in the House of the Lord forever.