Tag Archives: Song Lyrics

Driving Home with Leonard Cohen (3)

Driving Home with Leonard Cohen

Despite what he says

not everybody knows,

not everybody knows

like Leonard knows.

Not everybody knows

that the best songs

are about loss,

endings,

so long,

ways to say goodbye

closing time,

and that age

can be laughed about

but not at,

if I had a hat

I would raise it to Mr.Cohen

perched up there alone

in his tower of song.

 

I have posted this a few times before, but since today’s the anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death I thought I would give it another outing.

A note on the genius of Leonard Cohen:

Below is the first verse of “Suzanne”. Notice how he doesn’t hit a conventional rhyme until the chorus where he rhymes ‘blind’ and ‘mind’. He repeats that pattern in the next 2 verses.

“Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind”

 

What I Did The Day Gord Downie Died.

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Now I lie here so out of breath
And over –opiated
Maybe I couldn’t catch up no but
Maybe he could have waited

Opiated….The Tragically Hip

This is the song I went looking for, the day Gord Downie died. I couldn’t remember the title, all I had was the phrase “over-opiated” which had been stuck in my head for years. Why? I don’t really know but maybe it was the triple iamb and the repeated ‘o’? Unlike a lot of The Tragically Hip’s music, this song was never in heavy rotation on Canadian radio, but I knew the song that contained the phrase was on the album ‘Up to Here’ and I knew I had a cassette tape of that album which I had bought back in 1990.
That was the era of the cassette tape and over the years, as tapes became extinct and compact discs, then streaming, took over, I stop listening to the album. So on the day Gord Downie died I found myself looking everywhere for it, eventually finding it in the storage space between the front seats of my red 98 Ford Taurus station wagon. There was some serendipity to this, because the only tape deck I have left is in the Taurus station wagon. A cassette and a Taurus sound system – not exactly high fidelity, but then the Hip were never really about high fidelity; put the vocal and drums on top of the mix and let the rest take care of itself. Besides, the sound system isn’t bad. There are 4 speakers , 2 front, 2 back, and if you switch everything to the 2 rear speakers and the bed of the station wagon is empty, the sound is actually pretty good, good enough for a bar band with 2 guitar players that sound like Keith Richards and Ron Wood but not as sloppy. I don’t normally drive the Taurus except occasionally to take stuff to the dump, but on the day Gord Downie died, I drove it around Vancouver all day listening to “Up to Here”. Yes, I was one of those guys you see in a parked car with the windows closed, beating time on the steering wheel.

And it struck me what a good rock lyricist Gord Downie is. Much has been made of his talent as a poet, and he is a talented poet, but writing lyrics for rock music is a different skill. For me, both rock and blues are all about the set up and the punchline. Take this for example:

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
and you ain’t no friend of mine”

….Leiber and Stoller

Simple maybe, but deceptively hard to do well. Here’s Gord Downie from Boots or Hearts:

Fingers and toes, fingers and toes
Forty things we share
Forty one if you include
The fact that we don’t care”

Or this from the same song:

“I feel I’ve stepped out of the wilderness
All squint-eyed and confused
But even babies raised by wolves
They know exactly when they’ve been used”

In fact, I could quote the whole song, because for me it’s as close as anyone has come to a perfect lyric. Or how about this from “New Orleans Is Sinking””

“Ain’t got no picture postcards,
ain’t got no souvenirs
my baby, she don’t know me
when I’m thinking ’bout those years”

But Downie is also at heart a folk singer, a teller of tales. “38 years old” is about a guy serving time for avenging the rape of his sister; the story is told from the view point of his younger brother. I don’t think there’s a more devastating chorus than this one, anywhere in popular music:

“Same pattern on the table, same clock on the wall
Been one seat empty, eighteen years in all
Freezing slow time, away from the world
He’s thirty-eight years old, never kissed a girl
He’s thirty-eight years old, never kissed a girl”

Not all song lyrics look good on paper and Downie is an idiosyncratic singer who stretches and bends words to fit the song, but here’s a few more random samples from the album:

“In my dreams, a candy coated train comes to my door”

“Pumping hands and kissing all the babies
Ain’t no time for shadowed doubts or maybes”

“Pulled down his birthday suitcase
Brown with dust from no place
Said, “I think it’s time we made a start”
They danced the waltz of charity
No car garage, two kids for free
They were pissing bliss and playing parts”

“Up to Here” was the Hip’s first album, they want on to make many more, to become Canadian icons. Downie even wrote songs about hockey. When he died he was eulogised by a tearful Justin Trudeau and Canadian radio played Hip songs all day long. All deserved of course. Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Gord Downie – not a bad list to be part of. But Downie, was different. The rest of those artists came out of the folk music tradition, but Downie’s genre, modus operandi was bar band rock and his genius was that he succeeded in blending poetry with bar band rock. Just scroll  back up and read that last verse, a short story in six lines. Rave on Gord. Now take a listen.

 

Stilt Walker / Between (Song Without a Chorus)

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Between (Song Without a Chorus)

Between the caucus and the carcass

Between the chaos and the calm

Between the fracas and the ruckus

Between the righteous and the damned

 

Between the priest and the sermon

Between the sermon and the song

No one can determine

Why we all can’t get along.

 

Between the question and the answer

There is a lifetime of space

Between the dance and the dancer

There is beauty and there is grace.

