On Being Petty

Keep it simple, stupid.  No no, not, you.  You’re not stupid.  It’s just an expression.

The day after Christmas and we’re all still digesting, which makes it doubly difficult to get right back to work.  Of course, some people don’t have loved ones to celebrate with.  Or don’t have enough food to still be digesting a day later.  Or a home to celebrate in.

And now, thanks to me, we’re all depressed and guilty for feeling bad for having to work the day after Christmas.  Aside from my ongoing “feud” with the FDA, the most cumbersome and overreaching federal agency including the IRS, there is time to write a bit, and dog-sit our grandpup, Rory, so don’t cry for me Argentina.

Who is in charge here? A scene from “Driving Miss Rory.”

Speaking of which, have you ever wondered why some songs and lyrics seem to just work? Whether it is imagery or onomatopoeia (a great word for its liberal use of vowels), some songwriters have a way of communicating with listeners in a way that others don’t, and this is often reflected in album sales.  (Do they still track album sales? Do they sell albums?  They still call it an “album,” don’t they?  Only now, instead of debuting, an album “drops,” conjuring images of a giraffe birth.  Smoking In Bed is a kind of album.  Well, a double album, and each chapter is a song. Some of the chapter titles are actual songs! And it didn’t drop so much as it fell out.  But enough about me, back to our topic…)

Bob Dylan is a musical artist who stands out because of his lyrics.  Proof?  His Nobel Prize was for literature, not music.  A lot of people think Dylan’s singing sucks.  And not just today, when it does kind of suck, but from the beginning when it was actually pretty damn good.  With the exception of “Lay Lady Lay” (or maybe it should be Lay, Lady, Lay? — One of his least subtle lyrics, BTW), he’s a talk-singer which isn’t for everyone.  You know who hates Dylan the most?  Singer/songwriters with great singing voices who have never written a hit song, that’s who.

And his lyrics, for which he has deservedly reaped awards and acclaim and been hailed a prophet, are deep and poetic and sometimes very, very long.  “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” has 892 words!  Up to this point in the post, you have read almost 400 words.  The Star Spangled Banner, which seems to go on for hours before each and every sporting event, is only 80 words (yet apparently 600 notes).  Even if you sing all 4 stanzas, three of which no one knows let alone has heard, you’d still only have 320 words.

Here’s a link to all 826 words in a lively-paced live version, with lyrics in English and Spanish! Is it the same number of words in Spanish? If you find out, please let me know.

Dylan is far from simple, lyrically (though he can be simple, and silly: “they’ll stone you when you’re riding in your car,” anyone? His use of creative literary device and symbolism sometimes makes it necessary to read his words a bunch of times before you figure them out, and then you might find an inner meaning and have to keep exploring.  And you still might be wrong.  People write books on Dylan’s lyrics.  My final paper in a course “Bible as Literature”at the University at Buffalo (check out our basketball and football teams these days!) was 30 pages on religious symbolism in Dylan songs (I got an A — breathes on fingernails and buffs on lapel). You might hear the song a bunch of times before catching a whiff of Jesus, the “shelter from the storm” in Shelter From The Storm.”

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm”

A creature void of form? Sure, it’s no “I Am The Walrus, koo-koo-ka-choo,” but please!  You figure that out. Sure, the words are easy enough, vocabulary-wise, but what the heck?  Then, at the end of each verse, even if you’re not sure what Dylan said, he tells us she’ll give us shelter from the storm, and we all understand that. It’s good. Comforting even. So we kind a’ know what he’s saying even if we don’t know what he means. That’s how Dylan gets away with it. We might all scratch our heads, but we still get it.

Springsteen too.  “Strap your hands ‘cross my engines?” Before you have time to figure out what that means exactly (yeah, yeah, of course, his girl’s riding on the back of the bike and has her arms around his chest holding herself close, and he can feel her warm breath on the back of his ear and… where was I?), he’s yelling that “baby we were born to run!” Yeah!  All right!  Woo-hoo!

Last year, a week or so after the unexpected passing of Tom Petty, our band covered a Petty song “in memoriam” for a show down by the LA River in Frogtown (Yes, there is a Frogtown, near Silver Lake.  No, it’s not a slur.).  It seemed that not playing Petty would be an oversight. It was necessary. And cathartic.  The guy lived and died in L.A., for godsakes.

Link: Running Down A Dream – sorry about the commercial. Check out Mike Campbell’s harmonics.

We settled on “Running Down a Dream,” a rockin’ tune with a nice guitar solo at the end.  Learning the lyrics, I was stricken by simple perfection. When writing songs, lyrics, as opposed to the waiting, are the hardest part, for me anyway.  I always figured one must employ a unique turn of phrase or particular consonance to craft a good lyric.  But if we learned anything from Tom Petty, it is that the opposite can be true.  (Note: Tom Petty is another artist who is disliked only by singer/songwriters you never heard of even though they have amazing voices).

To wit, the opening line:

“It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down, I had the radio on. I was drivin’.”

This kills me.  That’s about as simple as you can get, and it doesn’t get more complicated after that.  It was beautiful.  Sunny and warm. The radio’s on.  Oh, yes.  Tom is driving. That’s it.  Why is this good?

Because we all know EXACTLY what this feels like.  Not only is he drivin’ on a beautiful day, he’s singin’ along to Del Shannon’s “Runaway.”  We all know what this looks like, feels like, smells like and sounds like.  We’ve all driven in a car with the window down and the radio on singin’ along out loud like knuckleheads.  So we relate.  Here’s another example from the Petty repertoire:

“Oh yeah. All right.  Take it easy baby, make it last all night.  She was an American girl.”

Wow!  Okay, so later on she does stand alone on the balcony hearing the cars roll by on 441 like waves crashing on the beach, which technically is simile (there’s a “like” in it so it’s simile, right? Metaphor sounds so much more elegant and refined.  And it is, because you don’t need to use “like” or “as.” Metaphor doesn’t call attention to itself. Poor simile.), but Tom keeps it simple, stupid.  Over and over again. That’s why even if you don’t listen to his music a lot, you probably can sing along to a lot of it.

Most aspiring songwriters think that in order to be good you have to be complex, or subtle, or stylish.  No!  Sure, there are genius musicians (Cole Porter, Elvis Costello) who can craft dense yet absorbing prose and brilliant composers offering deeply complex tonal vistas in weird keys, but when it comes down to it, you want to give the people what they want, so keep it simple. Stupid.  Not simple AND stupid.

That works for writing, too.  Mark Twain is a good example.  He’s just talking, telling you a story, or cracking wise.  You can practically smell the cigar smoke. There’s a reason he is widely considered America’s greatest writer.  He makes it look easy. That’s a good quality to emulate.


So what have we learned today?  Maybe that if you want to tell people something, you shouldn’t try to disguise it with some linguistic stunts or pretty phrases.  Or maybe you should do that if you’re good at it.  Or maybe we didn’t learn that either?  Does it really matter what we learned?  Or if we learned?  And what is reality?

That’s another glob, er… blog, for another day.  Thanks for reading!

That’s going to do it for @kleimansays in 2018.  Happy New Year everyone.  See you right here in 2019.  2020 just around the corner.  Lots of work to do.

#SmokingInBed #BobDylan #TomPetty #KeepItSimpleStupid #lessismore

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