Words for music perhaps, Nick Bollinger

Love This Life: Lyrics 1978-2001
Neil Finn
Allen & Unwin, $35.00,
ISBN 1865085081

Lyrics without melody
Mahinarangi Tocker
Street Women Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0473074427

I have always been a passionate pop fan, but never a great lover of the printed lyric. While the worst wordsmiths always seem to insist on plastering their prosody all over album sleeves (Limp Bizkit spring to mind), many of my enduring favourites – Mos Def or Chuck Berry, for instance – have rarely bothered, underlining the fact that their words are written for the ear, not the eye.

Certainly the inventive and startling use of language has always been one of the thrills I’ve got from listening to pop music. Chuck Berry, in particular, always amazed me for his genius in finding the poetry in billboards, brand-names and other disposable ephemera. Before Andy Warhol, post-modernism or Marlboro Friday, he was tossing off lines such as: “A yellow convertible four-door De Ville / with a continental spare and a wire-chrome wheel” or “the Koolerator was crammed / with TV dinners and ginger-ale”, with the same casual brilliance with which he slammed out his blues licks.

More often it has been the combination of a lyrical hook and a particular riff, rhythm or chord change that did it for me. A prosaic lyric can always be improved by the right musical frame. And, it can sometimes be better if the words are difficult to decipher. As Mick Jagger once said, it makes them more alluring, and what the listeners can’t hear, they can always invent for themselves.

But a couple of recent books have made me consider afresh the worth of publishing lyrics. The first is Love This Life, a collection of the lyrics of Neil Finn, without question New Zealand’s most acclaimed songwriter; the second is Lyrics without melody, the first book by Auckland-based singer and songwriter Mahinarangi Tocker. Both have the look and feel of poetry books. No sheet music, chord charts, accompanying CDs, or even illustrations. Just words. So do song lyrics have a place on the printed page after all? Does pop music make good literature?

Neil Finn is as aware as anyone of the difficulties inherent in separating the working parts of a song. In his perceptive foreword he writes: “A good lyric is always embedded in a good tune, the sound of the words and the rhythm and phrasing all seem to be integral and essential.” But he says affection and pride ultimately brought him around to the idea of publishing this book.

Importantly, Love This Life is a nice object. Simply and elegantly designed, with Sharon Finn’s sparkling mosaics adorning the front and back, it invites you to handle it lovingly, as you would a favourite album. It’s 220-odd pages and contains the lyrics to more than 100 songs, either written or co-written by Finn – most of his officially recorded output. The sheer bulk of published songs is impressive; that so many of them are classics is awe-inspiring.

What’s odd in flicking through the pages is that songs with familiar titles are full of unfamiliar lines. For example, I could hum you all the verses, choruses and bridge of “Pineapple Head”, but I’d never have been able to tell you that it opened with the lines “Detective is flat / No longer is always flat out.”

Sometimes the print reveals dark undercurrents normally disguised by the chirpiness of the music. “Something So Strong”, for instance, I had always heard as a mantra of optimism. Its bouncing Rubber Soul-style chorus – “Something so strong / Could carry us away” – referred, I assumed, to the power of love. I couldn’t have told you much about the verses, but I could have sung you the melody, which I had always heard as reinforcing the song’s essential sunniness. To my surprise, the text revealed a seething bed of unease. “Turning in my sleep / love can leave you cold / the taste of jealousy / is like a lust for gold” goes the first verse, which casts the chorus that follows in an entirely different light. It is the temptations and fears, which are capable of carrying us away. But return to the recording and you’ll find something that the page doesn’t give you. Finn’s almost naively innocent melody, in a sense, resists the fears and terrors of the lyric. In the end, it’s the lightness of the music that defeats the demons that lurk in the lines.

With “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, probably Finn’s best-known song, I had almost the opposite experience. Unconsciously, my ear had always placed a comma after the word “dream”, as if this was a song of finality, of parting. With its aching melody, each verse concluding on a minor chord, the song always conveyed a mood of sombre reflection, underscored by the memorable line “in the paper today / tales of war and of waste”, reminiscent of Lennon and McCartney’s “A Day In The Life”. But the text reveals the opposite. Finn is really cautioning not to imagine anything has ended, because it hasn’t: “[Y]ou’ll never see the end of the road / While you’re travelling with me.” This is, in fact, where he delivers the message of transcendence that I always misheard in “Something So Strong”.

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Mahinarangi Tocker’s Lyrics without melody is a trickier proposition. As the title implies, the 36 entries in this book have never been sung. There are no tunes that will automatically cue up in your head on reading a particular line, phrase or title.

If you’ve heard Tocker sing on disc or stage, you’ll know what a playful, skilful vocalist she is. Her rhythmic sense is elastic. She plays her voice like an improvising instrumentalist, teasing it, pushing it, expanding and contracting it. And though she’s left these words to fend for themselves on the page, she’s imbued them with much of her rhythmic bravery:

a breath is a breath
is a sound is a sigh
is a knot in my belly
that I’ll never define …

 

Like her singing, there’s a freeness to her writing that defies the song form. You won’t find many choruses among these paper songs, but you’ll find rhythmic grooves and recurring motifs.

“Truth” is a word Tocker writes often. And through these sometimes tangled, often riddle-like lines she seems to be teasing out the truth: in relationships, in love, in intimacy, and imagination.

Like Finn, she often seeks to describe the indescribable; to find a combination of words that will express a kiss or a fear. But where Finn’s songs are scattered with signposts to everyday life – a TV, a small boat made of china, a Persian rug – Tocker’s often exist in the world of pure feeling: “take me somewhere / i’ve never been to / show me kisses / that / i cannot swim through…” These flights around the inside of her feelings are dizzying, daring, breathtaking, confusing – like listening to an impressionistic piece of jazz.

Still, perhaps it is the Chuck Berry fan in me that feels relief when I come to one short great poem called “My Girlfriend’s Ugly Haircut” where, for once, she throws in a few real objects: “she breaks her fingernail / against the bedside table / where she yells / and / slaps the wicker coloured hardness / that matches her words / and her fast falling tears”.

Both Lyrics without melody and Love This Life are good, useful books. Love This Life isn’t poetry, nor does it claim to be, yet it remains a beautiful, surprising volume, a valuable companion to some of the greatest pop records ever
conceived by a Kiwi. Removed from the music, Finn’s words can seem incomplete, yet studying them on their own does not detract from the music. Rather, like an architect’s drawings or an artist’s sketches, they can offer a new window onto the work. It has deepened my appreciation of the subtlety and mischievousness with which Finn pits his words and music against each other. Lyrics without melody, on the other hand, has only its words to stand on. And while Tocker’s best writing sings itself, I’d be intrigued to hear what new dimensions these poems take on, if Tocker ever finds the tunes that belong to them.

 

Nick Bollinger hosts The Sampler on National Radio, writes a music column for the New Zealand Listener and plays bass for The Windy City Strugglers.

 

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Posted in Literature, Music, Non-fiction, Poetry and Review
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