Alexander Theroux's grammar of rock and roll

Hincty, Zoo-Zoos, Whuppin’, Juicehead, Hamfat, Gleeby, Mogatin’, Motorvatin’, Licin’ Stick, Jelly Roll, Scronch, Poppa-Stoppa, Dicty, Spo-Dee-O-Dee, Good Booty, Shag on Down, and Meekin’

Paul Anke moos. Neil Sedaka shouts. Lesley Gore whines. Robert Goulet merely talks. Seals and Crofts sound like drunken grigs or munchkins weeing away in high report. Olivia Newton-John alternately shrieks and then sounds like she’s on Valium.

Paul Anke moos. Neil Sedaka shouts. Lesley Gore whines. Robert Goulet merely talks. Seals and Crofts sound like drunken grigs or munchkins weeing away in high report. Olivia Newton-John alternately shrieks and then sounds like she’s on Valium.

Rock ‘n’ roll music, any old way you choose it, is one of the things I know I’ll most miss when I’m on my way out. I love it, and have from the beginning, even its attractive imbecilities. Growing up, I had in my room a favorite clunky red plastic radio, which I always kept low, listening to songs while I did my homework. Since I tended to concentrate on the lyrics, which I more or less took as a form of reading, it may have been a form of transferal I didn’t mind nonsense. There was no end to it, but deliberate lunacies often made a song what it was. I liked pretty much everything. (Nothing “country,” of course, which to me, even in the eighth grade, was as sad and moronic as the stupid hats and loud shirts worn by the people who sang it.)

What I particularly enjoyed — even found myself listening for over the years — were certain phrases and squibs in various songs, usually hip, that compiling in my mind could be read as a documentary of slang (and somehow paraliteracy’s) progress, if not in modern America, then at least in my high school and among my friends. Evangeline and “The Highwayman” were poetry. This was real life.

I remember, for instance, deliberating what Chuck Berry meant us to understand in the song “School Days” when he sang:

  • Back in the classroom, open your books.
  • Cheat, but the teacher don’t know I mean she looks.

Unfortunately, that is exactly how the line goes. But my friends and I spent weeks debating other possibilities. I believed for the longest time it was, “Ah, but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks,” while several friends of mine insisted it went, “Even the teacher don’t like her mangy looks.” An article in Goldmine (January 29, 1988) cites Chuck Berry’s “powerful facility for letter-perfect encapsulation,” which is generally true, although for reasons of rhyme he is often forced to throw in not only the odd semi-enclitical phrase, such as in the word-salad cited above or the line “watch her look at her run, boys” in “School Days,” but as in the song “No Money Down” even to reverse them:

  • I want power steering and power brakes,
  • I want a powerful motor with a jet-off take,
  • I want air conditioning, I want automatic heat,
  • I want a full Murphy bed in my back seat.

Creative illiteracy, of course, goes back even before 1945, to the very beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll — long before pop music became whitened and mechanized. Cootie William’s “Juicehead Blues.” Rufus Thomas’s “Bear Cat.” John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake.” “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Louis Jordan’s “That Chick’s Too Young to Fry.” Elmore James’s “Dust My Broom.” The Clovers. “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ but Trash.” Stick McGhee’s “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie.”

But this was all part of a deep and heartfelt, soulfully and stylistically undiluted fold tradition, vocal harmonies and gentle wails and shouted blues, born of a slavery that prevented even a smidgen of education for 400 years. The romantics among us — or is it the romantic in each of us? — will add that such phrases can be properly turned only in a moment of true inspiration, when we have lost our self-consciousness, calculating natures, and thereby can express our authentic selves. (Though I’m still a bit doubtful about that line from the “Negro national anthem,” composed in 1900 by J. Rosamond Johnson — his brother James wrote the words — “Lift Every Voice and Sing: Sing a song full of hope that the future has brought us.”)

A whole vocabulary — in one sense, an entire language — has come from such music and the pioneering black radio stations (like WERD in Atlanta, WYLD in New Orleans, WLOU in Louisville, WDIA in Memphis, known throughout the South as the “Mother Station of the Negroes,” etc.) that in the late ‘40s and ‘50s pushed and played it, and consequently we’ve been left a lovely great catalog of finger-poppin’ R&B words like hincty, zoo-zoos, whuppin’, juicehead, poontang, hamfat, gleeby, mogatin’, motorvatin’, lickin’ stick, jelly roll, scronch, poppa-stoppa, dicty, spo-dee-o-dee, good booty, shag on down, and, among others, the word meekin’ “ (cuckolding would be my guess) as used in the Cadillacs’ 1956 hit song “Speedo”:

  • Well now they often call me Speedo,
  • But my real name is Mister Earl,
  • Always meekin’ brand new fellas,
  • And takin’ other folks’s girls.

Meekin’. Other folks’s girls. The slang and sass seems called for. Spice.

(“Funky” can’t legitimately be listed. Charles Dickens was the first to use the word in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.)

Chuck Berry’s lyrics, charming, and naïve, represent a certain primitivism (what Richard Goldstein in The Poetry of Rock calls “accidental art”), particularly in his innocent notion that poetry should rhyme and that all rhythmic spaces should be filled, even if filling them necessitates juggling words or even the creation of new ones. Berry’s work is expressed functional, resulting in, because born of, simplicity. In “Too Much Monkey Business,” for example, every verse rhymes, and when words cannot fill the existing spaces, the artist fills them with a flexible “aah,” which concludes each verse change each time it is verbalized. In one case it implies a sigh of disgust and in another a type of sullen indignation. The language of Berry’s verses may or ordinary, but he employs it naturally and without phony attitudinizing.

He had no education. Why would that matter? Many great songwriters hadn’t. (Hank Williams read nothing more erudite than Billboard and comic books.) But he wasn’t lazy, never repeated pronouns, and always looked for the identifiable and, above all, concrete detail. “The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale.”

And yet it’s been pointed out that there’s very little black about Chuck Berry’s songs. The lyrics are heard to be comprehensible because in a strange way he’s as much country as rock ‘n’ roll. “School Days” and “Sweet Little Sixteen” have nothing to do with the idiosyncratic black experience — certainly not the black world of Louis Jordan or Wynonie Harris, Phil Flowers or Nat “King” Cole, Bessie Smith or LaVern Baker, whom they used to call the “Yas Yas Girl,” which came form a song called “Ducks Yas Yas.” It was a great jukebox race song, real low down, and went, “Mama bought a chicken, mistook it for a duck, stuck it on the table with the legs straight up. Yonder comes sister with a spoon and a glass, catch the gravy drippin’ from the yas yas yas.”

