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Friday, August 20, 2004
I just want to add a few comments to what Sasha already said about the "lit-rock" article he pointed out. First, a few corrections...

Despite any stigma, in recent years such authors as Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son),
mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and Canada's
Guy Vanderhaeghe have become backstage Cyranos, putting words in the mouths of
those with better voices and bigger hair.
Since they've been brought up, I might as well mention that in addition to the fairly recent Warren Zevon album "My Ride's Here" in which he co-writes songs with the middle two authors above as well as a bunch of other lit-folks, Carl Hiassen actually co-wrote two songs with Zevon way back in 1995 on his album Mutineer. Also, one might bring up Kurt Weill's songs, which there are two whole albums' worth of rock-ish people covering. (In the first link, you could do a lot worse than track down Burroughs' version of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" which a) kicks ass, and b) is a poet covering a playwright's song.)

For a project they had assumed had great crossover appeal, Hearst and Camp were
shocked to find that their biggest challenge was to get a distributor. Company
after company passed because they were unsure whether to handle it as music or a
book. So much for corporate synergy. "Everyone," says Hearst, "was terrified of
Uh, yeah, that's the reason guys; it has nothing to do with the fact that you're an accordian-based band that doesn't have a song as good as "Birdhouse in Your Soul." Trust me, people are not terrified of lit-music crossovers. For instance, there will presently come out a "best-of" CD of Al Franken's radio show. It is on a record label, but it also is a CD by an author. How to handle it? Well, pretty easy actually-- put out the CD with the regular barcode for music stores, and then make a slipcase with an ISBN number for bookstores.

What's the difference? Well, he's Al Franken and you're OneRingZero. Names ultimately are nice but not the be-all and end-all--it's about quality too, isn't it? I doubt they were terrified of it because there would be marketing issues--whatever, you pitch it special to Barnes and Noble and NPR and go from there, no sweat. They were maybe more terrified of it because they did not think the music and/or lyrics were, you know, worth selling. But what do I know? From the few times I've seen them, they were kind of unimpressive, but who knows? I'd have to hear the album.

More broadly, though, I think the notion that having writer-writers write lyics is an idea that's both obvious and foolishly overlooked is just silly, like saying, "Well, why can't novel writers write good sitcom scripts?" For the same reason Andrew WK (god bless him) might not be able to make a good trad-jazz album, foo'--they're totally different genres.

I'm speaking from experience here. When I first started writing songs, I tried fitting poems or otherwise pre-written things in, and they very rarely worked. To be honest, I think that lyrics-wise I really only wrote three or four really good songs until after I graduated college (and, coincidentally, concluded my creative writing degree)--I hit this very clear (in my mind anyway) breakthrough in October 2001 where I suddenly felt like, oh yeah, this is how you write songs. It can be difficult to get your mind around the form and the conventions of lyric-writing.

Of course, as much as certain lyricists would have you believe otherwise, there is a definite connection between fiction writing and lyric writing. It's fair to make the expected comparison to a sonnet: the form is there and constrains you to a certain degree, but what you put into it is unlimited. So as long as you throw certain key words, sounds, and inflections in there, you can write a convincing rock song about either some girl you like or an abused dog who finds religion. (Say.) Literary fiction (or gonzo journalism, or comic crime novels, or whatever) have their own conventions, and these will certainly shape what you choose to write lyrics about as well as how you say it. For instance, I think it's very fair to say that the particular eye for details in Mountain Goats songs is specifically in the style of short stories, whereas Stephin Merritt's writing is pretty specifically in the tradition of high-pop lyricism, just as 50 Cent's is in the tradition of hip-hop lyricism, Justin Hawkins' is in the tradition of hard-rock lyricism, etc. Neither of them draw particular styles from outside.

And, regrettably, neither do writers, by and large. Of course, this can work out OK sometimes, because you can take a good piece of prose-poetry and put good music behind and have it turn out quite well, as Tom Waits' various spoken-word songs have amply proved. But you couldn't, for instance, have Pauly Shore read a passage from Raymond Carver over a happy hardcore beat and reasonably expect it to sound good, and this is an exaggerated version of what's happening with some of these collaborations. On the Warren Zevon album, for instance, while there's one or two good tracks (Thompson's "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared," with a kind of Burroughs-y bent, and Paul Muldoon's "My Ride's Here"), by and large it does sound a whole heck of a lot like rock lyrics written by novel writers, and that's not really a good thing. The material does not match the voice, for one thing, and the sound of it is all of, although perhaps this is merely evidence that he should have gone with more poets. But by and large, I think this is the case. There's a specific trick to writing rock lyrics, which even I have a hard time articulating, and this track, as my dad likes to say, they don't got.

Of course, maybe I'm faulting the wrong people; certainly classical composers have been setting texts to music for hundreds of years now, to often stunning result, so there's no particular reason why a talented songwriter/arranger couldn't come up with something to fit. But, you know the writer tries to skew rock, the music tries to skew literary, and they kind of miss each other in the middle. No harm, no foul, but maybe the lesson is, as I learned, that you may be a decent writer, but like with writing fiction, it takes a lot of false starts and bad results and practice to write a good set of lyrics.

ADDENDUM: Re "better voices and bigger hair" which I meant to comment on earlier: Hunter S. Thompson, for one, has a better voice and is a bigger goddamn rock star than any musician discussed thus far. (OK, except for the self-writers Hawkins, Merrit, and Cent.) This is not really the issue, and I think (as Atwood does, although I sort of disagree with her too) that it's actually a case of writers wanting to try out a new form, and it wouldn't necessarily be much different if they were writing a TV voice-over or a cereal box blurb; there's maybe just a bit more enticement here, but then again again I wouldn't all OneRingZero (no offense fellas) glamorous. Know what I mean? Nor is Mr. Zevon, like him though I do. Rock 'n' roll is more fun than novel-writing, in the main, but it's not necessarily more rewarding or anything. People would probably be more interested in a Dave Eggers album than an album in which Dave Eggers writes lyrics. And Dave could do it, with hair like that (since hair was brought up, I mean).

Oh, also also, I did heard 1R0 back up Moody once, and it was fairly horrible from what I remember. It was the worst spoken-word performance of our generation.