The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘lyrics’

Writers, It’s Time to Learn the Guitar, and Other News

October 13, 2016 | by

Throw everything else away. These are your tools now.

  • Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, prompting a massive spike in acoustic guitar and harmonica sales at Sam Ash Music stores around the world as writers rush to recast themselves as musicians, tearing their elbow patches off and discarding their tweed sport coats, smashing their typewriters and casting whole drawers of freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils into the street, as it finally dawns on them that they’re working in an outmoded medium facing dwindling interest from the culture at large, with not even the promise of prestige or elite status to sustain them. Don DeLillo is seeking a twelve-album contract with Columbia Records. Haruki Murakami is tripling the line breaks in all his novels and reissuing them as “Collected Lyrics.” Philip Roth sits cross-legged in silk pajamas, trying to play a major scale on the harmonica for about five minutes—he gives up, masturbates. Milan Kundera promises to go electric at next year’s Newport Folk Festival. 

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Leave Alexa Alone

October 6, 2016 | by

Listening to Steely Dan’s Gaucho.


The cover of Steely Dan’s 1975 LP Katy Lied shows an out-of-focus praying mantis floating amid bulbous plants. I used to stare at it as a kid, listening to the record in my dad’s leather reading chair and wondering who this “Steely” was. He sounded sort of like Bob Dylan, if Bob had just been defrosted out of a block of carbonite. (I was intensely devoted to The Empire Strikes Back, so carbonite was almost always on my mind.) Other Steely Dan records like Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam, and Aja opened onto a strange and ominous world: double helixes in the sky, Haitian divorcées, the rise and fall of an LSD chef named Charlemagne, someone who drinks Scotch and then “dies behind the wheel.” The photo on the inside gatefold of the Greatest Hits showed two nasty-looking guys standing in what appeared to be a hotel dining room. Read More »

On Transcribing the Lyrics to Pop Songs

August 2, 2016 | by

A still from “Prisencolinensinainciusol”

Still from Adriano Celentano’s music video for “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”

You really can’t tell what a song is going to look like until you type it, and that fact itself is interesting to me. When you listen to a song, for instance, you don’t know whether its “stanzas” are in quatrains or tercets or what. The stanzas and line breaks you install when you type the lyrics simply were not there before you typed them. They were not in your head, and they were not really in the song either. 

You discover all kinds of things. For example, I recently typed up the words to Cream’s “White Room” (1968). Before doing that, I didn’t know that the song does not rhyme. If someone had asked me if it rhymed, I would’ve had to sing it to find out. It somehow seems like it rhymes? But how is that possible.

I go around telling people that 99 percent of songs rhyme. Is that true? It might not be. Maybe songs all seem like they rhyme, but when you actually check … ? Read More »

Merle Haggard, 1937–2016

April 8, 2016 | by

The cover of Serving 190 Proof, 1979.

Ever since I started editing The Paris Review, I’ve wished we could interview Merle Haggard. No songwriter means as much to me. Unfortunately, the Review doesn’t have a series on the Art of Songwriting (and for good reasons), so for the past six years I just wished. Then last Friday, at a friend’s wedding, I met a country deejay named Rebecca Birmingham. We happened to start talking about Merle and how much his songs moved us both, how true they were to experience, how original they sound even now. We both knew he was in poor health, he’d been in poor health for years, but she had a friend who’d know how to get in touch … Four days later we got the news that he was dead. Read More »

Worst. Kid. Song. Ever.

March 28, 2016 | by

The other day, my husband and I were talking about putting together a playlist for our nieces: a list of empowering, kid-appropriate songs in which women were treated with respect. We had fun thinking of titles: Aretha and All Hail the Queen and plenty of Dolly, for sure. But also Belle and Sebastian and sixties Brit pop. I started a Spotify station based on “I’m Into Something Good” because I’ve always thought the lines “So I asked to see her again / And she told me I could” were sweet.

And then, from this place of idealism, came perhaps the most inappropriate song to place on a little girl’s playlist ever written. 1964’s “Little Children,” which was a number-one UK hit for Billy Jay Kramer and went on to chart at number seven Stateside. Read More »

Branded Man

March 23, 2016 | by

The long tradition of outlaw poets.

From the cover of Merle Haggard’s Branded Man, 1967.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.

Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties­—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”­—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.

Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” Read More »