All the while we lucky whites had “Moon River” (“It all happened on the white keys,” said Henry Mancini) and Pat Boone version of “Tutti Frutti.” “I had to change the lyrics to several of Little Richard’s songs. … Part of ‘Tutti Frutti’ went, ‘Boy, you don’t know what she’s doing to me.’ I just couldn’t sing that,” the dauntless, ever-creative Boone said later, “so I sang, ‘Pretty little Suzie is the girl for me.’ It worked just as well. The kids didn’t care. I mean, they weren’t listening to the words anyway.”

Oh, and variety, we had that too. Real reach. Creative stretch. The “Chipmunk Song” is a waltz. “Calendar Girl” is a march.

It was modish, especially in the latitudinarian ‘60s, to speak of the lyrics of rock as “poetry.” And to a degree a certain few lyrics — quixotic, inventive, careening or reflectively lyrical — came sufficiently close. We tend to listen to lyrics, ponder the words, heed and harken to their advice. “And rock is also educational,” said Frank Zappa. “How to ask a girl for a date, what love is like.” And oh the deep, wide, far-ranging questions we faced, from Jimmy Clanton’s “What am I gonna do on Saturday night?” to Jimi Hendrix’s “Have you ever been experienced?” Do you wanna dance? Am I blue? Will you still love me tomorrow?

When I was a boy, since I was already confused enough about subject matter (why, I wondered, was every song about love?), my concern for the lyrics of songs became almost epistemological. I remember asking my mother, in all innocence, why they sang, “When the m-m-moonshine shines over the cow shed” in the song “K-K-K-Katy.” My worries were cognitive and almost always concerned with words. Wasn’t it a mistake to say “The Girl That I Marry”? And “Why Couldn’t Last Night Last Forever?” was too paradoxical and wrong. I was earnest. I also thought the title “The Alms-Uncle,” chapter one of Heidi, was a mistake for — a misspelling of — “The Aunt Uncle,” though I couldn’t explain why. Unfortunately, at seven or eight, I saw myself as the measure of all things. Whenever I heard the song “Moonlight in Vermont,” I always thought the line “Falling leaves, a sycamore” — you can’t hear the comma — was a sentence. (Weirdly, one I came to understand!)

Speaking of the unheard comma, I also entertained the belief that in the 1940s song, the refrain “Bell bottom trousers, coat of navy blue” was a sentence, that the word “coat” was a verb. I had, even as a kid, the pedant’s compulsion to know the exact lyrics to various songs like “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” (words and music by Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison, and Johnny Noble), especially the lines “I can hear the Hawaiians saying ‘Komomai no kaua ika hale welakakao’“ and “Where the Humuhumu, Nukunuku a pua’a go a-swimming by.” I bought the sheet music when I was in high school in order to check. I also had the equally strange need, sometime later, to learn the correct spelling of the words in that 1940s chanson de merde “Chickery Chick” (written by Sylvia Dee), the refrain to which, spelled as pronounced, goes:

  • Chickery chick cha la cha-la
  • Check-a-la romey in a bananika,
  • Bollika wollika, can’t you see
  • Chickery chick is me

Oh, it was all somehow deeply important to me, all that music, all those lyrics. I’ll take a moment here to mention that the line from the Irish ballad “Danny Boy” — “It’s I’ll be here in sunshine and in shadow” — I’m still trying to figure out. That also goes for the bizarre line from “The Wabash Cannonball” — can anyone make sense of it? — “ From the queen of flowing mountains to the south bells by the shore.” And even at age eight, when listening to “Home on the Range,” I thought the litotes “And the skies are not cloudy all day” ridiculous. I still don’t know what a “beguine” is or have the foggiest idea what happens when one begins. And of course the line from the 1950s hit “Golden Earrings,” “And let this pair of golden earrings cast there spell tonight,” always bothered me. (Growing up in the Midwest, singer Bobby Short remembers radio announcers, stumped by New York terminology — and ignorant of the Eighth Avenue subway line to Harlem — who would introduce Duke Ellington’s great record as “Take Thee a Train.”)

And as for the word “bromidic,” as in the Rodgers and Hammerstein lyric “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific, “I’m bromidic and bright as a moon / Happy night pouring light on the dew” — bromidic? — I can honestly say after a lifetime of reading, even with a special interest in words, I might add, I have never once come across that word any other time or in any other context, even studying chemistry. I might add, it doesn’t make an appearance in Webster’s International Dictionary (Second Edition), one of the most comprehensive dictionaries in the world. I was also convinced that when Dean Martin sang, “If our lips should meet, Innamorato / Kiss me, kiss me, sweet Innamorato …” he was in love and having a blissful time in the little Italian town of Amorata. And in the four Aces’ “Garden in the Rain,” I was rather startled to learn that the line “And Santa’s happily on our way” was really “And sent us happily on our way.”

And finally, I constantly wondered why the opening line in the old country classic “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” was followed with a total disregard for logic — never mind the dramatic unities — by the line “When I die, you can bury me ‘neath the Western sky on the lone prairie.” There isn’t the slightest indication that the singer has changed his mind; it’s that merely by the time he gets to the end of the song, he’s forgotten the opening statement. You can get away with almost anything if you set it to music. In “South of the Border” there’s a line I love — “Then for a tender while I kissed the smile upon her face.” I loved Gene Autry and felt I could forgive him anything, even kissing a girl in the movies, but, having the high seriousness of the prepubescent, I strenuously objected to the inexactitude here. Has anybody ever tried, in fact, to kiss a smile? A smile? Doubtful.

As a boy, I always thought Southern or Western accents, especially with country singers, were a speech defect, seriously, a flaw that made the speaker or singer seem a bit benighted and in need of remedial help. Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, etc., though good, seemed outlandish and goofy to me, from a place where they never learned flash cards, definitely not from Boston. (Even Gene Autry pronounced the word hair haar!) I felt a secret scorn for the way Wyatt Earp, as portrayed on television by Hugh O’ Brian, was glorified as “brave, courageous, and bold.” He was valiant, intrepid, and plucky, no doubt, but … I think it was in The Count of Monte Cristo that Robert Donat’s final line, spoken directly to the camera, was something about how the enemies of Monte Cristo had been brought down by those two fatal flaws in their characters — dramatic pause — “Avarice … and Greed!”

