A SONG FOR YOU
I've been admiring those lyricists lately who have made the effort to craft their rhymes with precision. I acknowledge that a concern about the quality of rhyme in popular music may seem pointless. I mean, who really cares if Mick and Keef rhyme "hag" with "back" in the second stanza of "Jumpin' Jack Flash"? The blistering, soulful melody and the guitar licks are so memorable that the listener is inexorably propelled toward the "It's a gas! gas! gas!" refrain. No blood, no foul. It's almost impossible to listen to music from the Rock/Pop/Hip-Hop eras without wincing, though, if the lyrics are discernible and the rhymes have been slapped together with little effort or concern.
Hard to imagine anything more egregious than the "rhyming tercet" found in The Steve Miller Band's hit "Take the Money and Run":
They headed down to, ooh, old El Paso That's where they ran into a great big hassle Billy Joe shot a man while robbing his castle
Bobbie Sue took the money and run
(Left: General Area of Mayhem)
What--he couldn't find a third rhyme for "hassle" and "castle" (itself a rather arch description of a Texas homestead, but I'll cut him slack there), so he went through the Texas gazetteer to find a city with a kind of/sort of similar sound? It wasn't bad enough that he had to stick "Ooh" into the first line in order to give the line close to the requisite number of syllables or chose to use the incorrect tense for Bobbie Sue's flight? I said "hard to imagine anything more egregious," but leave it to Steve to top himself just a couple of stanzas later!
Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas You know, he knows just exactly what the facts is He ain't gonna let those two escape justice He makes his living off of the people's taxes
Forget the "off of" solecism in the last line. Even Paul McCartney, in the James Bond film theme "Live and Let Die", wrote: But if this ever-changing world in which we live in Makes you give in and cry... The double use of "in" made English teachers go purchase Walther PPKs immediately--in which to do themselves in.
But Miller has no rhyme at all for Texas and decides that "facts is" would be a suitable match under the circumstances! The word "justice", apparently because it contains the letter "s", makes it a triad of execrable rhyme. Give Miller credit, though--"Texas" and "taxes" contain exactly the same letters! The song went on to sell millions, almost cracking the Billboard Top Ten back in 1976. That is not to say that we need to judge all lyrics in the same way. When I first heard Creedence Clearwater Revival's cover of Dale Hawkins' classic "Susie Q," I laughed at the poverty of the lyrics. It was 1968, and the Beatles' "A Day in the Life", Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", and Paul Simon's "America" (all released within the previous twelve months!) suggested a new and more sophisticated path for contemporary lyricists. No more June/moon/spoon rhyming. The Brill Building might as well have put out a "To Let" placard.
(Left: The famed Brill Building)
Here are the complete lyrics to "Susie Q": Oh, Susie Q, Oh, Susie Q, Oh, Susie Q, Baby I love you, Susie Q. I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk; I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, Susie Q. Well, say that you'll be true, well, say that you'll be true, Well, say that you'll be true, and never leave me blue, Susie Q. Well, say that you'll be mine, well, say that you'll be mine, Well, say that you'll be mine, baby all the time, Susie Q. Oh Susie Q, Oh Susie Q, Oh Susie Q, Baby I love you, Susie Q. I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, Susie Q. Oh Susie Q, Oh Susie Q, Oh Susie Q, Baby I love you, Susie Q. Well, Hawkins at least did a good job with the rhymes! But the song, for all its simplicity, mesmerized me with its hypnotic rhythms. John Fogerty remembers the first time he ever heard James Burton play that famous riff. "I went crazy and immediately began banging on the dashboard," he said. And the CCR nine-minute cover bubbled up as flavorful as a Cajun stew. It was so good that it forced me to reexamine my need for progressive lyrics in musical works that were to earn my respect and not just make my list of "Guilty Pleasures."
