“Hey Mister that’s me up on the juke box” is on James Taylor’s third album, “Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon”. I have always thought it is the best track on the album. James has a reputation as a soft rock crooner (You’ve Got a Friend) but his earlier stuff , like this one, could have an edge to it, e.g ….”I need your golden gated cities like a hole in the head”…..or these lines …”Let the doctor and the lawyer do as much as they can / let the springtime begin/ let the boy become a man”.
The musical structure of the song also has an unsettling quality to it. It starts with the chorus , followed by a verse , followed by another chorus , then a second verse . But the second verse has a completely different rhyme scheme and chord structure to the first, and it’s followed by a bridge, then the chorus then a coda to end the song. So the song has five distinct lyrical and musical sections.
Last week there was a Simon Pegg retrospective at our local cinema and Slim invited me back to his one bedroom apartment after we watched an early showing of “Shawn of the Dead”. Slim had prepared dinner and by that I mean he had peeled back the tin foil edge of a take-out carton of butter chicken, removed the cardboard lid, and handed me a plastic fork and a can of Old Style lager. He then lapsed into one of his silences.
I found myself noticing the beads of condensation on the clear plastic lid of the steamed rice container. The rice was long past fluffy. The evening stretched before me like a Sunday in Ottawa. My only recourse was to ask Slim an irritating question.
“So, Slim”, I said, “who do you think is the better poet, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?”
Slim’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Bob Dylan’s not a poet”, he snapped,“ he’s a poetic songwriter”.
“And Leonard Cohen is…..?”
“Leonard Cohen is a poet who writes songs”.
“Ok then, what’s your favorite Bob Dylan line, verse, whatever”
“I can only think of the bad ones”
“So what’s the worst Bob Dylan line ever?”
Slim blinked once like he was accessing a folder in his brain with an internal mouse.
“John Wesley Harding, ‘As I walked out One Morning’, third verse:
‘Depart from me this moment
I told her with my voice’.
It’s like saying ‘there’s going to be a jailbreak somewhere in this town’”
“But that’s Thin Lizzy”.
Slim looked like he had taken a sip of battery acid.
“My point is they are expressing the obvious just for the sake of a rhyme. It’s obvious that the jailbreak will be at the fucking jail and how else will he tell her except with his voice, they are in a field, for fuck sake!”
To buy the song, album, click on link above, the album is also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen).
In this lyric, I wanted to imply a story through a series of images. This proved to be harder than I thought! This is one of those songs that John and I kicked back and forward a bit, tweaking the lyric. The chorus was always there, though!
Now, John will tell you how he took the words on paper and worked his magic……. (by the way one of my favourite moments in this song is when the guitar solo kicks in after the second chorus)….here’s John:
When I read Jim’s poem, “The Road” I could see myself looking through the cracked and dusty windshield of a ’81 Pontiac Catalina, on that real, dry stretch of highway between Santa Rosa and Albuquerque, New Mexico, that seems to go on forever. The song obviously needed a rolling tempo to match the movement of the car, and I thought that the jangle sound of my Rickenbacker electric 12 string guitar and a solid drum track would add to the constant moving effect. I use the key of G, because that open G chord with an added D on the B string really has an open ringing sound, Lots of fifths. I also felt that the song needed a bridge, but felt that it didn’t need a bridge with a lyric, so just added some different chords and put in a guitar solo using a Standard Strat. on the middle pick-up. Jim’s poems always feel like they have a country twang to them, so an all guitar background was the right thing and some nice tight 2 part harmony seemed to work, thanks to singer, Nikki MN, who just happened to be here from London.
I was sitting down one night over a few drinks with my good friend, John Mitchell, talking about music, poetry and soccer when the subject of song lyrics and song writing came up. At that point in the evening where the power of drink makes every idea seem like a good one, John suggested that we should write a song together. John is a successful professional musician and I am a chemical engineer and occasionally published poet, so I have to admit I felt a bit out of my league, but I agreed anyway!
Over the next few days, I pulled out some poems I had hanging around but none of them really fitted the bill given that they were basically non rhyming free verse. I had a phrase, though, – “sitting in this motel room/ I could be sitting anywhere”- and I started to develop a character and story around that phrase. The final lyric eventually became the song, “Emma Jean”, which you can take a listen to below. It’s a long way from words on paper to a finished song, and that’s where John’s talent as a singer, song writer, composer, musician and arranger took over (in other words, John did the heavy lifting!). Here’s the song, please, please use headphones to listen rather than just your computer’s speakers, the song is mixed with headphones in mind.
In the end John and I collaborated on 5 songs which, together with 2 songs written by John alone, we have put together on an album.