There is, of course, such a thing as poetic license. No, it shouldn’t be “Love me Tenderly” or “All Shaken Up.” The song is “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” is exactly as it should be. Vox populi. Same with Wilbert Harrison’s “I’m gonna be stand on the corner/Twelfth Street and Vine” and Sam the Sham’s oxymoronic “I don’t think little big girls should / Go walkin’ in these spooky old woods alone.” The kind of hip jargon and flip soulfulness that as part of the cool aesthetic allows for Wilson Pickett to say, “Yes I is” and Little Richard to sing, “I ain’t never,” language that grows from inner cultivation, popular life, is a far different thing from artless boobery and almost malicious stupidity in a pop lyric that actually robs it of style — flat and unedited pretensions that provoke laughter rather than create mood. And there remains one of the major distinctions in rock lyrics.

Can the same be said, however, of Paul McCartney, who, in his song, “Live and Let Die,” possibly gave us the greatest one-line tautology of the 20th Century, “…in this ever-changing world in which we live in”? (It recalls the line “If I could take you up in paradise up above.” In the Crew Cuts’ hit from the ‘50s “Sh-Boom”) Or — one of my favorites — Neil Sedaka’s, “I’m living right next door to an angel and she only lives a house away.”

Redundancy in popular music, which shouldn’t be confused with repetition, is not only one of is most glaring faults, but to my mind almost always less a problem of haste than haplessness. It is invariably the result of some poor dweeb sitting down and trying to “fill” a line for rhythm the way old linotypists used slugs of lead, and often with much the same result, such as in Dylan’s “I’m ready for to face / into my own parade” or Paul Anka in “Diana” singing, “I don’t care just what they say” or Junior Walker’s “What does it take to win your love for me?” or the Beach Boys with that line in “Surfer Girl” that goes, “And so I say from me to you.”

And what about the gibberish-esque line “Since she put me down, I but I doin’ in my pid” from “Help Me, Rhonda”? (or is it “I’ve been out doin’ in my head.” That is, “doing in,” as in killing, my head?) And of course there’s the inane tautology “You are the one love that I’ll adore in Kathy Young’s “A Thousand Stars.” In Shep and the Limelights’ classic “Daddy’s Home,” there is provided not only the comforting assurance “Daddy’s home to stay,” but the laughable litotes added by the singer in the final line, just in case we’re not certain, “I’m not a thousand miles away.”

But what about “…so I dropped my drink from my hand” in lay and the Americans’ song “Come a Little Bit Closer,” which matches in brainlessness the equally hopeless thud in “The Trolley Song” form the 1943 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, written by no less a lyricist than Ralph Blane, who actually wrote “…as he started to leave / I took hold of his sleeve / with my hand …”? As opposed to taking leave with, what, his foot or his ear or his medulla oblongata? In “Mack the Knife” can be heard one of pop music’s great redundancies, “When the shark bits / With his teeth, babe.” And in the song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” what else could “The kids in girl and boy land” be as kids, one may ask, but girls or boys? And I love the implicit misogyny in the song “Tonight” by the New Kids on the Block, “Remember when we traveled round the world / We met a lot of people and girls.” Nor should we forget the Stones’ nutty “It is the evening of the da-ay-ay” in “As Tears Go By.” Or “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time” in Van Halen’s “Why Can’t This Be Love?” or that gen from “Gloria,” by Them:

  • She’s five feet four
  • From her head to the ground

As opposed to, way, from her nose to her clavicle?

Flame imagery seems precarious in matters of redundancy. “You put the spark to the flame,” sing Elton John and Kiki Dee in “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” And Debbie Gibson is right behind with the line in “Red Hot,” “I need your love like a flame needs a fire.” Isn’t the title “Light My Fire,” by the way, a tautology? Or is it poetry?

What about the goofy tautological phrase “as sole survivor” in “Eye of the Tiger”? Or the line in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from Roberta, “So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed.” So much more convincing than miserably laughing, no? Then there’s the Animals, who sing in “House of the Rising Sun,” “The only thing a gambler needs / Is a suitcase and a trunk.” “Trunk’s” not desperately there for rhyme? A gambler — of all people — needs both? One of the classic examples of repetition in pop music can be heard in the Drifters; “There Goes My Baby”:

  • I love her and I need her
  • Besides my side
  • To be my guide

Illogical lunacies proliferate. Meaningless paradox. Nonsense. In “America Is My Home,” James Brown (who cowrote the song) sings, “The sun don’t come out in rainy weather / But when you boil it down they’re still together.” Or the Doors, who, in their song “Touch Me,” repeatedly sing, “I’m gonna love you / Till the stars fall from the sky / For you and I.” (And what about “Try now we can only lose” in “Light My Fire”? Is that what Jim Morrison meant when he speaks of “secret alphabets” in “Soul Kitchen”?) Burt Bacharach blithely proceeds to assure us in his hit song “What the World Needs Now” that we need only love — as opposed to? Why, “mountains, oceans, and hillsides,” of course. You wondered? What exactly is a “dukedom,” by the way, as mentioned in Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”? A duke lives in a duchy. So does a duchess.

And what about the line “I could never stay away without you near” from Rosie and the Originals’ hit “Angel Baby”? Could she stay away with her lover near? But if, in fact, he were near, where the deuce would she be staying away from? In the first part of Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Salvation Traveling Show,” we hear, first, there are “leaves handling down” and then a few lines later, “there ain’t no trees.” And in his hit “Please Love Me Forever,” Bobby Vinton, the Polish Perry Como, sings, “If I should die before I wake / I’ll come back for you, that’s no mistake.” Pant, pant.

What about the ludicrous line, never mind the logic — is it a compliment? — when Engelbert Humperdinck in “After the Loving” sings, “Thank you for giving me a one-way trip to the sun”? Isn’t it a contradiction for the Elegants in “Little Star” to sing in one line “You’re the one I’m thinking of and a few lines later say “I need a love tonight”? Or in Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Knock Three Times,” when he sings, “Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me / Twice on the pipe if the answer is no,” when he then proceeds to sing to this very same woman, “One floor below me / you don’t even know me / I love you.” If he doesn’t know her, or she him, how can she know this code of his? What about the line, “Our share is always the biggest amount” — to share, as defined in Webster, means to divide and distribute in equal portions — in the song “The In-Crows”? Aren’t such lyrics completely illogical?

