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TELLING STORIES THROUGH SONGS VERSUS NOVELS

December 5, 2012

            Being a musician and a writer, I can relate to both worlds. The other day, I pondered the differences between the two. The way I see it, there’s a huge difference. A song (versus a symphony or an opera) is at best, a short story, conveying sometimes a story but to most people, a feeling, an emotion or multiples of both. The written novel or short story, on the other hand, is a word picture told in detail. It may convey the same things, but it’s all in the readers head and it’s up to the writer to place any sounds, emotions or images in it.

            As a musician and a writer, I may have a unique outlook on the two. I’ve played in bands since I was in high school, both concert band, marching band, jazz band, rock bands, country bands and even a Latin band. That’s a wide range of music. My preference is hard rock, psychedelic and metal. That’s just something ingrained into me since I first heard bands like Clear Light, Blue Cheer, Bubble Puppy, The Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Lothar and the Hand People, Spirit, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the original Alice Cooper Band, the Stooges and so many others I’m sure you’ve never heard of. These mostly album-oriented bands instilled a sense of musical emotion that put me in a different place with each song.

            Each composition told a story. However, none of those bands had their say to me through the words, with the exception of Frank Zappa (The Mothers of Invention). That’s right, the only lyrics I really listened to were Zappa’s because he told funny stories and liked to sneak in dirty words the censors at Verve, his record label, were notorious for editing out on some pressings of his early albums.

            Though I knew smatterings of lyrics to many of the songs by my favorite bands, for the most part, I didn’t have a clue what they were singing about. I couldn’t understand what they were mumbling most of the time. Back in the day, most music didn’t have lyric sheets in the album sleeves, so if the singers garbled a line, so be it. AM radio had notoriously bad sound quality and the same could be said for many of the record players and stereos, not to mention the singers themselves.

            In some of the rock bands, I sang lead. PA systems were crappy back then so Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater became Bathroom On The Right. I actually thought he was singing that until I saw the title on the 45 and even though I knew the right words from that title, I continued singing it wrong and most people never noticed!

            I could list hundreds of examples of misheard lyrics. The point is that I’ve never listened to them to begin with, even the ones that were supposed to be telling a story, something many of the psychedelic songs were not really known for. I listened to the music. The vocals have always been articulated vocal noises, to quote Frank Zappa. The problem with music telling a story versus a book is that many music listeners are the same way. They’re more interested in the mood the song brings rather than the story conveyed in the lyrics. Sure, there are exceptions like the great folk singers and lyricists. To tell the truth, I never listened to their words either. It was either the melody or nothing.

            With a book, it’s all about the words. There’s nothing else in the way like a melody or rhythm or the vocal characteristics of the singer or the personalities or drama of the band members behind it. Most people don’t even know what the author looks like unless there’s a photo on the jacket, something that’s not always done anymore. Even then, sometimes the photo shown doesn’t look anything like the real person.

            I have nothing against poetry, but there’s an automatic switch inside that shuts off the second I read a line of poetry. I can’t help it. I don’t get poetry at all. It makes no sense to me. Unless there’s dialogue, narrative or exposition, the lines do nothing for me. I can’t explain it. That’s probably why song lyrics do so little for me, unless they’re dirty, comical, or slap me in the face. Then when you only have twelve bars to tell a story, that’s a really short short story anyway.

            When an author quotes poetry in a novel, that’s the first thing I skip because it makes no sense to me. In music, they’re just those articulated vocal noises. So, as a musician, I love music but I see songs as a different kind of story than what the lyrics might present. Do lyrics have an impact on a song for me? Sure, but not by telling a story. Chunks of lyrics can give me a mood to go with the music by enhancing the subject matter. Certain words may fit the music at that moment, they just feel right at that spot. The vocalist is using his or her instrument to add to the mood at that moment. All part of the puzzle.

            How do you see it?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peggy West permalink
    December 5, 2012 4:33 am

    I can’t argue with any of this, but can tell you a little of my experience. The other night I played some charade-like game where the words “cream cheese” had to be guessed from my clue. Of course I sang from Frank Zappa’s lyrics and no one guessed it. But a lot of his lyrics popped into my head for days afterward. (Suzy you were such a sweetie, blew your mind on too much koolaid, yeah yeah yeah). Poems at times transport me to other worlds the way a novel will. I kept a book of Garrett Hongo’s poems at my job for quick escape when I needed to think about a work problem differently. Novels, songs and poems all create a mood if they are successful. We are souls of moods and need something playing in the background.

    • December 6, 2012 3:13 am

      Peggy,

      Thanks! Each form has different impacts on us. Poetry whether as poems or in song lyrics just don’t do much for me unless they are blatant as in Zappa. For some, they are da bomb. Funny, but I can quote more Zappa lyrics than any poem I’ve ever heard, even those high school classics that were forced down our throats.

      Outside of a few song lyrics I had to memorize when I was playing in bands, including the band with my wife, I don’t remember or can quote any except Zappa, outside of a random phrase. Even then, those songs I had to memorize I didn’t understand half the time, or “get” the true meaning unless the artist said so in an interview.

      Dean Koontz likes to quote poetry, or used to, at the beginning and in different parts of his novels (The Book of Counted Sorrows). I zoned out at every one of them. None of them made any sense to me, just like every other poem I ever heard. Most songs I hear are the same.

      I’m glad you get so much out of both.

      I guess I need the brute force approach!

      Fred

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