“In the beginning was the word,” begins a delightful book, a collaborative epic that has been a best seller for over 30 years. During the tedious hours I spent last week sitting for the renowned Italian artist Francesca Bulimi (who had been commissioned by a well-known politician’s wife to paint a portrait of my navel), I pondered that most impressive line and its relevance to modern industry, the unemployment crisis, and the immigration problem.
Finding none, I was about to file it away in the cold case drawer of my cranial cavity when Miss Bulimi dropped her paint brush and staggered back, a look of amazement suddenly creasing her overly botoxed brow. Somewhere within the grotto of my gut button, she declared, she saw an image of the face of Ira Gershwin, long famed as the lyricist of a composer whose name escapes me.
It was then that I understood the true value that words hold in the realm of music, and the importance that, for once, this column concern itself a little more with education and a little less with navel-gazing.
So here we are. Thanks, once again, for stopping by. Get out your notebook; there may be a quiz.
Music has always been full of meaning. To grasp the full value of a song, though, one must listen to the words. Heck, without words, it’s just music.
If Beethoven had just had a Justin Timberland or a Scoop Doggy Poop to add words to his seventh symphony, he might be as famous as Paula Abdul today. And where would Elton John be without Bernie Taupin, or Burt Bacharach without Hal David and Carol Bayer Aspirin?
Nearly as important as the words themselves is how well those words are recorded. You need clarity. You’ve got to use microphones that are turned on and turned toward the mouths of your singers. The Tijuana Brass and the Ventures are but two of the victims of this oversight, which as we know was far too commonplace during the drug-fueled sixties. Just get it together, Martha!
And make sure the words are intelligible, for goodness sake. That’s not just a problem with much of Pearl Jam’s output, it goes back at least to “La Bamba,” which was miraculously a hit even although I couldn’t understand a single word. I think it was supposed to be a about Bomba, the Jungle Boy, and they didn’t even spell his name correctly.
And remember Linda Ronstadt? Once known for her impeccable pronunciation, she threw it all out on her last couple of releases and stalled her career. As I recall, even the titles of those final albums didn’t make any sense.
Just think how neat it would be if you’re idiot enough to appear on a game show that is sure to destroy your marriage. “So, what do you do?” the host asks, and in front of millions of viewers you reply, “Well, Bob, I’m a lyricist. That’s a person who puts words in songs. And I owe it all to José Sinatra, who inspired me in his column in the Troubadour!” Just think how proud you’d feel.
But first, let’s be just a little bit honest. You’ve got to ask yourself a very important question. Look deep into the bowels of your brain’s heart and ask, “Do I really have what it takes to be a popular lyricist?”
Well, go ahead, ask. I’ll wait . . .
For an easier answer, try tackling these essential questions:
1. What word would I be most likely to rhyme with hand?
c. Ayn Rand
2. How would I likely complete the phrase Put your hands in the air . . .
a. like you just don’t care
b. like you really got a pair
c. using your feet, as you bleed to death from the stumps of your wrists
3. Every time I write the word “lady,” I must be aware that it will likely come out of the singer as
4. Which word must always go before pride?
5. What comes just before the dawn?
a. the darkest hour
b. the crow of an impatient rooster
c. romantic crackheads
6. “Beer” is an acceptable rhyme for “she” only in
b. an idiot’s mind
Now, without cheating, count how many questions you’ve just answered and divide by six. If the result is one, that shows that you’re the type of person who is playful, can follow directions, enjoys reading, isn’t afraid of challenges, appreciates honesty, is sensitive, and abhors phoniness. It is also the number of chances you have out of a million to become the next Bernie Taupin.
For me, a perfect fusion of music and lyrics is contained within the superb songs of Singing in the Rain, that glorious MGM musical from 1952. Just like all cinematic masterpieces, it’s been screaming to be remade for a long time, and I was thrilled to learn that the new version begins shooting in June. Baz Luhrman will be directing Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, and Owen (kissy-lips) Wilson (substituting for Paul Walker), and the film is scheduled for release about a year from now, on April Fool’s Day.
That’s just a word to the wise.