Words and Music: Three Stories
Some people don't know what to think when you tell them your two biggest influences are Lightning Hopkins and Robert Frost.
—Townes Van Zandt
When I was a college sophomore in the late 1970s, I took poetry workshops from a noted narrative poet. The first week of class, he gave us a handout of poems and song lyrics, without identifying the authors. Not whole poems or entire lyrics, just snippets. We were asked to differentiate the poems from the lyrics. Not all song lyrics rhyme, and some of the poems he gave us did, so it wasn't as easy as it might sound. It was his way of showing us that poetry is superior to song lyrics, and we would have long discussions about the differences. They were enthusiastic discussions, because there was always someone—sometimes me—arguing that the Leonard Cohen fragment was better than the Dickey or the Snyder.
Looking back now, something strikes me as strange that didn't then: unlike many poets of his generation, my teacher was and is a narrative poet whose poems tell stories, just as many song lyrics do. I don't think he was opposed to the storytelling qualities of the lyrics he selected, it was more that he thought poetry is superior to song lyrics, and was perhaps worried his students would start basing their work on Dylan, Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and other songwriters. He wanted to draw a line in the sand, but in a certain way he was on the side of the line he didn't think too highly of, whether he knew it or not. For the record, he was a great teacher, if a bit old-school.
Much of the power of poetry, which began as song, is found in its sounds, whether hard or soft, vowel or consonant, whisper or wail. Listening to poetry requires concentration, as there's no music to listen to along with it. Whereas when I hear a song for the first time (and many times after that), I don't pay attention to the words. It's the music that moves me, makes me care or not care, and after that I can listen to the words. Listen to them consciously, that is. The words come through the mist of the music, so to speak, and our unconscious minds hear them whether we're trying or not. The words may be perfect as poetry, but if the music isn't compelling, I turn it off.
Poetry began as something that went with music, words that were read to the accompaniment of the lyre (those Greeks!), thus the word "lyric." Only very gradually, and only in some cultures such as ours, did a divide grow between the two. My former teacher's insistence on the difference between poetry and lyrics isn't so much a prejudice of his as a quirk of the cultural/historical moment, not a Truth but a chance meeting of place and time. To many people, the idea that poetry could exist without music is unfathomable. The printing press helped take music away from poetry, and recording technology helped bring it back
In 1984, while in graduate school at the University of Utah, I wrote a poem which I called "Fun." I sent it to many magazines for publication, with no luck. When I gave readings, I always read the poem, because I believed in it. I put it in my first book of poems, The Country of Here Below, published in an edition of 500 copies in 1987. From that time on, I never saw it in a bookstore anywhere. But in January 1993, Bill Bottrell and Kevin Gilbert, Sheryl Crow's producer and keyboard player, took a break from recording her first CD, Tuesday Night Music Club, for want of better lyrics to a tune they already had in mind. They went around the corner to Cliff's Books in Pasadena, where they found a used copy of my book. They liked the poems, thought they fit the raw feelings they were after in her songs, and bought the book. They took it back to Sheryl, and asked her to sing "Fun" to the music.
I wasn't there, but I'm told that it worked. They needed the song to take place somewhere, so they set it in Los Angeles, on Santa Monica Boulevard, by adding a chorus that repeats words from the first line of the poem. They took some of my words out as well, including "the genetic engineering lab," and you can hear why: it's hard to sing that phrase. Out of the original 36-line poem, 30 lines are used, and four are replaced by the chorus. Here's the poem:
"All I want is to have a little fun
Before I die," says the man next to me
Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing. He says
His name's William but I'm sure he's Bill
Or Billy, Mac or Buddy; he's plain ugly to me,
And I wonder if he's ever had fun in his life.
We are drinking beer at noon on Tuesday,
In a bar that faces a giant car wash.
The good people of the world are washing their cars
On their lunch hours, hosing and scrubbing
As best they can in skirts and suits.