“[I] found her crying needlessly,” Bobby Goldsboro sings in his hit song “Honey,” and then in the very next line she dies! What are we to make of U2’s logic (or a corpse’s pride) in their lyric, “Early morning April 4th / A shot rings out in the Memphis sky / Free at last / They took your life / But they could not take your pride”? (Martin Luther King, incidentally, was murdered in the early evening.) And what a neat trick Don Henley offers in his song “The End of the Innocence” when he suggests, “You can lay your head back on the ground / And let your hair fall around me.”

In the Marvelettes; hit, “Please, Mr. Postman,” a song whose theme is urgency (“Deliver the letter / The sooner the better”) the refrain — inexplicably — goes, “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” “The heat was hot,” sings America in “A Horse with No Name,” a song in which this line also appears, “In the desert, you can’t remember your name / Cuz there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.” “Though a million miles away, “ sings Frankie Valli in “My Eyes Adored You,” “You couldn’t tell my eyes adored you.” What, he’s blaming her because she’s not Wonder Woman? “Everyone is beautiful in their own way,” sings Ray Stevens, allowing not only the for the legitimacy of bad grammarians, but people like Adolf Hitler, Vlad Dracula, and Pol Pot as well. In the thematically masochistic pop song “Angel of the Morning,” both Merrilee Rush and Juice Newton, who had the cover version blithely proceed to sing with all seriousness the amazingly buggered-up line, “It was what I wanted now.” P.F. Sloan writes in “Eve of Destruction”:

  • My blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’
  • I’m sitting here just contemplatin’

One of the best examples of filler can be found in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” when out of its mixture of hippie argot, classical allusion, and baroque music, comes this sequence of lines, “No one, I think, is in my tree; I mean, it must be high or low; that is, you can’t you know, tune in, but it’s all right, that is, I think it’s not too bad.” “I don’t want to forsake you out,” sings Dylan in “Baby, be Friends with You.” And surely it’s for filler that Kenny Rogers, as if alluding to a jalopy that doesn’t work, refers to Vietnam as “that ol’ crazy Asian war.” Stevie Wonder is egregious in the forced rhymed and filler department. In “Part-Time Lover” he sings:

  • And if there’s some emergency
  • Have a male friend to ask for me
  • So then she won’t be, for you, my part-time lover

The last line should mean, “so that she [my wife] won’t know you’re my part-time lover.” But it makes no sense the way he’s written it, and we have no idea to whom he’s speaking. Punctuation has never been more confusing since Evelyn Waugh parodied the postcards of English schoolgirls traveling on the Continent. And then to force a rhyme in the same song, he says “rang on the bell” for “called.” In the song “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” does the line “Our children, they numbered just about four” indicate one of them was feeble? And the Beach Boys, to fill out a rhyme, have to keep singing over and over all through their Christmas song, “It’s the little St. Nick,.” And the same sort of thing happens in Elton John’s laughably flatulent “Your Song,” where lyricist Bernie Taupin’s third stanza has the effect in a song’s lyrics of an incorrect bite alignment:

  • If I was a sculptor,
  • But then again, no —
  • Or a man who makes potions
  • In a traveling show,

Should we really be surprised to learn that Cole Porter himself once advised Jesse Stone, one of Atlantic Records’ guiding lights — and author of the Drifters’ “Money Honey,” Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” and the Clovers’ “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ but Trash” — to purchase a rhyming dictionary, noting, “If you’re going to dig a ditch, you use a shovel, don’t you?”

The lyric tradition in America has long since gone by, according to Gene Lees in his book Singers and the Song: he believes it was destroyed by Elvis and the Beatles. No one in his view can write lyrics without knowing and revering the language, the crooning tonalities of its vowels, its aptitude for rhyme, its emotional vocabulary, the variety of its accents. And even if one thinks Lees is exaggerating or is unfair, a good case could be made for the prosecution. Not only were lyrics once an integral part of music, and keenly listened to, they were read. It mustn’t be forgotten that the record industry began as a stepchild of the sheet-music business. Popular tunes, prior to World War I, were consumed primarily through that medium. And yet it seems with a new sort of leveling we’ve gotten further and further away from the notion of that integrity.

It might also be pointed out that music videos, in giving a new dimension to songs, have made lyrics even less significant, even though videos should really illustrate the lyrics. They almost never do. Michael Jackson is the worst — his song “Smooth Criminal” has no consecutive three words I understand. And how about the first line of “Bad” (“Your butt is mine …”)? And what about rap music? You’d expect good lyrics in music that consists solely of lyrics, wouldn’t you, I mean since it isn’t singing? But it’s mostly just plain blabberchatter coming down the chin.

Even the talented but neurotic Phil Spector produced a Philles record for the Crystals called “He Hit Me (But It Felt Like a Kiss),” the lyrics of which to say nothing of the sentiment, boggle the mind:

  • He hit me and it felt like a kiss
  • He hit me but it didn’t hurt me
  • He couldn’t stand to hear me say
  • That I’d been to someone new
  • And when I told him I’d been untrue
  • He hit me and it felt like a kiss
  • He hit me and I knew he loved me
  • If he didn’t care for me,
  • I could never had made him mad
  • But he hit me, and I was glad.

A sort of psychopathological bookend to this song was Goffin and King’s “Please Hurt Me”:

  • If you got to hurt somebody, please hurt me
  • And if you gotta break a heart, then
  • Please break mine
  • I won’t cry if you deceive me
  • I’ll take it with a smile
  • I know someday you will leave me
  • But at least I’ll have you for a while

There is a list of howlers in popular music so long, clunkers of such scope and magnitude committed so often — but usually in songs of the Suzie-Is-the-Girl-for-Me school, a waste of shellac, invariably loping along after all those C, A minor, F, and G chords — that one has to wonder whether the composers were merely in a rush, simply had no talent, or were just plain dumb, for half the time it’s as if, when facing the problem of trying to decide between rhyme and reason, the in fact chose neither.

