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April 27, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

I’m all washed out

Yesterday after work I sat down and started playing a moderately obscure Ween song (“What Deaner Was Talkin’ About”) and then I went ahead and recorded myself doing it. How geeky I am becoming! But it keeps me entertained and really that is the whole point. Here it is:

Afterwards as I listened back to it, I started to wonder for the first time about the lyrics. What exactly was Deaner talking about? About the wash? About Gene being a king? So I looked up the song on songmeanings.net , the premiere source for totally absurd speculation about song lyrics. (I think this website has great potential but needs some serious work. Also I guess it’s probably illegal to post all those lyrics in the first place, so it will never really become all that great. I heard that Yahoo! is about to start a legal lyrics site which is WAY overdue on the internet. Why music publishers would want to stop fans from finding out the lyrics to songs (also tablature) is beyond me. I would like to see them allow websites to reproduce lyrics and then maybe last.fm could get into the game…) Anyway the folks on songmeanings.net claim that “What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” is about drugs, and while that’s likely true, it’s kind of boring. I think the only other plausible explanation is that it is just random nonsense lyrics.

I am thinking about this because I’ve had trouble writing lyrics lately. The thing is, I’m not interested in writing nonsense lyrics, I’d rather try to be clever and meaningful. But what happens is, when I start writing something that’s kind of accurate and reflective of my real life, the words eventually escape my grasp and take on a life of their own, drifting away from my real experiences and feelings. It’s like it’s impossible to accurately sketch out your life in song form, because songs are so simple and repetitive, and if you start including rhyme schemes then you’re really stuck. And the rhythm of lyrics means that I end up including things that seem kind of cool in the context of the song, but that are not what I originally intended to write about. Grrr. It’s best just to be oblique, I guess.

Poking around for advice on lyrics, I quickly found some suggestions from the BBC that included the following points:

  • Often, less is more. Pop lyrics are usually very simple and involve a lot of repetition. You can afford to repeat the central point of your song several times eg, ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones.
  • Try to ensure your lyrics make sense. Stick to one tense ie, set the song in the past or the present day, not both at once unless you really know what you’re doing!
  • Your song should make one major point eg, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’, ‘Everybody Hurts’. Complicating your song with multiple meanings will lessen its impact.

I don’t agree with these points at all! How uninteresting! I guess it’s because I am not really interested in pop music at all, and I am not trying to engage with a broad audience. Instead I prefer references and riddles so subtle that, in the unlikely event that anybody pays attention to my lyrics, there is only a tiny chance that they will know what I’m talking about. But if they do get it, they might be like, “whoah!” because it will be so appropriate. I am not sure what the name of this technique is but it’s sort of somewhere in between Family Guy -style pop culture referencing and Salman Rushdie-style literary riffing.

My favorite example of this technique (maybe I’ll call it lyrical riffing) comes from the band Pinback. I was listening to their album “Summers in Abbadon” all the time around a year ago, and I especially liked the last song, with the inscrutable title “A.F.K.” And I wondered what they were singing (it is hard to make out) but found the lyrics online (which is illegal, by the way, for no logical reason). And at the end of the lyrics, there is this pretty part where they sing “I miss you, not in a Slint way, but I miss you.”

And I was blown away. Such a great line! But so hard to explain! This is the kind of stuff I love — minutiae, footnotes, sneaky references that nobody will understand in a million years! I am not sure how many people in the whole world would really understand that “not in a Slint way” line — hundreds for sure, but maybe not thousands. But for those of us who get it, it is so amazing…

That is what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m not really interested in seeing a million faces, and rocking them all. But I would hope that someday I will be able to rock a handful of faces as a few people, somewhere in the world, totally get what I am trying to say. We’ll see.

First I have to keep practicing harmonica, perhaps.