(Below: Creedence Clearwater Revival)
(Left: Cole Porter)
Still, the quality of writing in many of the standards of The Great American Songbook had established a fairly high bar. Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Howard Dietz, Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn and others created mythical images in their lyrics. Their messages were poignant, witty, romantic, and sophisticated--and ultimately timeless. Perhaps the greatest of these geniuses was Cole Porter, whose lyrics complemented his own melodies. Anything Goes is still selling out nightly on Broadway as I write this. "I Get a Kick Out of You", "Night and Day", "Begin the Beguine", "I've Got You Under My Skin", and "Just One of Those Things" are all sublime. But for the wittiest lyrics ever penned, we have to look at an early Porter "List Song," the unparalleled "Let's Do It". Without ever expressing what "It" is, Porter tosses off stanza after witty stanza of examples of frenetic sexual activity in groups ranging from the tiniest insects to the largest mammals. Many of the lyrics were excised as too steamy in renditions by the vocalists of the day. Other lyrics, that focused on racial or ethnic stereo-typing, have been long forgotten except by musical historians.
Here are a few sample stanzas:
The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it Not to mention the Finns Folks in Siam do it Think of Siamese twins Some Argentines without means do it People say in Boston even beans do it Let's do it Let's fall in love
Romantic sponges, they say, do it Oysters down in Oyster Bay do it Let's do it, let's fall in love
Cold Cape Cod clams 'Gainst their wish do it Even lazy jelly fish do it Let's do it Let's fall in love Electric eels I might add do it Though it shocks 'em I know Why ask if Shad do it Waiter bring me Shad Roe In the shallow shoals English soles do it Goldfish in privacy of bowls do it Let's do it We'll do it Let's do it Let's fall in love
Map of Oyster Bay (Google Images)
Porter employs internal rhyme and feminine end rhyme in these stanzas, pairing the last two syllables ("do it") or three syllables ("wish do it"/ "fish do it"); he makes fine use of tongue-twisting alliteration (Cold Cape Cod clams/shallow soles, shoals); and he inserts eye-popping verbs (eels being "shocked") and naughty double-entendres ("Waiter bring me Shad Roe"/ "Think of Siamese twins) for comic effect. All the while that he is regaling us about the pleasures of the flesh, he consciously diffuses the final impact by pretending that the song is about "falling in love". Clearly it's not.
Below: The sublime Ella Fitzgerald performs a sanitized "Let's Do It"
I couldn't help but think of this master work when I listened to the vaunted Eminem being interviewed by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last fall. In one portion of the interview, Cooper examines the writing style of the world's most successful Hip-Hop artist: "Ever since Eminem broke out from the underground and into the mainstream in 1999, he's amazed audiences and critics alike with his ability to tell stories through music and rapid fire word play. He writes all of his own songs and delights in rhyming words others can't. We talked to him about how he does it in his private recording studio. Eminem has said he bends the words. "It's just in the enunciation of it," he explained. "Like, people say that the word 'orange' doesn't rhyme with anything and that kind 'a pisses me off because I can think of a lot of things that rhyme with orange.""What rhymes with orange? I can't think of anything," Cooper remarked. "If you're taking the word at face value and you just say orange, nothing is going to rhyme with it exactly. If you enunciate it and you make it like more than one syllable? Orange, you could say like, 'I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with George.' So, you just have to figure out the science to breakin' down words," he replied.
If the video is blocked, check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kQBVneC30o
It's actually amusing to listen to him contort the syllables so they come close to rhyming. Of course, however, the key line in this exchange is "nothing is going to rhyme with it exactly." For Porter, "exactness" was a prerequisite. When music accompanies lyrics, there is already considerable distortion. When Sting sang "Spirits in the Material World" back in '83, the second syllable in "Spirits" was the stressed syllable. No one pronounces the word "Spi-RITZ" in real life, but no one notices this in the song because the beat makes it work. In that same song, though, Sting grows lyrically lazy: Our so-called leaders speak With words they try to jail you They subjugate the meek But it's the rhetoric of failure
Ouch! "Jail you" and "failure" as rhymes?! That hurts. So, even the best songwriters fall prey to laziness. All the more reason to celebrate those who adhere to that higher standard. As the legendary purveyor of soul, the recently rediscovered Leon Russell, once plaintively sang, "I've been so many places in my life and time/I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes."
He didn't in "A Song For You", and he created a classic love song.