Neil Diamond, for example, one of the great fuglemen of vulgarity in pop music, may be famous for writing his own compositions, but I’m still trying to figure out the logic of the lyric in “Sweet Caroline” that goes, “Where it began / I can’t begin to knowin’.” In his song, “I Am … I Said,” a line goes, “And no one heard at all, not even the chair.” (Picture someone seriously speaking that — wouldn’t he have just stepped out of a rubber room?) Then he describes a road in “Play Me” as being “thorned and narrow.” But of course his greatest moment comes in a song all of his own devising called “Play Me,” when he honestly begins mooing with all sincerity:

  • Songs she sang to me,
  • Songs she brang to me,

A couplet that, I believe, had it occurred in a work of a babu or been spoken by a Tottentot from the rim of the world, would stand as a paradigm of comic English.

Such shoddiness — shamelessness, really — didn’t always fly. For example, in the original recording of Nat “King” Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song,” he sang the last line of the bridge, “To see if reindeers really know / How to fly.” After the first pressings were released and the song became a hit, Mel Torme, who cowrote the song, pointed out to Cole his grammatical error. Cole, a perfectionist, quickly rerecorded the song, properly singing “reindeer.” The second version is virtually identical to the first, but those early first pressings have since become collector’s items.

Folksinger Bob Dylan, troubadour of the ‘60s and nonconformist (“Everybody must get stoned”), whose yammering word-salad of a novel, Tarantula, is without doubt the worst novel ever published — but what can you expect of someone who once said, “All the great books have been written”? — to my mind underscores the truth of the theory advanced in Fyodor Tyutchev’s most famous poem “Silentium.” One should hide one’s thoughts in silence, since verbalization cheapens or simplifies them. Dylan sings in “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:

  • If you’re looking to get silly,
  • You’d better go back to from where you came

A line that, at least to me, becomes the lyrical equivalent in music of having webbed feet.

It sounds even worse when heard, for Dylan has the voice of a grackle. Awfulness in music — listen to Israeli disco, for example (Israeli rock is not only bad, it’s usually about Israel: nationalistic rock!) or French rock ‘n’ roll, which all sounds like someone’s chasing Edith Piaf around in circles with a pair of electric hedge clippers — is often exacerbated not only by the way a song is sung but by the voice singing it. And so does Sonny Bono. And why has Cyndi Lauper, who squeaks, adopted the singing persona of a seven-year-old? Somebody once apparently told the oleaginous Jerry Vale a long time ago that if on every other word he cracked his voice — an archaic use of the glottis used to accent fervor that in Caruso’s day was known as the “Rubini sob” — it would somehow sound passionate and authentically Italian. But shouldn’t someone tell his it only sounds like duckshit? And Willie Nelson, with those nasal peckerwood-like snorts, sounds like he’s wandered in from a goose fair.

Finally, Barry Manilow, who hasn’t even the rudimentary trace of voice, never mind a talent, literally shouts — in the deathless song “Daybreak,” he actually talks off-key — trying to make up in volume what he lacks in finesse. Listen to his version of “Memory,” if you doubt that a song can actually be beaten up, virtually flayed.

Paul Anke moos. Neil Sedaka shouts. Lesley Gore whines. Robert Goulet merely talks. Seals and Crofts sound like drunken grigs or munchkins weeing away in high report. Olivia Newton-John alternately shrieks and then sounds like she’s on Valium. Frankie Avalon is nasal. (He recorded his first hit song, “DeeDee Dinah,” literally holding his nose.) and Engelbert Humperdinck, whose singing style gives one the impression he’s inhaled massive does of sulfur dioxide, once made me destroy a radio. Kenny Rogers moves from the low register of growls to an upper register of what I can only call Western quacking. Guys like Merle Haggard and George Jones, trying to sound virile and tough, come across only as angry, illiterate — almost IQ-less — simpletons. Andy Williams, than whom no one is worse sounds like a dugong in heat. Cher’s unbearably Philistine vocal tremolos, like Buffy Sainte-Marie’s — it’s even more depressing to know they’re natural sounds — approximate the ululations of a dying mandrill And Gene Pitney, who comes closer to baying than singing, is actually a cross between the sobs of a stab victim and a broken ocarina.

The crudely racist anti-Palestinian lyrics to the theme from Exodus, written by Pat Boone, especially the line “This land, this land, God gave this land to me …,” have always struck me as fascistic and vile.

Dylan’s lyrics are often so subjective and inaccessible and privately symbolic as to be almost totally meaningless, like the dim and unrelenting verses of Simon and Garfunkel who, having developed formidable defenses against logic at a very early age, somehow manage to mix and mingle bombast, bathos, an platitude in equal measure all at once. But whether it’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “The sounds of silence,” “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” or “Mother and Child Reunion,” the irrational jabber in such songs never fails to remind us that while almost a moral fault, incompetence in bad lyrics does more to confuse than provoke.

What allegorical interpretation, for example, can give meaning to that hopeless concatenation of images evoking the thief, the joker, the wildcat, and the watchtower in Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”? Or Mrs. Robinson’s connection to cupcakes and Joltin’ Joe? Or to Reid and Brooker’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” with its pretentious muddle of allusions to playing cards, Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” and roman vestals? Can anyone say what’s going on? The inner in this category, Bathos, or the Art of Sinking is, of course, the deliciously bad “Elusive Butterfly,” a harsh emetic fro 1966 where the melody is not only as bad as the lyrics (calling to mind what a friend once told me about Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, that the best thing about them singing together is that you can ignore them both at the same time), but the lyrics are to music what gargling is to speech:

  • Out on the new horizon
  • You may see the floating motion
  • Of a distance pair of wings,
  • And if the sleep has left your ears,
  • You might hear footsteps
  • Running through an open meadow …
  • You might have heard my footsteps
  • Echo softly in the distance
  • Through the canyons of our mind.

A butterfly with footsteps? Footsteps run? And echo softly? Echo softly in the canyons? A mind has canyons? Is the speaker here a complete schizo? Aren’t “open meadows” and “ruined canyons” contradictory? There is a lot more to the song that I hate to ruin by recapitulation or diminish by detail, but what are we to make of the reference made later when the speaker, or pursuer, becomes utterly confused and proceeds to tell the listener that the long-abandoned ruins of her dreams have been left behind? “There is no difference between music and opium,” said Ayatollah Khomeini. “Both create lethargy in different ways.” Had he heard this song?

