Clearly I can’t really write about this song because it was only bestowed on the public yesterday and I’ve probably only listened to six times. Mind you, that’s taken me over an hour and a half. What happened is that my good friend Paul made a hugely interesting point when he said that Bob Dylan’s chief motive is “to be perverse for the sake of it.” Alex Petredis in The Guardian said that the song is as “wilfully contrary as ever”. So this got me wondering about lyrics in Bob Dylan songs. Do I understand the lyrics of my favourite Bob Dylan songs? More generally, do my favourite songs have comprehensible lyrics?
There’s a fantastic programme on Radio 4, also available as a podcast, called “Soul Journey”. It takes a well known piece of music and people talk about what it means to them. Some of the people you hear are involved in the making of the song but most of the people are “ordinary” people, if such a person exists. There’s no presenter, just a series of soundbites of people talking about a song. Today, having had a good discussion with Roo about the importance of lyrics in songs, I took Bruno for a walk and listened to a “Soul Journey” programme which was all about “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding. A classic song, but, until today, not necessarily one of my favourites. One of the “ordinary people” talking was a 27 year old woman talking about her disease of autoimmune hepatitis. A year ago she knew that she would have to have a liver transplant. She said that listening to music was very important to her during her illness. “Sometimes I didn’t know how to focus my emotions because I was so angry or so sad. Listening to music and working through those emotions made it so much easier.” She loved the Otis Redding song and “it has such a happy tempo but once you sit and listen to the lyrics it takes on a different meaning. The line ‘I’ve got nothing to live for and nothing’s going to go my way’ resonated with me”.
There you go then. I had no idea that those were some of the lyrics of the song. I liked the song well enough but listening to people talk about how the meaning of the words of the song “resonated” with them, turns it from a good song to a great song. You probably knew about the words of this song anyway but bear with me please.
So getting back to “Murder Most Foul.” Alex Petredis again: “For a song that lasts 17 minutes, there isn’t a great deal to Murder Most Foul musically. The arrangement hovers atmospherically in the distance, a haze of tumbling piano, lightly struck drums and violin, its softness at odds with the tone of the lyrics….Dylan swiftly abandons any pretence of there being a vocal melody: it’s essentially a recitation set to music. The point is clearly the lyrics, which are dense and intriguing enough to hold your interest, and give the listener plenty to digest. Quite aside from all the cultural references, there’s a narrator that keeps switching from Kennedy himself to Dylan, who in turn seems to keep switching from firebrand mode to (a) grimly resigned old grouch.” Broadly speaking, the first half of the song describes a lot of detail about the assassination of JFK and the second half contains a litany of music, film and literature. Paul Robinson is absolutely correct when he says that Bob Dylan is being perverse. There’s a line about Carl Wilson in Gower Avenue which, if you want to understand the reference, you need to know that Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys sang vocals on a Warren Zevon song where the last line is “Look away down Gower Avenue”. I agree that that is perverse. It’s a bit smart-arse; maybe that’s why I love that sort of thing but it certainly defies understanding. What is the point of all these references? What does it mean?
Bob Dylan has apparently written over 1000 songs. How many of them are amazing? Obviously it’s a matter of opinion but I would hazard a guess that I could name 50 songs that I would describe as fantastic. Some of them follow a very clear narrative. “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”, “Spanish Boots Of Spanish Leather”, “Hurricane” to name a few. Musically good, lyrically interesting. However, I’m not sure I listen to them as often as I listen to “Visions Of Johanna”, “Desolation Row”,”Angelina”, “All Along The Watchtower”, “Foot Of Pride”, “Blind Willie McTell”, “Highlands” etc. which are much more impressionistic. Possibly that’s it – giving an impression of a feeling rewards multiple listens whereas a simple story telling doesn’t. For me anyway.
How important is it to understand what a song is “about.” R.E.M. were a very popular band and I love their first five albums but the lyrics are deliberately indecipherable. The War On Drugs have made two fantastic albums in the last few years but the words are completely irrelevant to the beauty of the music. The sound of the words is important but the meaning of the words is uninteresting. I realise now that my Dad was right and the Moody Blues words are pretentious rubbish but that doesn’t stop me still enjoying listening to the songs. The second best album of all time is “Starsailor” by Tim Buckley and unless you think “oblivion carries me on its shoulder” is profound, the words are secondary to the sound. Counting Crows first album is one of the best debut albums of all time but forget the words. Pink Floyd? Most of Neil Young? Nick Drake? Green On Red? The Cure? Nothing profound lyrically but all great artists.
On the other hand, most of my absolutely 100% cast iron great songs have brilliant lyrics. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell, “Late For The Sky” by Jackson Browne, “No Time To Cry” by Iris DeMent, most of Billy Bragg, Loudon Wainwright III, Half Man Half Biscuit. The songs wouldn’t be nearly as great without such interesting, profound or funny lyrics. And to take more esoteric and extreme examples, “Caroline” by Jefferson Starship, “Darling Belle” by The Incredible String Band, “When A Woman Goes Cold” by Mary Gauthier, “Propinquity” as sung by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Considering A Move To Memphis” by The Colorblind James Experience and “Jesus Loves You” by The Old 97s are amazing because the words are so clever.
So over to you now. Some questions to consider.
1) What are your favourite Bob Dylan songs and do the words make sense?
2) What are your favourite songs with great lyrics?
3) What are your favourite songs with uninteresting lyrics?
4) Can you say that the lyrics of a song are great when their meaning isn’t clear?
5) Should I have paid more attention when Mr. Mitchell was teaching me poetry for my O level?