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Maybe the Words Don't Matter Half as Much as the Tune [Part II]

20 June 2006

[Continued from Part I]

I feel that the tune (and the overall sound) generally matters more than the words do for GREG ASHLEY, PAULA FRAZER and to a lesser extent YEA-MING CHEN, while for BRETT RALPH, TANYA BROLASKI and myself the words seemed to be emphasized more than the overall sound (it’s harder to figure out where WILLIS STORK and BOBBI A. fit on this admittedly reductive continuum; Willis was definitely going for a comic approach and though one could say songs like “Christmas Piss Fountain” definitely emphasized the verbal aspects of his art, much of his impact related to his sense of comic timing).

By saying this, I do not mean to slight the verbal content of the former nor the overall sound of the latter—nor do I wish to claim that one is better than the other. It’s just that the words struck me more while listening to the latter while the sound hooked me more while listening to the former.

I bet if I were to hear their songs repeatedly, I’d come to feel differently. But Brett, Tanya and myself have all devoted a good deal of time to studying ‘rules of verse’ in an extra-musical sense; this may account for why our lyrics were more ‘out in front.’ This doesn’t mean that our lyrics are better than Paula’s, Greg’s, or Yea-Ming’s. If anything, I can identify with both KRIS KRISTOFFERSON and LEONARD COHEN, who had to unlearn some of their literary training in order to become more effective songwriters (and I bet they both admire and even envy the sheer simplistic brilliance of “Wild Thing”). It doesn’t mean the words don’t matter as much as the tune, but as my fellow poet/musicians DAMON KRUKOWSKI and FRANKLIN BRUNO have told me, when writing songs, you have to embrace the elements of cliché and repetition more so than in straight poetry.

But even if the words don’t matter as much as the tune, the tune may not matter as much as a good singer. “The singer not the song” dichotomy definitely complicates the words/tune dichotomy, and while DAVID BERMAN’s oft-quoted witticism “all my favorite singers couldn’t sing” could very well apply to my particular vocal stylings (or that of some of the other poet-singers such as Brett Ralph, Kristofferson, Cohen—even WILLIE NELSON, BOB DYLAN , and LAURA NYRO found initial success by having others to sing their songs), I sometimes want to take it to the opposite extreme in my preference for a ‘raw’ voice. Once I told JOLIE HOLLAND “I love your music almost despite the fact that you have a virtuoso voice.” It’s not that Brett or myself emphasize the words to compensate for our limitations as singers; some songs just seem to work better with certain singers (generally Dylan still does Dylan better than most of his interpreters). I know I’d be very interested in seeing how the evening’s ‘better’ singers would cover my songs, and I wonder how it would sound if I tried to do one of theirs.

I wish these not merely aesthetic issues were spoken about more in interviews and articles about newer musicians, especially the singer/songwriters types, as every performer that night could be loosely categorized—not that it’s all we do!). Brett and I, for instance, have spent many hours talking about whether the melody or the words come first (and if the words come first, will the melody generally be simpler). Granted, most musicians will say the ideal is when they come together (as in sex), but that’s more the exception. There’s no formula (or if there is, the restless creator has to de-create it), and besides, the way one writes a song may not even be audible at all in the final performed ‘product.’

I know I like guessing how a song is written just by hearing it performed; and even if songwriters give the most truthful account of how they write, there’s still an element of mystery (thank God!). So, for now, I’ll just end where I began by thanking Willis Stork for putting this night together and letting me part of it. I know I want to do it again, especially if there’s an acoustic piano and a mix of creative company such as we had with Greg, Paula, Yea-Ming, Brett, Tanya, Willis, and Bobbi.