This skewed sort of blunder has its vulgar and harebrained correlative in warped point of view, such as in songs like Jan and Dean’s “Baby Talk,” which is supposedly sung by a five-year-old, or in Neil Sedaka’s neoincestuous hit of 1963, “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” a song of passionate ardor sung to a girl — by her brother!

On Procol Harum’s second album there is along song, actually a suite of songs, called “In Held ‘Twas in I.” I have to confess that for 20 years I’ve tried in vain to figure that one out. Were they singing, “It was in held I [was] in”? (The ‘60s was an extremely inarticulate decade. Gestures, images, signs, and symbols meant everything, words very little. It was a decade when couples actually married who never had a single meaningful conversation.) On the subject of musical incomprehension, I still can’t understand the last line of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” or half the lines in the Tee Set’s “Ma Belle Amie” (where, ironically, the French is much clearer than the English), that line in the Eagles; “Take It to the Limit” — and so many songs of Elton John’s, thanks to his inexplicably refined pronunciations and farcical elisions, that it’s virtually come to constitute his signature.

Overwriting is of course a major hobble with a lot of songwriters. Da Vinci once said that it took two artists to do a painting, one to do the painting the other to take the brush away. Great turgid songs full of mixed metaphors and incomprehensible allusions, like “MacArthur Park,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “I Am a Rock,” etc., always tend to sound far worse with all their heavy-footedness than those, say, with the opposite problem, as for example, “On the Wings of Love,” “People,” or (raised claws) “Feelings,” the person or persons responsible for which — I want to kill when I hear it — in my opinion should be instantly dispatched to the netherworld and forced by pitchfork to listen to Barry Manilow albums for the rest of eternity. Strange to say, perhaps, but the best lyrics are often the ones, it seems to me, that are the plainest or, better, simply don’t try to say more than the slim frame of rhythm or melody can contain.

Lennon and McCartney’s early lyrics, like “All My Lovin’’” “Please Please Me,” and “I Feel Fine,” for example, are thin and conventional, but are nevertheless quite effective. The boys’ early success, in an opinion of Philip Larkin’s I share, “was displaced by surreal lyrics, mystic orientalia, peace messages, and anti-American outbursts. The trouble was that as surrealists, mystics, or political thinkers, the Beatles were rather ordinary young men again. Their fans stayed with them, and the nuttier intelligentsia, but they lost the typists in the Cavern.”

Indisputably, the effect of crowding images in a lyric can play havoc with a song, giving it a weird effect, like glossolalia. (“Her half brother never left her out of his festive raisined bread giving progresses” is one of Gertrude Stein’s contributions.) You hear this sort of thing in Joni Mitchell. And Elton John, who has the added problem with singing lyrics of making it sound as if they were being chewed. Certain passages in even highly revered songs like Lennon and McCartney’s “I Am the Walrus” sound like mad Hieronymo spouting nonsense in a gulf of high winds:

  • Corporation teeshirt, stupid bloody Tuesday, man
  • You been a naughty boy you let your face grow long

Or

  • Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower
  • Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna, man
  • You should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe

Inventive lyrics, even inexplicable lyrics, can work. But it takes style, a magic having to do with point of view. Take the lines in the Medallions’ “The Letter,” “Let me whisper sweet words of dismortality and discuss the pompitus of love. Put it together and what do you have? Matrimony! Oh my darling …” They betray haste, but to me it’s self-deprecating fustian, so great.

As Ezra Pound noted in his ABC of Reading, “Incompetence will show in the use of too many words.” A popular defense of such stuff, of course, the notion commonly advanced, that it is the best way to express the disintegration of modern civilization — Lennon, Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Dylan (“fold” music especially lends itself to the disease) all have made noises in that direction — is what critic Yvor Winters calls “the fallacy of expressive form.” The irony is that, more often than not, it’s a virulent form of anti-intellectualism. It’s big on nature mysticism. “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby / Than we ever learned in school,” sings The Boss in his song “No Surrender.” And what better proof could be offered than the following bit of haermorrhagia purpura, wherein he proceeds to prove it:

  • Madmen drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
  • In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat

Or

  • Wizard imps and sweat sock pimps, interstellar moral nymphs
  • Real edjumacation, as they say.

And there are places on the Nebraska album or in songs like “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland” where Springsteen takes on in speech the quality — and randomness — of automatic writing. Almost none of his songs are hummable, and his articulation is so tortured and simian that you can barely understand him. “Was the chorus of ‘Blinded by the Light,’ “ asked John Lombardi in his article on Springsteen called “St. Boss,” “really ‘Wrapped up like a douche / In the rumor of the night;?” (It’s honestly hard to imaging a more pretentious, artless, awful song, and I mean awful in every way, lyrics, melody, drive, than “Blinded b the Light,” and frankly I’m something of a Springsteen fan.) I mean, when Archibald MacLeish pointed out in his insightful poem, “Ars Poetica,”

  • A poem should be palpable and mute
  • As a globed fruit
  • Dumb
  • As old medallions to the thumb —

He didn’t mean dumb in the slang American sense of stupid. Or was it possible he did?

  • When you were only startin’
  • To go to kindergarten,
  • I’ll bet you drove
  • The other childs wild

Sings Bobby Darin in his version of “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” It’s so crude, so incompetently comic, that it seems almost an affront to every limbo boy and girl all around the world to ask, what was wrong with the word “kids”? That it loses the assonance? That it doesn’t juxtapose as well with the word “wild”? And no doubt a main reason Otis Redding (who came from Georgia to San Francisco, remember) couldn’t get work in his hit “Dock of the Bay” is hinted at in the line “two thousand miles I roamed / just to make this dock my home.” Was he too dumb to know it was three? Which rhymed just as well? Was it once again a case of laziness? Or does the problem go back to the year 911, when Charles the Simple allowed the Vikings to settle in Normandy, thus creating that Franco-Germanic hybrid we call English?

(I mean, if you want to get technical, the opening line in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of I. Alfre Prufrock” should read, “Let us go then, you and me,” and is incorrect as it stands:

  • Let us go the, you and I
  • When the evening is spread out
  • Against the sky …

If it was a problem of rhyme, surely Eliot could have used the word “sea” in the second line and lost neither the effect nor the meaning.) There are no doubt those who think grammar isn’t important. But it’s not true. “This reception has meant much to Mrs. Willkie and I,” said candidate Wendell Willkie, an ungrammatical gaffe that cost him tens of thousands of votes and, some say, the election.