They drive their shiny Datsuns and Buicks
Back to the phone company, the record store,
The genetic engineering lab, but not a single one
Appears to be having fun like Billy and me.
I like a good beer buzz early in the day,
And Billy likes to peel the labels
From his bottles of Bud and shred them on the bar.
Then he lights every match in an oversized pack,
Letting each one burn down to his thick fingers
Before blowing and cursing them out.
A happy couple enters the bar, dangerously close
To one another, like this is a motel,
But they clean up their act when we give them
A Look. One quick beer and they're out,
Down the road and in the next state
For all I care, smiling like idiots.
We cover sports and politics and once,
When Billy burns his thumb and lets out a yelp,
The bartender looks up from his want-ads.
Otherwise the bar is ours, and the day and the night
And the car wash too, the matches and the Buds
And the clean and dirty cars, the sun and the moon
And every motel on this highway. It's ours, you hear?
And we've got plans, so relax and let us in—
All we want is to have a little fun.
People have approached me over the years to tell me that when they heard "All I Wanna Do" on the radio, they knew it must be based on a poem, that there was just too much going on for it to be a traditional song lyric. I love these people and have had conversations with them about other song lyrics, whether based on poems or written as lyrics. There's never a consensus about which might be better, but to know that people still discuss such things is quaint, and lovely. I lean toward the opinion that if a lyric has to have music to make it art, it's not poetry. And it may not be poetry to begin with, as it wasn't intended to be treated as anything other than a lyric. Admittedly, "Fun" was written as a poem, not a song lyric. On the other hand, the lyrics I've written were certainly not meant to be considered poetry. They were written with music in mind.
With every success story, however, there's a downside. To this day, seventeen years since the song came out, when I meet someone and they ask (because they're American) what I do, I say that I'm a poet. "How do you make a living, though?" they ask, to which I reply that I'm also a songwriter. "Any songs I might have heard?" they ask. And when I say "All I Wanna Do," they almost invariably say, "Oh, you're THAT guy." Which means that they read the People magazine piece, or the New York Times Sunday Magazine piece, or heard the "All Things Considered" story on NPR, or saw me on television. And then, whatever their literary or other intelligence might be, they ask what Sheryl Crow is like. They rarely ask about my other poems.
Here's a bigger downside: one night years ago my late friend Bill Ripley, hoping to keep the party going, said to me, "All I want is to have a little fun before I die." I remembered the line, and used it to begin my poem "Fun" the next day. When my book came out, he didn't seem to care about the poem, but when it became a hit song, he tried to sue me for a very large amount of money. You can't copyright something you say, but he and his lawyers were undeterred. I had just quit my teaching job at Marlboro College, eager to write for other musicians, and suddenly my royalties were frozen for a year. I had no income and had to hire several lawyers to defend myself. I "won," so to speak, but Bill and I never spoke again.
David Broza is an Israeli pop star with an international following who grew up in Spain and Israel, and lived just outside New York for much of the 1990s. Most of his songs, whether in Hebrew, Spanish, or English, are based on poems. When I met him in the mid-'90s, he told me that when he moved here he tried to make sense of America by reading its poets. What an idea! This led him to set their poems to music: Walt Whitman, Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Alberto Rios, Liam Rector, Matthew Graham, and, eventually, me. David told me that in Israel about half the songs on the radio are based on poems by Israeli poets. Which made me wonder what the songs on our radio stations might sound like if half of them were based on poems.
When David and I sat down under a tree on a summer day in Vermont, he had his guitar and I had my first book of poems. He asked me to read some poems aloud, and he strummed a little, here and there. But when I read "Opal, Wyoming," he grabbed the book from my hands, read it himself, and started to play. He asked me to help him add one line to each stanza to make it fit his music, and by listening to the music, my job was made easier. In less than an hour the song was done. It has appeared on two of his CDs as "A Night in Wyoming," and was turned into "Night in Masada" for the concert at Masada, Israel, that was then turned into a PBS special called "David Broza at Masada: The Sunrise Concert." So a poem that I wrote in Virginia about a town in Wyoming that was turned into a song in Vermont became a song that takes place in Israel. Here's the poem:
If you never left this place
you might believe the world
was dust and wind and sky,
the days so hard that no one
save your mother doesn't drink.
