How to write lyrics good like DK

A young songwriter friend of mine (you know this is DK speaking unless otherwise noted, right?) asked me how to write better lyrics, “to use metaphors and stuff.”  Kind of a big mistake, given my lust for commentary.  Indeed, I’m afraid that’s all I gave him, commentary—I think I just interpreted some of my lyrics instead of a. explaining where the song came from and b. giving general advice for songwriting.  I have noted that I am also (in my humble opinion) a lousy guitar teacher.  Part of the problem is that I’m self-taught, but the bigger part of the problem is that I started playing musical instruments in early childhood and can’t remember, much less come up with a method for, the steps in one’s technical development.  I was rather a late bloomer as a songwriter, but the situation is similar.  I’ve blotted from my memory the bad songs that one must write before establishing a decent batting average.  Well, I’ve been fretting and worrying over this topic, and as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I am all too happy to display my frets and worries for the world’s horror or edification as the case may be.  I have come up with some basic principles that guide my own practice; I still don’t know how to recommend steps that will help a younger practitioner make progress.  I will briefly list these general principles, but then I can’t forebear running through an actual compositional process.

1.    Truth to the imagination.  This principle varies historically: if we lived in the 18th century, I would not put it on the list.  But in our culture, art is first and foremost self-expression.  The key point here is that artistic creation is not merely a technical exercise.  To put it positively, when the artist translates the promptings of the imagination into material form, the technical means will emerge on their own, as it were.

2.  Problem solving.  If we regard artistic creation as merely a technical process, then problem solving is an end in itself—clearly an error considering the primacy of the imagination.  However, precisely because technique is limited in its capacity to accommodate the depth and complexity of the imagination’s products, the translation from imaginary to material runs into stumbling blocks.  For example, we have all had the experience of attempting to relate a dream to somebody else and feeling that the dream has lost its flavor, its immediacy, its force.  But the poet is one who has advanced in the art of translating dreams into words.  That is, the poet is experienced, has made progress, in the techniques for sustaining the force of the imagination’s promptings.

3.  Consideration of the audience.  This is a delicate matter since the temptation to pander—to seek approval—can be quite strong.  For songwriting, it is perhaps an encouraging thought that words are merely icing on the musical cake.  On the other hand, the general public, being not experts in music, are influenced by the, shall we say, superficials of lyrics.  Moreover, an artist is to some degree a perfectionist even though perfectionism is a recipe for neurosis and self-destruction—I think I’ll write a whole post on the true statement: “Perfection is for punks.”  In any case, you want the words to be intelligible.

4.  It’s a mixture.  Like fiction, which alternates between narrative and drama (dialogue), songs incorporate two different forms, words and music.  This contradicts the previous dictum a bit, but only because the general public is probably even less expert in understanding poetry than in understanding music.  In short, lyrics are poems.  Now, I beat myself up for years comparing myself to Keats and Milton and Shakespeare, to say nothing of Dylan or Lennon and McCartney.  The bottom line is, you can only do your best (and that not even all the time), death comes to us all, and you can always hope for posthumous fame.

I now want to describe as best I can how I wrote a song, the composition of which, being recent, is fresh in my memory.  But first I must acknowledge that each of us has unique gifts, and discovering and mobilizing those is a lifetime task.  So no doubt I will refer to capabilities of my own that are different from those of the reader.  Specifically, I have acquired some knowledge of the history of art and literature and I have cultivated some of the techniques that poets employ.  I also possess ridiculous vocab.  Please bear in mind, Dear Reader, that you too have such capabilities, and try not to compare yourself to another.

Here are the lyrics of a song, called “Auditory Man” that I wrote a couple of months ago and that Louder Than Dirt has just started working up:

I am an auditory man

I am not present in the scene of being seen

I do not understand the optical machine

I am an auditory man

I am a listening device

I hear what you’re saying you don’t have to tell me twice

I name the numbers from the rattle of the dice

I am a listening device

O I am one for whom all sounds make sense

Sizzle of the steak and the clatter of the bones

Grandfather clocks tell-tolling out like Big Bens

Distant chime of power saws and diesels on the roll

Hounds that howl in answer out to sirens on patrol

I cannot see what dress she wore

Can’t even see the flowers hanging on the trees

Facial expressions to deny or displease

I cannot see what dress she wore

O I am one for whom all sounds make sense

Big hall hollers and the noble saxophone

High bird callers and the voice that calls me home

I am an auditory man

I love you talking dirty on the telephone

I love to hear my baby make delicious moan

I am an auditory man

Okay.  This is quite typical of the way I work: the refrain, “I am an auditory man” came to me as a line of blues.  There’s the great Muddy Waters song “I’m a backdoor man,” and years ago I wrote a straight blues that people seem to like called “(I’m the) Fat Man(, baby).”  Well, precisely because I had already written “Fat Man,” I did not want this to be a 12-bar blues, but rather a blues melody over a more conventional tin-pan alley structure.  I mean, that’s rock and roll, which uses blues inflections but isn’t wedded to the form.  But I suppose that consideration came later; at the moment I was concerned to develop the idea of “auditory man.”  I suppose I should explain how that seminal idea “came to me.”  Big disclosure: I’m a school teacher by way of day gig.  I try to keep the artistic realm and that of the workplace separate, but that’s a fool’s errand for many reasons.  Anyway, in the teacher business we talk a lot about learning styles and I have always been conscious of my membership in the minority group of auditory learners—visual learners pretty much rule.  And so the refrain is a prideful embrace of who I am.

So the first step after accepting the gift of the refrain is to develop it.  Here my practice is influenced by renaissance poets who use a single figure of speech as the basis of an entire poem.  So, for example, in developing “Bacteria” I’m pretty much putting in everything I can think of about bacteria: buttermilk, saprophytes, spirochetes, and so forth.  And so everything about sound—but I deliberately exclude music (the Westminster Chimes and the “noble saxopone” are exceptions to my exception).  Actually, I think I tried to create a verse out of what eventually became the bridge, just a list of sounds:

Distant chime of power saws and diesels on the roll

Hounds that howl in answer out to sirens on patrol

This list is a reflection of my suburbanite youth and my suburbanite present.  I can hear the tractor-trailers bellow out on the highway (probably also a memory of The Rolling Stones’ “All Down the Line”: “O hear the diesel drumming”).  I was fascinated by the sounds of a power saw: we didn’t use such a thing at our house and for a long time I didn’t know what it was.  I delight in using words that are often cheesy examples of onomatopoeia: sizzle and clatter.  Note also the mixed alliteration and assonance of “hounds that howl in answer out.”  I love lists (cf. Wordsworth’s sonnet “Westminster Bridge”).  I threw away a bunch of items.  For example, I tried to work in the observation that the air horns on freight trains often sound a diminished chord, but that’s just too recherché.  Note to novices: way easier to cut than to add; come up with plenty more than you need.  Oh yeah, the first line of the bridge is stolen, er, plagiarized, er, adapted from a 19th C. French writer named Theophile Gautier who said, “I am one for whom the visual world exists.”  But see, it’s not plagiarism ’cause I’m saying the opposite: for me it’s the auditory world that exists.

Then I set to work writing the verse having decided that the list would be a bridge.  I think I wrote the second verse first.  Totally stolen from the best lyric poem in English, “The Ode to a Nightingale”:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet

But in embalmed darkness guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit tree wild.

Now, now, settle down.  I didn’t really plagiarize.  I did what artists do, which is to draw upon the past adapting it to the needs of the present.  I really don’t remember how people were dressed after we part.  I just don’t notice peripheral stuff like flowers up high.  Indeed, you will notice that the first two thirds of the poem, er, lyrics are devoted to the deficiencies of auditory learning.  This is merely an organizational matter—remember I do not place items in the order in which they were composed.  Only after I wrote the “dress she wore” verse did I compose the eventual first verse, and that too involved some reordering.  I thought of “the optical machine” before I thought of “scene of being seen,” but I so enjoyed the homophone in the latter that I made it the first line after the opening refrain.

The third verse was total joy, sexuality as the primal symbol of life-affirmation.  Auditory sex?—Why, phone sex, obviously. Note the problem solving: how to make sex auditory. And again a theft from Keats, this time more outright: in the “Ode to Psyche” a virgin choir makes “delicious moan” in adoration of a goddess.  The image (an auditory rather than visual image) is already pretty erotic, but I think I up the stakes slightly and in the recontextualization evade the charge of plagiarism.

That’s about it, kiddies.  I really dig this song and it’s going to rock.  And with one more exhortation I will end the lesson: believe that what you create is great and create as much as you can.  That is, let others tell you when it sucks, don’t say so yourself.  And have plenty in reserve.

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