A few thoughts about lyrics from a guy who couldn’t hear them
I started playing guitar about forty-five years ago and in my mind’s eye I’ve always envisioned standing at the mic in front of a band and singing to you just like Ricky Nelson used to do back when he was on his parent’s TV show. With a knack for being able to play pretty much any tune I’ve ever heard maybe only once or twice, it’s been easy to drop into any band that needs me or sit behind a singer that needs some sweetening. And at parties I can lead a sing-along for inebriated folks just fine. But when it comes to stepping out on my own to sing…I can’t. And it’s not because I can’t sing… it’s because I can’t remember the lyrics.
From my earliest memories, my ears have never processed music as most do. I hear the totality of a recording, can pick out the instrumentation and beats just fine. But after the first line of a song or the killer chorus, I’m clueless. What amazes me so much about the old rock guys like Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler is not that they can still fit into size twenty-nine inch jeans, but that they can remember all the words to songs they sang thirty-five years ago. I struggle to remember what I ate for breakfast this morning.
Should I start thinking hard enough about the words to particular songs, this is literally all I get: my boyfriends back and you’re gonna be in trouble…oh lord don’t you buy me a color TV…if I fell in love with you would you promise to be true and…eight miles high…this old town is filled with sin it’ll swallow you in…one pill makes you smaller and the other one…what?….makes you larger…bigger…taller….I’m clueless.
Admittedly, it’s kind of odd for someone who loves to listen to singer-songwriters and even the great storytellers like John Prine or Guy Clark, and and at the end of the song not know what the hell they were singing about.
Two years ago it all changed.
Late one Saturday night when everyone in the house was sleeping I twirled the dial, or more accurately clicked the remote, and landed on public television and Austin City Limits. Although I’d never seen her perform before, Lucinda Williams has always been a favorite of mine since the 88 release, and I was enjoying the show when I noticed she kept looking down at the music stand slightly to the right of where she was standing. When the camera swung around at one point to pan the audience, I could see that she was looking at the lyrics and it changed my life. If Lucinda needed to look at the words to the songs that she wrote herself, and still have just a damned fine career in spite of it, maybe that would work for me too.
Coinciding with that, I had just finished reading Dylan’s book, Chronicles Volume 1, and it motivated me to pull another book I own off the shelf. This was something I picked up years ago and never looked at, and it’s like every single lyric Dylan ever wrote. Leafing through, here’s the first thing I saw:
Crimson flames tied through my ears
Throwin’ high and mighty traps
Countless fire and flaming road
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ‘neath heated brow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.
While I can’t explain why, it was those eight lines that gave me pause. It made me realize that I’ve been short changing myself by not taking the time to listen to what was right in front of me. And while it’s still a struggle because my ears don’t seem to be wired the way they ought to be, I take the time now. If I don’t hear it, I’ll find it and read it. Lyrics….did you know that some are absolutely amazing?
Oh…I bought a music stand. I print out the lyrics to songs now, and sing them from start to finish. I’ll be much more fun to have over at your party now. Maybe.