Archive for October 31st, 2011


This is not a post on bad songs. I will not discuss Terry Jacks singing “We had joy we had fun, we had seasons in the sun”, surely one of the most insipid pieces of pop music ever recorded. And no Archies- a band actually formed to make music for a television cartoon- singing “Sugar Sugar”, which by the way was the best selling song of 1969, a good thing to remember for anyone tempted to romanticize popular tastes in the 60s. The good stuff was rarely on the pop stations, and even good bands usually released their weakest tune as a single. (The exception to this is Creedence Clearwater Revival, which consistently made music that was both really good and really popular).

Nor is this a post about good songwriters writing bad songs. We will not discuss Bob Dylan’s “Wiggle Wiggle”, nor Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”. Indeed, most songwriters write some throwaway songs, songs that sound like a contractual obligation coincided with a lack of inspiration. The only songwriters that I can’t recall a sloppy song by, offhand, are Paul Simon and Bruce Cockburn. I’m not saying that all their tunes are equally good, but I can’t think of one that was not well crafted, and I can’t think of one that resorted to cliché.

Popular music, of course is not reliant on lyrics; while they can be important they are seldom essential. I can think of few lyricists whose work could stand alone as poetry (Leonard Cohen doesn’t count, as he is a poet in his own right, and is right there in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry). But some songs, some really great songs, have lyrics that are laughable once you ask yourself “Huh?”

Chief among these are the tunes of America (the band, not  the country). I like America (the band, not the country), I really do. They perfected the whole 70s Ethereal Vocal Harmonies Floating Above Chiming Acoustic Guitars thing. Their music is often beautiful, always pretty. But they are guilty of some of the most godawful lyrics that have ever come down the proverbial pike. Their first hit ” Horse with No Name” should have sounded the alarm: after informing us that “the heat was hot” he sings “After two days in the desert sun my skin began to turn red. After three days in the desert fun I was looking at a river bed”.  Note to aspiring songwriters: it is probably always wrong to use the word “fun” in a song. It only sounds like you ran out of words that rhyme with “sun” or “one”.

But at least “Horse with No Name” has some sort of narrative; it is the story of a guy riding a nameless horse through the desert fun. Eventually he has an epiphany: “The ocean is a desert with its life underground and the perfect disguise above”. No such sense can be made of another (really good) America song, the timeless “Tin Man”, surely the silliest of their very silly lyrical canon. To quote at length:

Sometimes late when things are real
And people share the gift of gab between themselves
Some are quick to take the bait
And catch the perfect prize that waits among the shells

But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man
That he didn’t, didn’t already have
And Cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.

So please believe in me
When I say I’m spinning round, round, round, round
Smoke glass stain bright color
Image going down, down, down, down
Soap suds green like bubbles.

Huh? “The tropic of Sir Galahad”? WTF?

America belonged to what I call the HIR school of songwriting, as in “Hey, it rhymes”. But perhaps the greatest example of the HIR school, one which also sheds some light on the psychology of drug use, is the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, the chorus of which goes: “Come on baby light my fire, come on baby light my fire, try to set the night on…fire”. I imagine Jim Morrison, in a drug-induced stupor, having a breakthrough:  “Wow, man, ‘fire’ rhymes with ‘fire’. ”

But no one ever accused Morrison or America of being great songwriters. On the other hand, even some great songwriters wrote some pretty nonsensical stuff. Take Bruce Springsteen, especially in his early career. And in that early pearly career there is no song so full of ridiculous imitation Dylanisms than “Blinded by the Light”. Indulge me, but it really deserves to be studied in its fullness:

Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat
With a boulder on my shoulder feelin’ kinda older I tripped the merry-go-round
With this very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground
Some all-hot half-shot was headin’ for the hot spot snappin’ his fingers clappin’ his hands
And some fleshpot mascot was tied into a lover’s knot with a whatnot in her hand
And now young Scott with a slingshot finally found a tender spot and throws his lover in the sand
And some bloodshot forget-me-not whispers daddy’s within earshot save the buckshot turn up the band

And she was blinded by the light
Cut loose like a deuce another runner in the night
Blinded by the light
She got down but she never got tight, but she’ll make it alright

Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the east
He says: “Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funny bone, that’s where they expect it least”
And some new-mown chaperone was standin’ in the corner all alone watchin’ the young girls dance
And some fresh-sown moonstone was messin’ with his frozen zone to remind him of the feeling of romance

Yeah he was blinded by the light
Cut loose like a deuce another runner in the night
Blinded by the light
He got down but she never got tight, but he’s gonna make it tonight

Some silicone sister with her manager’s mister told me I got what it takes
She said I’ll turn you on sonny, to something strong if you play that song with the funky break,
And go-cart Mozart was checkin’ out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside
And little Early-Pearly came in by her curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride,
Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin’ backyard bombardier
Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card,
he said, do what you like, but don’t do it here
Well I jumped up, turnedaround, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said take a right at the light, keep goin’ straight until night, and then boy, you’re on your own

And now in Zanzibar a shootin’ star was ridin’ in a side car hummin’ a lunar tune
Yes, and the avatar said blow the bar but first remove the cookie jar we’re gonna teach those boys to laugh too soon

And some kidnapped handicap was complainin’ that he caught the clap from some mousetrap he bought last night,

Well I unsnapped his skull cap and between his ears I saw
a gap but figured he’d be all right

He was just blinded by the light
Cut loose like a deuce another runner in the night
Blinded by the light
Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Oh but mama that’s where the fun is

I don’t even know what to say about that. I have always imagined that somewhere in New Jersey a haggard looking woman is sitting at a bar. She turns to the guy next to her, takes a drag on her cigarette and says in a rough voice “Name’s Pearl. They used to call me Early Pearly. Used to drive a curly wurly. Maybe you’ve heard of me?” (Manfred Mann changed a lot of the lyrics for his #1 version of the tune, including Pearly’s gender).

Such exquisite nonsense has rarely been recorded. I realize that Bruce was just trying to sound Dylanesque and all, but it really doesn’t work. Dylan, in his prime, could throw random images at you and it sounded kaleidoscopic and poetic. When the young Springsteen tried it it just sounded really dumb.

Not that Dylan always has been all that Dylanesque; he has used every cliché there is at some point, from “quiet as a mouse”, from “John Wesley Harding” to “changing horses in midstream”, from “Blood on the Tracks”. And every cliché fits him like a glove.

Speaking of Dylan, I had been a fan from early adolescence until about 10 years ago, around the time he made that Victoria’s Secret commercial. I understand an old coot enjoying cavorting with a bevy of young beauties in their skivvies, but I lost a lot of respect for him. It happened to coincide with his voice, long straining, finally blowing its last gasket. I realize that not everyone liked Dylan’s voice even when he was young, but I did; I thought it very expressive. Now he just croaks. But he has come up with a winning formula: a really tight band plus American roots music and voila! critical acclaim. Fine. I don’t begrudge him riding his musical cruise control into his twilight years. But I don’t listen anymore.

But it is not just in the realm of the would-be poetic singer/songwriters that bad lyrics happen to good songs. To cite only one example, look at the Four Tops great Motown classic “Get Ready”, which features these immortal lines: “Fee fie fo fum, look out baby here I come”. The next time the chorus comes around it’s “Tweedly dee, tweedly dum, look out baby here I come”.

But I will leave you with perhaps the greatest dumb lyric in a good song ever, from Sly and the Family Stone’s wonderful “Everyday People”:

“And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby”.

Boy, they don’t write them like that anymore.

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