Good writing is an assault on cliché, bending language in order to give it new force. What’s remarkable is that the vast number of barbarisms in pop music that are so obviously bad could be so easily rectified. The bad grammar, that is. The other things, the bathos, windy splurging, anemia, and bombinating, the obstipation, the inability to hold the key of inspiration — that’s another thing entirely.

For example, when Michael Jackson in the song “I’ll Be There” tells his girl, “Just look over your shoulders,” who is he talking to, Rubber Woman? And what about that mind-calcifying moment in “International Lover” when Prince sings, “And I expect a few turbulence along the way.” Endless, endless. In his song “Oh, Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again,” Jimmy Rodgers’s line “I met the girl with the goldenest hair” is right out of Mondo Beyondo. “Everything is Beautiful,” sings Ray Stevens, “in its own way.” A phrase in “Heard It in a Love Song” by the Marshall Tucker Band presents the musical equivalent of David Balfour in Kidnapped coming to an dead end in mid-staircase: “I’m a rambler and a gambler, and I guess I always will.” There’s a line in the song “Cabaret” where Sally Bowles sings of the sorry effect of (wait for it) “too much pills and liquor.” But it’s the duet of Travis and Bob that wins the jerkola category hands own with an almost ear-shattering atrocity committed in their 192 hit single that goes:

  • And then I feel much more better
  • When I hold her in my arms

There are more offenses against grammar than can possibly be counted. “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadows,” Whitney Houston (and before her, George Benson) sings twice in “The Greatest Love of All.” In her 1989 hit “Straight Up,” for instance, Paula Abdul (and her songwriter) badly abuse the technique of enjambment by singing “ … are you really hot for me / Or am I just another page in your history / Book?” with the last insufficiently integrated word falling off the line like a steaming turd from a cart horse.

Paul Anka’s fatuous and overblown composition “My Way,” virtually the signature song of both Sinatra and Elvis Presley, each of whom presents it, by the way, as if he were singing the Stabat Master, also has the multiple distinction for all the solemnity it appropriates of offering not only one of the most repulsive lines ever put down on paper (“I ate it up and spit it out”), but surely one of the most fat-witted solecisms in the history of popular music:

  • Regrets, I’ve had a few,
  • But then again, too few to mention.
  • I did what I had to do,
  • And so it proved without exemption.

Exemption? Exemption? Paul Anka, who has always seemed to be verifiable proof that the average human head needs something removed from it rather than have something inserted, means exception, of course — exemption means immunity, freedom from charge or burden — but the word are pages apart in the dictionary, he badly needed a rhyme, and, in the Age of Shoddy, anything goes. Who knows, maybe that’s one of his few regrets. One of mine is he doesn’t have more. And yet can one ascribe such incompetence merely to haste when Sammy Cahn whipped off “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” for the Andrews Sisters in a matter of minutes, and Phil Silvers and Jimmy Van Heusen sitting around a swimming pool wrote “Nancy with the Laughing Face” for Frank Sinatra’s two-year-old daughter in 20 minutes? (I still don’t understand why in his lovely song “These Foolish Things” composer Harry Link wrote “A fairground’s painted swings” — which are what? — instead of “A playground’s painted swings.”)

Although Cole Porter’s song “The Tale of the Oyster” (Fifty Million Frenchmen, 1929) was undoubtedly tasteless and eventually dropped from the show — some critics, notably Gilbert Seldes, considered it “disgusting” — at least its intention was humor. The lyrics recount rather graphically the story of a “social-climbing” oyster being eaten by a rich society dame, who, becoming seasick, then regurgitates it. Among the more offensive lines were:

  • See that bi-valve social climber
  • Feeding the rich Mrs. Hoggenheimer,
  • Think of his joy as he gaily glides
  • Down to the middle of her gilded insides
  • Proud little oyster!
  • After lunch Mrs. H. complains
  • And says to her hostess, “I’ve got such pains,
  • I came to town on my yacht today,
  • But I think I’d better hurry back to Oyster Bay.”
  • Scared little oyster!
  • Of they go through the troubled tide,
  • The yacht rolling madly from side to side,
  • They’re tossed about till that poor young oyster
  • Finds that it’s time he should quit his cloister.
  • Up comes the oyster!

The nonsense, however, in pop music is endless. What are the tortured and incomprehensible lyrics in “Ma belle Amie” by the Tee Set in aid of ? Who or what is “the purple giant” in Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock”? Or the “spool that never ends” in his song “Moody Blue”? What does McCartney’s “yesterday came suddenly mean exactly? Who on earth can explain the spatial logistics in ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears”? In Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” what does “nigh” mean in the line, “There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago?” Why does Diane Renay’s sailor boyfriend, who has shipped out to Tokyo in her son “Navy Blue,” send her a “walkie-talkie windup little China doll”? What exactly is involved in getting someone to “wool the bull with you” in Domingo Samudio’s (a.k.a. Sam the Sham) “Woolly Bully” (a major debate years ago: was or wasn’t that the name of his cat)? What exactly are the “times” of your life mentioned in only yet another one of Paul Anka’s mooingly lugubrious songs? What precisely is a “time”?

What about “A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace” from Yes’s “Close to the Edge”? And aren’t the lyrics to the often completely out-of-control Elton John’s godawful “Philadelphia Freedom” total gibberish? To say nothing of the lyrics to his song “Rocket Man,” “Mars ain’t kind of place to raise your kids / In fact it’s cold as hell / And there’s no one there to raise them if you did”? If you did what ? Raise kids on Mars? You mean someone planned to? Like a couple who thought someone lived there?

How can Grand Funk Railroad in their version of the “Locomotion” manage to sing an entire song off-key? Was Cream hoping to be charming or anatomically precise in “Tales of Brave Ulysses” when they sang of “carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind”? Isn’t one of the many odd lines “if the viewer cannot understand it” in Eric Burdon and the Animals’ “San Franciscan Nights” totally meaningless? “You’re walking along the street, or you’re at a party,” sings Steve Allen in “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” :or else you’re alone and then you suddenly dig.” Come again?

