In the Grip of Words: On Lyrics, Pt. 1 (April '08)

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Joined: 03/26/08
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Registered User
Joined: 03/26/08
Posts: 10
03/27/2008 10:15 pm
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a’changin’

Those lyrics are from the first cut and title track of Bob Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, released in 1964 on Columbia Records. The song and the recording came to be regarded as the inaugural anthem for a generation of social and political turmoil. Times did change and not only socially and politically but culturally as well.

What’s most notable about Dylan’s third recording is that TTTAaC was his first to feature only original compositions. Despite the frank, unvarnished moralizing of many of the songs, TTTAaC also marked the beginning of Dylan’s transformation (the first of many) from a folk protest singer to an artist with an original voice and vision – a path that he’d always intended for himself but that now had come into vigorous focus. His songwriting abilities matured abruptly and rapidly. It wasn’t until Dylan was in his late teens that he’d discovered the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Frank O’Hara and subsequently, following the inevitable trail of influences, the French Symbolist poets: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and François Villon (“Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud” – “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” Blood on the Tracks, 1974).

The churnings of history also affect the dynamics of a recording. TTTAaC was released in January of 1964, and it was impossible for listeners of the time to separate the stark pessimism of Dylan’s songs from the still-fresh grief over their martyred president. All the songs on TTTAaC were written some time before the Kennedy assassination, of course, and the recording was completed in October of ’63, a month before that day in Dallas. The album seemed not only poignant and timely but also prophetic.

In hindsight, however, perhaps one of the most lasting, profound cultural changes Dylan’s recording not only heralded but actually initiated was the change it had on popular music: the rise of the singer-songwriter.

Suddenly and thereafter, it wasn’t quite enough anymore to be a musician (not enough, at least, for the record-buying public): now one also had to be a poet. Fortunately, and perhaps again to Dylan’s credit, an impeccable singing voice was optional.

Well, maybe not so suddenly and maybe not exactly there. Like all art forms, the making of music involves such a web of influences that any occasion acting as a watershed event on the public imagination has a thousand precursors to the historical-minded. And maybe “poet” is too strong or narrow a word, though Dylan certainly was one. But for the youth culture of the 1960s embracing emerging popular music, the notion of folk-slash-rock-n’-roll-slash-guitar-rock performer composing his own songs became pervasive.

As did the notion of the songwriters performing their own songs. The old Brill Building model of producing hits would soon begin to wane. Carole King may have been still holed up in her cubicle there toiling away over songs for others, but her Tapestry was just around the corner. Perhaps the greatest performer-composer popular songwriting juggernaut of all time, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were hitting their stride. Is it a coincidence that the following year, 1965, saw The Beatles release Rubber Soul, a recording notable in their discography for its leap of maturity both musically and lyrically?

Probably not. Over the next two years and culminating with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the work of Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, and Jimi Hendrix, et al., changed the state and practice of popular songwriting forever. NB: Dylan’s 1965 “Like A Rolling Stone” clocks in at 6:09 and “Desolation Row” at 11:25; his 1966 “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” at 11:23 – no wonder, as he wrote in his song to his wife, “Sara,” off his 1976 release Desire, he was “staying up for days/In the Chelsea Hotel/Writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” The trend toward introspective, self-conscious songwriting that was not only musically more complex but lyrically dense has no better explicit depiction than the back cover of The Beatles’ SPLHCB. (And there’s a wonderful confluence of ironies and associations here: the Hotel Chelsea is located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the area associated with the Tin Pan Alley days of New York songwriting, an era of admitted influence on Lennon and McCartney. In their way, Dylan, Lennon, and McCartney were all paying homage to the world they were dismantling.)

And the trend has continued unabated ever since. In a recent Slate article, William Weir wrote, “The year-end top 10 songs from 1960 to 1969 have an average word count of 176. For the 1970s, the figure jumps to 244. In 2007, the average climbed to 436. The top 10 for the week of Feb. 2, 2008, features six songs over the 500-word mark… While music can express what words cannot, music rarely gets a chance in contemporary pop…”

So. What’s a songwriting guitarist to do?

More on that next time.


Thom Palmer is a writer, designer, and very amateur musician. His most recent novel, Desire, was published last year.
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