A jukebox floats in smoke
in the Red River Bar
when you drive the nine miles
to get Pabst on tap,
and your eyes turn red.
At home your wife frowns,
thinking you're drunk, so you
stand on a chair on one foot
and juggle three apples
until she leaves the kitchen.
It's late when you check
on the horses and hogs
and tell them to sleep,
so late the cool air
comes down from Montana
and you button your shirt,
standing in the red dirt
beside the barn watching
the parade of stars,
watching the world.
Many musicians have set poems to music, too many to list here. One of my favorites is Van Morrison's version of William Mathieu's musical setting of W. B. Yeats' "Crazy Jane on God." Mathieu and Morrison are mostly true to the poem, except for a few added words, two stanzas inverted, one stanza used twice, and the last line of each stanza repeated twice, which echoes the chorus feel of that repeating line. This sounds like a lot of changes, but the song still sounds like the poem. It's a bluesy version, using more repetition than the poem contains, and I think poets can learn something from using that kind of repetition. As my friend Mike Fleming pointed out to me, repetition in music illuminates a possible rationale for distinguishing poetry from lyrics: music provides a context of patterning that gives the repetition of words a different meaning and a different value than if the music were absent.
But what if half the songs on the radio, or on CDs, or available for download, started out as poems? Which of course begs the question, what if the poems they use are terrible poems? What kind of message does that send? Are we back to the line in the sand drawn by my teacher? No, we're not. A bad poem is no better than a bad lyric. At least in the ear, and mind, of the listener.
I went to graduate school at Hollins College with the novelist Madison Smartt Bell thirty years ago, and we've been friends ever since. In 1997, he sent me a rough draft of a novel called Anything Goes, which was published by Pantheon in 2002—his eleventh novel at that time. Normally a very private person who doesn't talk much if at all about current projects, he sent me this version and asked me to read it, then write a song lyric from the point of view of one of the characters. The novel concerns the bass player in a blues-rock band, so it made sense. Nonetheless, I was honored. I wrote the lyric, sent it to Madison in Baltimore, and a week later got a cassette in the mail. He had set it to music and sung it while playing guitar. I wrote another one. He set it to music. Before we knew it we were in the studio, making a demo, while I still wrote my poems and he continued revising his novel.
Madison said he had always liked my poem "On Eight Mile," which appeared in my second book, The Way Back. It's based on my friendship with my cousin Roby Warren, who once owned a strip bar called The Silent Woman on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, not far from where I was raised. When Madison set it to music for the demo, we both knew it was one of our best. Here's the poem:
On Eight Mile
She appears as if at the edge
of a screen, her brown hair black
in this light, her legs moving the way
she wants you to want them to move.
It's hard to see the woman you loved
dance naked in a room full of men
and come up to your table after
and ask for a light, and the light
in her eyes is still the same,
only her job has changed. So she changes
into clothes and we cross the street
to a quiet place where we can talk,
and the talk turns to me, to what
I do that makes me think I'm better
than her. I'm not and I know it,
but she won't be convinced. Nothing
I can say will sway her the way
she sways on stage. And nothing
can make me look away.
Madison dropped three words and added one, mostly sang it as it was, and it worked. On the demo, he added a guitar solo at the end that to my mind mimics a stripper taking off her clothes, intricate and fast and almost confusing, loud but also satisfying as it crescendos. We hired singers to sing the songs on the demo, thinking we would try to get others to cover the songs, but in two instances we couldn't find singers who could sing in the right key, so Madison sang them. When we got a record deal from Gaff Music, the only caveat was that we had to use the singer on this song and the other song that Madison sang on. Scott Beal, who ran Gaff Music, didn't know it was Madison singing those songs. Madison said he'd see if the singer was available. It turns out he was. The guitar on the final version matches Madison's invention.
