I read your songs - they're great!

Last updated 13:28 24/05/2013

I know I've written before about songwriters who fancy themselves as poets and poets who move into music - but it's on my mind this week. And so I thought we could look at the best - and maybe the worst - examples of lyrics that stand out, stand proud, on the page; lyrics that have been bound together and sold as poetry, collected, collated and are well-served in book form.

The most famous example, to my mind, of an actual poet achieving success and fame with and through music is Leonard Cohen. And that's the obvious reason this stuff about poetry and lyrics has been on my mind. I told you earlier in the week about interviewing Sylvie Simmons on stage as part of an evening celebrating the music and words and life of Leonard Cohen - and promoting Sylvie's wonderful biography of Leonard.Fifteen Poem

And it was a wonderful evening. A great celebration.

And since then there have been many conversations - one that came up was about the connection between Cohen and Suzanne Vega. I'm a great fan of her music and her collection of lyrics (which features an interesting piece where she and Cohen interview each other) is one of my favourite collections of songs and poems. Vega is to my ear - and eye - a fantastic writer. She takes it seriously. She's smart, she has something to say and manages to nail it; beautiful, thoughtful images, well crafted, well placed.

I returned home from the Cohen evening and purchased the Kindle edition of Fifteen Poems; new Cohen poems to chew over. I've collected up as many of his poetry books as I can find - and the novels. And the collection of his poems and lyrics, Stranger Music, is my all-time favourite book of poetry I reckon. Top five at any rate. And it's the poetry book I've returned to most often, also the one I've loaned out more regularly than any other.

And it's worth remembering. Particularly now with Cohen in a sort of extended victory lap as he tours the world again and again with his songs and sympathetic band, that he was a poet. Is a poet. It's not just use of the term "poet" as some platitude-dressed-up-for-college because so Stranger Musicmany people think the words have resonance and reverence and relevance.
 
The guy had released a couple of novels and a small library of poetry long before he ever gathered up a bunch of fingerpicking and flung it in the general direction of a guitar. He was famous in his home country, one of Canada's greatest living poets, a national treasure.

I also think it's fair to read Leonard Cohen's lyrics, his songs, as poetry - to read them aloud, or for him to at least - because many of his songs were composed that way, adapted from earlier poems or written as poems in the first place and then connected with music. The Passionate Eye

But so many of the songs we figure have amazing lyrics actually have great melodies, clever musical ideas that support and protect the fragility of the words, couching them at times, promoting them on other occasions.

Paul Kelly, to my ears a very fine lyricist, has said that if the music is doing its job properly it charges the good lines and obscures the weak ones. A fine way to think about the intertwined roles of words and music - and this comes from someone who clearly does think about that. After all he even named one of his albums Words & Music.

So I carry that line from Paul Kelly with me and I apply it often to, well, words and music. 

But I'm a sucker for books of lyrics and for musicians who try their hand a poetry. I even gave Ryan Adams' poetry a go - ghastly, awful stuff. I found Adams' poems harder work than Jewel's efforts and Billy Corgan's book, Blinking With Fists. And that's not exactly  a compliment to the poetry of Jewel and Corgan.

(Blog On The Tracks readers will remember that Billy Corgan's Havelock North efforts were not hugely appreciated).

It's been a week of thinking about the weight and worth of Cohen's work, his words, his world.

And it's been lovely to reminisce and to be reminded of all that is so powerful in those words. I cherish the Cohen books I have.

The only songwriter with a collection of lyrics that means anything close to Cohen's work for me - as seen on the page - would be Bob Dylan; I've gone through a couple of volumes of his collected lyrics. But still I don't quite see this term poet quite holding true there. Same with Lou Reed - although I think he had it. For a while. Or almost.

The Paul Kelly book is a favourite too, and Nick Cave's work was enjoyable enough to scan over. I find a lot of Patti Smith's poetry - again, also actually a poet - close to impenetrable on the page. I like the way he words work as songs. I should probably check out the published books of lyrics from Jarvis Cocker and Tom Waits because I enjoy their lyrics. And I think their work could stand a reading or two.
A Night Without Armour
But so often what we think are great words are only actually successful because of the way they are married to the tune. Paul Simon is the great example here I think. There are lovely, evocative phrases, sure.

And there are some amazing story-songs too, but I found reading them aloud, having them on the page, did nothing for me. Still it wasn't as bad as Sting's work.

The Paul Simon lyrics need the music to bounce around inside of - for proof of that you can look no further to just how wrong Peter Gabriel got it when he covered The Boy In The Bubble in such a way as to think it was the words of the song that made it. It was, of course, that marriage between the words and the tune, the interesting ideas with the big, big boom of the drums and the accordion weaving in and around that bubbling, popping bass line. And then those words sprinkled in and around; that's what made Paul Simon's version of the song. It wasn't just the lyrics. It was how and where the lyrics were placed.

I wanted to like the book of Simon's lyrics - because I'm a fan of the work on record. But his words didn't hold their place - or value - for me as viewed on the page (with only one or two exceptions).
Blinking With Fists
The other great poet-turned-musician for me is Linton Kwesi Johnson and I like going back to the page with him, because of the vernacular, the patois - and for the message that sits inside that.

I love the treatments made for his lyrics when turned into songs - and I can even sit with his music and read along with the books; taking it in the two ways at the same time.Paul Kelly

I know we've talked about this before and maybe this isn't of interest to you but indulge me here, and remind me, who are the musicians you can read on the page?

What lyrics for you stand up - outside and away from the song?

Do you own any books of collected lyrics; or poems from established singer/songwriters?

And are there songwriters out there you wish would release a volume of collected - or selected - lyrics?

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