 

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The Mitchell-Feeney Project – Track 7, The Note

Earl sailed up the Belize coast

In his brand new custom built boat

With the mother of all hangovers

No water and a note

And now he’s sitting drinking

In an ocean-side tourist bar

Trying to get a jump on happiness

In the hour before happy hour

I had just landed on Caye Caulker, which is little more than a sand spit off the coast of Belize, when it started to rain heavily. There was nothing else to do but go to an ocean-side bar, in the hour before happy hour. It was as crowded as a bar gets on Caye Caulker and there was this guy bragging in a loud voice about how he had just sailed up from Placencia in his new boat with “the mother of all hangovers” and no water on board. The guy was a bit of a jerk, so I decided to write him into a poem (which turned into this song lyric) and give him a hard time. By the way I tried working “Placencia” into the lyric but the word just hissed and flopped around like a drunk snake, so I gave up on it! Take a listen, and then John Mitchell will explain how he managed to sound like a rock band all by himself!

Here’s John:

I could hear “The Note” played by a real southern rock band. That’s the attitude I took to the musical arrangement. Earl had a bad case of the regrets mixed with a helping of anger, a bad hangover and topped with a soucent of despair, all in all a pretty heavy feeling, so it needed rough and heavy music. The opening distorted guitar lick is a nod to “Susie Q” by CCR played through an overdriven Fender Deluxe amp. I tried to make the track sound like a 5 or 6 piece band playing live in a smokey, roadside bar. I added the rock and roll piano on the choruses, as if Leon Russell was playing and the greasy Hammond organ as if Greg Allman was sitting in, especially the solo played through an overdriven Leslie speaker with a tear in the cone. I think Earl would appreciate how the band interpreted how he was feeling after getting “The Note”.

Click here to preview/ buy the whole album or individual tracks! Also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen)

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The Mitchell-Feeney Project – Track 6, Saturday Morning in Idabel.

There’s a dead armadillo

on the side of the road

empty beer can in his claws

that joke just never gets old.

There’s a dog on the shoulder

trying to bite his own tail

I’m in the motel parking lot

watching that dog fail.

 

This lyric started with a poem I had published in The Shop literary magazine (called Down and Out in Idabel), then took off in a different direction. When writing the lyric, I was thinking of the feel of Kris Kristofferson’s, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and the structure of songs like John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” in which the verses are a series of snapshots that connect back to the chorus. Play it in your car and sing along with the chorus when no one is listening! That’s what I do!

Here’s John to tell his side!

When I saw that Idabel, Oklahoma was in this little bitty, piece of land between the states of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma I jumped right off the front porch, because now I could REALLY do a country song. I’ve always loved the pedal steel guitar but you have to have it in the right song, and “Saturday Morning in Idabel” is just the song. 

The chord progression is pretty much true country. I found a lovely little rhythm track with some nice tight fills, added the bass and then I used my Larrivee D-50 to lay down the acoustic track.  I added some Fender strat. with heavy Duane Eddy tremolo for flavour. I called up John McArthur Ellis, a wonderful pedal steel player, and asked him to just play whatever he felt fit the song, and he was fantastic. Again the tracks were exchanged by e-mail. I think the best way to be a producer, is to let players play the way they feel, with only a soucent of direction. If you don’t trust them, don’t hire them. After I did the lead vocal, I called on the John Mitchell choir to do a little back-up singing, and there ya go. A swell little country song thanks to the inspiration of Jim Feeney.

Click here to preview/ buy the whole album or individual tracks! Also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen)

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The Mitchell Feeney Project – Track 4, Willie’s Oasis

Houses hunker in the heat

out on Highway 82,

the landscape sweats and saunters

billboards block the view,

and this is not New York City

this is not Saginaw

this is a dry county, son

this is Arkansas….

 

Willie’s Oasis…a song about looking for drink in all the wrong places.

This lyric was adapted from a poem I wrote called “A Dry Country in Arkansas”. The poem was published some time ago in Cyphers,  a long -running Irish literary magazine. This is a print magazine only and one of the best around in my opinion (check it out at http://www.cyphers.ie). To write the lyric, I had to disassemble the poem; for all you poets out there, I have added a bit more discussion on the transition from poem to lyric at the end of this post. When I gave the lyric to John, I had no concept what kind of song would emerge, I couldn’t have been happier with what he did. Here’s John..

“Willie’s Oasis” turned out to be quite a challenge musically. I loved the feeling of the tune, that southern heat out on Highway 82, but no matter how I tried, I couldn’t hear the music. I tried using my electric guitars, my acoustics, I even tried my piano, but no matter what key I played in and what chords I used, I couldn’t make it work. So I decided to use technology, and I searched through some of my pre-recorded samples and found this rough sounding, bluesy guitar riff. As soon as I started to work with it and edit the sample, add a few more samples, voila, “Willie’s Oasis” appeared.The only live things I put on this tune were my handclaps and my vocals. 

I decided that it needed something else, so I called a wonderful violin player friend of mine named Ben Mink and asked if he would put some fiddle on the tune. Modern technology allows me to send him my tracks, he puts on the violin and sends it back to me via e-mail. We were never in the same room. I expected him to put some real down-home fiddle on, but he completely fooled me and played the most smoking electric violin parts that took the song over the edge. 

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Click here to preview/ buy the whole album or individual tracks! Also available on iTunes (search for “The Mitchell Feeney Project”, no hyphen)

A  bit more about the the transition from poem to lyric…below is an excerpt from the poem:

A parking lot and boat ramp

Spent cartridges

Birds improvising

Dragon flies with no apparent flight plan

Good ol’ boys chugging out

Across water the colour of iced tea

To catch a mess of catfish.

These lines have a kind of chopped up rhythm, so I had to re-jig them. This entailed killing my favourite image in the poem, the one about the dragonflies; the catfish and the cartridges had to go as well. I then re-instated a line that I had discarded when writing the poem and ended up with this:

Good ol’ boys are chugging out

storm clouds on the horizon

the water looks like iced tea

birds are improvising.

Simple is sometimes hard to do!