That CD, our first, is called Forty Words for Fear. We had the astounding luck to have it produced by Don Dixon, who had co-produced, with Mitch Easter (who became our engineer), most of the first two REM albums. Prior to the recording session, I mailed Don some poems that were new at that time, postcard poems, and he told us before we even began recording that our second CD should be based on these poems. It's not too much to say that he had us figured out before he even met us, and more important, he had seen to the heart of what we were trying to do. Sure enough, our second CD, Postcards Out of the Blue, is based on poems from my third book, Postcards from the Interior. In both cases, Don insisted that I read poems which were then set to music, not as songs but as spoken-word pieces that are mixed with other sounds that approximate what's going on in the poems, including the use of short wave radio and salt and pepper shakers. Two such poems are on each CD, and the rest of the songs are just that, songs, sung by Madison. Some are based on my poems, and others are based on lyrics I wrote specifically for each project. Madison would sometimes e-mail me a title, or a line, or some kind of idea for a song, which made my job that much easier. Following an assignment, for me, is much more pleasant than staring at a blank page in a notebook, or a blank computer screen, or whatever writers are staring at these days.
One roadblock Madison and I occasionally run into while collaborating is that I send him poems I think might make good songs, and he points out that they're lyric poems which don't tell a story. I often then write a song lyric that does tell a story, because it would be too strange to write a narrative poem after going so long without doing so. I'm perfectly aware of the artificial distinction I'm making. I guess what that teacher said so long ago has stuck, like it or not. When I write poems, I read them aloud over and over to make sure the sound is right; when I write lyrics, I sing them aloud repeatedly, not just to see if they can be sung, but to see how certain words and phrases sound in a singing voice. Singers obviously sing as they write; poets are less likely, in my experience, to be as preoccupied with sound as I am. Maybe I'm in the right business after all.
Much of the popular opinion regarding the difference between poems and song lyrics comes from expectation: higher for poetry, lower for lyrics. The poetry snob in me wants to say that poetry is the higher art, and, as I said at the beginning of this essay, poems have to stand on their own, both on the page for silent reading, and in the air as sound. Good ones have the music in their lines to sustain a reader's attention; bad ones don't. Lyrics have the added dimension of the music they're set to, and shouldn't be compared to poems on the page alone. Music makes lyrics easier to remember, to the point that many of us know hundreds if not thousands of songs by heart, but can recite far fewer poems. Songs have shaped our collective consciousness far more than poetry has, for better or worse. This may not be true for all poets, but it's true for the wider community we all belong to, poets or not.
Bell, Madison Smartt. Anything Goes. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. Bell, Madison Smartt and Wyn Cooper. Forty Words for Fear. Gaff Music, 2003.
Broza, David. "A Night in Wyoming." Painted Postcard. Music by David Broza, lyrics by Wyn Cooper. Rounder Records, 2002.
Cooper, Wyn. "Fun." The Country of Here Below. Boise: Ahsahta Press, 1987.
"On Eight Mile." The Way Back. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2000.
"Opal, Wyoming." The Country of Here Below. Boise: Ahsahta Press, 1987.
Postcards from the Interior. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2005.
Crow, Sheryl. "All I Wanna Do." Tuesday Night Music Club. Written by David Baerwald, Bill Bottrell, Wyn Cooper, Sheryl Crow and Kevin Gilbert. A&M Records, 1993.
David Broza at Masada: The Sunrise Concert. The Angel Group/WTTWN, 2007.
Morrison, Van. "Crazy Jane on God." A Sense of Wonder. Lyrics by W. B. Yeats, music by William Mathieu, arranged by Van Morrison. Rec. 1983. Mercury Records, 1985.