Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i] Except, of course, that it’s not. It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing. Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.
And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something. For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here. And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.
For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music. If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism. In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful. Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.
At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance. Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.
Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.
And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me. I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar. Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself. While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder. For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything. I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things. I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.
But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures. Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary. Songs have too much recursion and repetition. It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse. And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade. But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.
Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well. They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940). But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are. And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.
What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself. Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song. Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic]. And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment. Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument. And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow palpable because Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.
In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music. There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ. On with the show.
Time: 55 minutes.
[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/