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News » Opinion

Lend Me Your Ears

Writing lyrics is harder than it looks



Of the three Johns whose words fill this space week by week, only one has “songwriter” on his résumé: John Saltas. That is not to say that the other two, John Paul Brophy and John Rasmuson, don’t fancy themselves songwriters-in-waiting. Waiting, that is, for someone to bet $100 they can’t write a decent pop song.

I have never tried to write a song, but I have sometimes thought I could. Those moments usually followed a performance by a singer-songwriter whose melodies soared but whose lyrics foundered—too many forced rhymes, stilted similes and dull imagery for even good guitar-playing to redeem. As a guy who spends his days fiddling with words, I figure I could write pretty good lyrics if I put my mind to it. On the other hand, I have almost no confidence in my ability to compose music. My musical career peaked in high school, but I could probably noodle a melody on the piano if there were money at stake. Therefore, I think of myself primarily as a Bernie Taupin, not an Elton John. In their decades-long collaboration, Taupin wrote lyrics and then John put them to music.

Taupin is no Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan. Take, for example, his lyrics from “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”: “My old man’s drunker than a barrel full of monkeys/ My old lady she don’t care./ My sister looks cute in her braces and boots/ handful of grease in her hair.” Nothing special there, but Taupin gets credit for alliterative Bs, the cute/boot internal rhyme, and the visual of the girl. I’ll bet I could do as well, maybe better.

My preconceived notion is that writing lyrics is a process of putting the best words in the best order, to borrow from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and to link some of them in a pattern of end-rhymes. Then, while listening to a Keith Richards interview, I got a surprising lesson in the “vowel movement” songwriting technique employed by the Rolling Stones. Richards talked about “choosing the right sound at the right time to put the right ooh or ahh and whether a word should contain that vowel or not.” He went on to relate a conversation with Warren Zevon in which the late rocker lamented his “problem with consonants.” I am partial to “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns & Money” and other Zevon songs. I would never have guessed he was troubled by Ps, Ks and other pesky consonants as he wrote them.

By the time Richards was finished, I had the feeling that, just like skating backward, writing lyrics is harder than it looks. I eventually realized that Taupin and John were the exception, not the rule. Saltas confirmed it: “Whenever I did lyrics first, it came out like silly love letters to a girlfriend—lots of words that rhyme with heart, flowers and forever (and whatever her name was).”

When songwriters submit to interviews, you hear a lot of talk about the music and how it evolves. “Yesterday,” arguably Paul McCartney’s best song, took root as he slept. “I woke up with a lovely tune in my head,” McCartney has said. To maintain the shape of the melody as he worked on the song over a period of months, McCartney used words like shoetrees. Until replaced by “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,” the first-line shoetree was, “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs.”

Paul Simon and Billy Joel turn the Taupin-John model on its head. They write the music first. “The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts,” Simon explained to journalist Tom Moon in 2011. Anyone who has listened to Graceland, Simon’s landmark album with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as many times as I, understands exactly what he is saying. In such songs as “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” you hear Simon fitting English and Zulu words to the music with a lapidarist’s touch.

The takeaway for a songwriter-in- waiting is just this: Lyrics and music rarely evolve independently. “You have to match the cadence of the words to the music,” Saltas says, “so doing them in tandem is how I mostly wrote them.” Coleridge’s “best words in the best order” may work for poetry, but when it comes to a song, Simon says, the interplay of best words and best melody is essential. When that happens, you get goose bumps, according to Paul Westerberg, the former songwriter and lead singer of The Replacements. “My talent is never, ever doubting goose bumps.”

Nothing I have written has caused goose bumps. That is because my prose tends to the eye, not the ear; the head, not the heart. Writing this column (without respecting vowels) is easier than writing a song, I concede. However, in either instance, writing right is a challenge. A good role model for songwriters-in- waiting like me and Brophy is Shane McAnally. He writes 200 songs a year for artists like Lady Antebellum and Kenny Chesney. He has seven No. 1 hits to his credit. McAnally doesn’t wait for inspiration; he sits down with a guitar every morning and works on a song. Of McAnally’s daily writing regimen, Jody Rosen of The New York Times wrote, “Commercial country songwriting is an art that leaves no room for artsy airs; there’s no waiting around for the muse to strike.”

So, those short on talent can compensate: a little sweat, three guitar chords, some la-la-la’s—even a few drops of blood. (“Open your veins and bleed” was the legendary Red Smith’s metaphor.)

I’ll bet Brophy could do it!