In Sinatra’s “Love’s Been Good to Me,” is the line “still and all I’m happy” a mistranslation of some language other than English? Does it matter? You may ask. Should I care? Can it matter, for instance, in a genre where girls in songs have names like Be Bop A Lula, Bony Moronie, and Rama Lama Ding Dong? (Yes, those are names.) Where a young man, as in “The Sloop John B,” goes fighting and drinking all night in Nassau Town with his, like, you know, grandfather? And remember the greeting card-like narrative in the Righteous Brother’ “(You Are My) Soul and Inspiration”? “You’re my reason for laughing and for crying, for living and for dying.” Wait, for dying? Right. Now I call that real romantic, don’t you?

Speaking of romantic, there will surely be unanimous agreement that the Annual Aphrodisiac Award should go to Jethro Tull for the lines in the aptly name song “Thick as a Brick” that go, “Let me make you a present of song as / The wise man breaks wind and is gone while / The fool with the hourglass is cooking his goose.”

There are ironic popular lyrics, we should understand, parodies, cool commentary, often, on love lyrics otherwise conventionally thrown out. The Turtles’’ song “Happy Together” is a good example. “So happy together / How is the weather” is a splendidly ironic line A short wile after that, the Turtles had a minor hit with “Elenore,” which had the wonderful chorus:

  • Elenore, gee, I think you’re swell
  • And you really do me well
  • You’re my price and joy, et cetera

These last words could only come from people who are aware of what they’re doing and spoofing the whole idea of pop lyrics. (Their later career as Flo and Eddie support this; these guys were parodying the sillier aspects of rock ‘n’ roll before anyone could spell parody.) And then there is that great line in the Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” where after six verses of telling her that he’s sorry he has to lave her, the singer says, “Angie, oh Angie, ain’t it good to be alive?” This, to a background of desolate minor chords. No, I’m not asking High Seriousness. Nor am I asking for classicism, symmetry, or the Aristotelian “unities.” I open a cop of Wallace Stevens’s magical Palm at the End of the Mind and read:

  • The weather and the giant of the weather,
  • Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air:
  • An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought.

I’m asking only for a workman’s true art.

It may even legitimately be asked whether popular music is in constant need of rebarbarization, as Max Lerner once said literature was. A case could be made, I suppose. It is the nature of pop music to be rebellious and, among its practitioners, not only acceptable but even required. And while mistakes of the more pronounced sort do have (as Henry James once said of a musical comedy star) a certain cadaverous charm, one may also be driven to wonder if, um, exemptions repeated enough won’t become the rule.

Take the matter of “agreement,” the former correspondence in grammar of one word to another, the failure of which, a constant trapfall in popular songs, ranging all the way from the line “I knew we was fallin’ in love” in Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy,” to the Beatles; “The long and winding road / They’ll never disappear,” to Sting’s “If you love somebody / Set them free,” to the Supremes’ “These precious words keeps me hanging on” in their hit “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The endearing but illiterate dip in the road heard in the 1961 hit of the semi-cretinous Little Caesar and the Romans,

  • Those oldies but goodies
  • Reminds me of you …

Is loving repeated — listen closely — five times, plus choral repetitions, during the course of a here-minute song, chanted over and over again like Euripides among the fold of Abdera. Frank Sinatra, in his hit, “Young at Heart,” sings the line “You had a head start, if you are among the very young at heart.” It should be a combination of either “have/are” or “had/were,” however, to be correct. In Jimi Hendrix’s song “Castles Made of Sand,” from his 1968 album Axis: Bold as Love, the first verse ends, “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually,” but, you got it, the second and third verses end.

  • And so castles made of sand
  • Melts into the sea, eventually.
  • And so castles made of sand
  • Slips into the sea, eventually.

As we saw, the Beatles aren’t immune from this kind of mistake. “The Night Before” refers to several different periods of time with little coherency or consistency, if any. And speaking of repetition, the thuddingly ungrammatical line

  • Life can never be
  • Exactly like we want it to be

Not only appeared in the song “Dedicated to the One I Love” by the Five Royales in 1958 but was sung the same was by the Shirelles in 1961, and the error was repeated by the Mamas and the Papas in 1967. I can assure you that there is no end to these examples, they’re growing by the day, but as Joyce’s Molly Bloom declares, “My patience are exhausted.”

It should be pointed out, finally, if not out of fairness, then for the sake of relief, that the lyrical mode not only can be done right, but admirably. One of the most brilliant lyricists for me has always been Buck Ram Nash (an unlikely name, but the Lord, as Mailer points out, is a great novelist) who was the manager-songwriter for the Platters. Buck could write metaphor like nobody else, a baroque master unique in rock literature — “When purple-colored curtains mark the end of da, I’ll see you, my dear, at twilight time,” and

  • Deepening shadows gather splendor as day is done,
  • Fingers of night will soon surrender the setting sun …

But what Buck Ram dos that very few others do — Dylan Thomas in “Do Not Go Gentle” is another example that pops to mind — is to play, to pun, with the syntax of words. In Chomskian terms, he varies the deep structure of a syntactical element. In “Remember When,” the title tag introduces many of the lines:

I loved you then, and I still do,

I can’t remember when I didn’t love you.

It’s wonderful. The verb’s mood has changed from imperative to indicative, further suspended by the negative of “can’t” (What! After all this there’s something the speaker can’t remember?) which is deliciously reversed by the second negative of “didn’t.” That’s style with sass. Buck Ram Nash double negatives work.

He does another “deep structure shift” in his huge hit “Only You,” where the title tag is used as the grammatical subject in a number of different lines — “Only you can make this change in me,” for example — but concludes by shifting it, almost chiasmus-like, to a predicate nominative, as well as easing it into a cliché, thereby bringing the cliché back from the linguistic dead:

  • You’re my dream come true, my one and only you.

Simple and unpretentious, yet done with grace and magic, that’s the way a song should unfold.

I realize this approach to pop music leaves me open to various charges, that I’m breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. It’s considered reductive to ask intelligence of it and snobbish to seek an altitude of sense, clearly. And in this failed world of ours, there certainly can be found examples of richer and much ampler incompetence. But there is already too much bad taste around, and it’s getting worse. Industry tampers with both nature and art — accepts anything — until one ends up, sadly, preferring prints to paintings, department stores to the Cape Cod dunes. Mine is not a plea for the stunningly mental, merely an attempt, as Nabokov said in another context, “to ensure a dignified beat of the mandarin’s fan.” If you think it’s asking too much, so be it. I say it takes a concerned mind to make an analysis of the obvious; and ungrammaticalness, like the word, while grammatical, is nevertheless ugly.

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