Click here to preview the whole album, and if you like the songs, buy one, buy them all!! Also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen)
A few notes about the song “Emma Jean”, it was obvious from the start that this would be a country song, it’s about divorce, separation, there’s a child involved, and what could be more country than that? But I wanted to avoid formula, so the story took a twist, at the end, that perhaps disqualifies it as a mainstream modern country song, but hey, never pander! Initially, the song didn’t have the middle two verses, being more accustomed to writing poetry where my rule is “say what you have to say with as few words as possible”, I thought I had said enough. But songs need verses and John told me to flesh it out a bit, so I came up with the lines “Who know why love goes wrong/ It’s not written anywhere” and took it from there. John was right of course, the extra verses created context. Now…over to John!
Writing lyrics for me, is about as easy as giving birth, not that I have experience of both. My lyrics are either incredibly self indulgent or incredibly preachy, or a bit of both. The ability to paint pictures with words is truly an amazing gift and I appreciate that gift in others. My favourite lyricists tell stories and take us to another place and time or share experiences through someone else’s eyes. When I first read Jim’s poem, Emma Jean, I could see that motel room and I could smell the mixture of stale beer and carpet cleaner that is the telltale odour of cheap motels. I recognise it from years on the road with bands.
In the case of “Emma Jean”, the music came quickly. First, it had to be in a minor key, as the story was fairly dark and the background music needed to be sparse with minimal instruments so as not to interfere with the lyrics – just guitar, a little bass, and a touch of southern slide. The vocal tries to express how Emma Jean’s dad would feel in that hotel room – loneliness with a good helping of bitterness. I then wanted to use different instruments to accent the chorus, so I added accordion and trombone and orchestral cymbals. The acoustic guitar( a Larrivee D-50) and vocal are all real, but all the other sounds are digital samples. I recorded it all on my laptop using the program, Logic, and mixed the tunes for headphones to hear the full spectrum of instruments.
As Jim noted above, please use headphones to listen to the sample track above or plug into a good set of speakers.
In our next post, John and I will discuss another track on the album.
I’m not sure when rhymes all but disappeared from modern poetry, but pick up any recent collection and you would be hard put to find a single rhyme. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, on the other hand, stop anyone in the street and ask them to recite their favourite poem and invariably, if they reply at all, it will be a rhyming poem. So people like rhyme but if poets have stopped rhyming where do people go for their rhyming fix?
The answer of course is popular song. Pop, folk, country, rock, rap, hip hop could not function without rhyme; obvious rhyme mostly, rhyme that can seen coming a mile away. If you hear ‘dance’ there will be ‘romance’; if you hear ‘night’, it’s going to be ‘alright’, if you hear “love’, there will be a ‘sky above’. This can be boring or comforting depending on your point of view. But there are rhymes in popular song, rhymes that avoid cliché, that manage to surprise. For example:
The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles.
(Bob Dylan from “Love minus Zero, No Limits)
Or more recently, check out the “The Trapeze Swinger” from Sam Beam[i] of Iron and Wine who writes songs of such fragile beauty that it feels like they will fall apart if you touch them.
But please remember me, fondly
I heard from someone you’re still pretty
And then they went on to say that the Pearly Gates
Had some eloquent graffiti
Or, from the White Album:
I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset
Although I’m so tired, I’ll have another cigarette
‘Trembles, ‘rambles’, ‘poetry’, ‘graffiti’, ‘cigarette’, stupid get’, all rhymes that don’t resort to cliché, that manage to surprise and there are many more. So if there is anyone out there reading this, send me your favorites, let’s get a list going! Only two criteria: 1) the rhyme must surprise 2) no rhymes ending in ‘ution’ as in “make revolutions/ not institutions/ dilution/ is not the solution/ to pollution/ make restitution…enough already.
[i] Why has Sam Beam not been made poet laureate of the United States of America? He could have written “Trapeze Swinger” alone, and he would be streets ahead of anyone else. Graffiti on the pearly gates -‘tell my mother not to worry’, ‘rug-burned babies’, ‘a trapeze swinger as high as any savior’; check it out here:
[ii] Some websites write this as “stupid git”, but the album liner notes show it as “stupid get” which obviously rhymes better but also it would be more likely that Lennon being from Liverpool would use the Irish (and also Scottish) pronunciation ‘get’ rather than ‘git’ which is more common in the south of England. By the way, Wiktionary suggests that ‘get’ is related to the word ‘beget’, whereas I think it is more likely that it comes from the gaelic word ‘geit’ meaning ‘fright’ or ‘terror’. The meaning has since morphed into something close to ‘jerk’.