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Writing in Music

November 16, 2009

My next favourite thing in the world after writing and reading isn’t coffee, or even a cold beer – though there is no denying both have their place in my world, I do enjoy them and they compliment both writing and reading, but something else takes third place.

For me writing and music are so entwined I find it almost impossible to put down words without music. I use it as a motivator, to set the mood and also to give me inspiration. More than a few of my short stories and a novella in progress all have roots in song lyrics, titles or images which have been evoked while listening to them in the car.

But what of writing in music?

For a while I have been tossing around some ideas about storytelling in music. As Dale so aptly writes over at Chinese Whisperings about insomnia and his story Not Myself – this is not the post on storytelling in music, it is a second cousin once removed!

This week I focus on three songs which talk about the profession of writing, the life of a writer and the aftermath of being with a writer. Two were massive hits when released and the third is an obscure song on a second album.


Song History

Released in 1966 Paperback Writer was the 11th single released by The Beatles  and spent time in the number one position across the world in five different countries. There are at least three wellknown stories abut how the song came into existence. One story asserts Paul’s aunty asked him to write a song about something other than relationships and love. Another put forth by a British disc jockey claims the inspiration came from Paul seeing Ringo sitting reading a book. Paul says the song came after reading about an aspiring author in the Daily Mail. The mention of a “man named Lear” is a reference to Victorian painter Edward Lear who also wrote nonsense poetry and songs, whom Lennon was a fan of.

The Song and Me

My parents were huge fans of The Beatles so I grew up listening and learning the words. Before I had discovered I was able to string together my own collection of words and sentences to create stories, I was intrigued by the song Paperback Writer. It sounded like a pretty awesome life when I was six and a “dirty man” was more inline with my backyard antics than anything of a sexual nature. I know when I come to write my first query letter, the words from Paperback Writer are going to be playing away in my head:

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

While hopefully any query letter I write will be a little more sophisticated and professionally put together than Paperback Writer (which is essentially written as a letter to a publisher), and will probably have nothing to do with a man named Lear, the lyrics are important. They embedded in my young brain the legitimacy of the profession of writing (they now remind me of the agony of editing!)

As a completely and almost irrelevant aside, when giving his Orange Playlist, one of my favourite actors, John Simm, rated Paperback Writer his all time favourite song. It got renewed airplay in the car after that.

Favourite lyrics

If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break, and I want to be a paperback writer.

DANCING IN THE DARK – Bruce Springsteen

Song History

Fast forward to 1984 and Bruce Springsteen. Dancing in the Dark was the pre-release single from the album Born in the USA and the final song penned. In 1985 it came in as the favourite song of the year on a Rolling Stone poll and is listed in the best 500 songs of all time.

It is said Springsteen’s manager and producer wanted a new single which reflected the current state of mind of the artist to complete the album and be released as the first single. Ha! Knowing this, it is a rather telling song about the rigours of the creative process and the burn out at the end of any project (an anthem for week three of NaNo?) When I look over the lyrics, it seems to me to be a stream of vitriol about the Springsteen’s experience of trying to complete the album and then being asked to come up with a fresh new single – just when the creative well is at its driest. One has to love a song written about having nothing to write about and feeling ambivalent about the entire process. Gosh, that really does sound so third week of NaNo.

The Song and Me

The year I started high school my Dad started playing Born in the USA in the car – a tape he’d recorded from his mate Doug’s vinyl. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started bashing out bad renditions of it on the piano from a huge book of 80’s sheet music, and I had become interested in writing, that I noticed the reference to writing.

They say you got to stay hungry hey baby I’m just about starving tonight

I’m dying for some action I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write

this book

Those lines leapt out and hit me between the eyes. And the the opening of the chorus:

You can’t start a fire,

You can’t start a fire without a spark

could be any Creative’s anthem. I’ve rediscovered my appreciation for the song this November as I’ve been driving around with the Best of Springsteen playing in the car.

Favourite Lyrics

I get up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say
I come home in the morning, I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain’t nothing but tired, man I’m just tired and bored with myself

THE BOOK – Sheryl Crow

Song History

The Book is the second last song on Crow’s second album, the self titled Sheryl Crow. The album was released in 1996 and included the singles If It Makes You Happy and Everyday is a Winding Road.

The Song and Me

Of the songs listed here The Book has probably had the biggest impact. I bought the CD sometime in Griffith, 1997, when my partner of the time and I were getting around the back blocks of country NSW  in an old, yellow, Ford Falcon sedan, going from harvesting job to harvesting job. Tuesday Night Music Club had been a favourite and it was a natural progression. The Book struck me as a stand out song from the first listening because of the depth of the betrayal and the cutting way it dishes it up to the perpetrator. There was always something Roman Holiday-esque about it to me – only the writer in Crow’s songs has a literary version of loose lips, unlike Hepburn’s beau.

It is something which is always in the forefront of my mind when I sit to write anything vaguely autobiographical now. I wonder how many people I know will recognise a particular moment (especially in my earlier work where I was less adept in weaving fact into fiction) or the reverse. I once had my flat mate ask if he was in my NaNo project, which I was periodically posting in ’07. I was struck aghast wondering who the hell he thought he was in the narrative arc. While the question burned I never did ask – somethings seriously, are best left unsaid.

While I love writing with pen and paper, and I know several writers who have reverted to perhaps a purer form of writing with the bare basics, I am scarred forever from several lines in this song.

You carry a pen and a paper

and no time and words you waste

You’re a voyeur

The worst kind of thief

To take what happened

To write down everything that went on

Perhaps this is why I will never contemplate a complete return to the handwritten version. Or maybe I am just paranoid of what others will think if they see me wildly scribbling in my little brown book with occassional peeps over the top.

Favourite Lyrics

I read your book
And I find it strange
That I know that girl and I know her world
A little too well
And I didn’t know
By giving my hand
That I would be written down, sliced around,
Passed down
Among strangers hands

There must be hundreds if not thousands of literary references in music. While I was floating in the pool, allowing the first draft of this article to run through my head, I tried to think of the number of songs I know with a reference to Romeo in it. There’s Michael Penn’s No Myth (romeo in black jeans), Dire Straits Romeo and Juliet and Basement Jax’s Romeo. But how many other songs really go to the heart of writing? I’m know you’d love to share a few.

Jodi Cleghorn‘s car is a virtual mobile creative space. She is now inflicting her musical tastes onto her five year old son, who takes the time while she’s driving to ask the important questions in life, like “What happens when we die!” Find out more about my NaNo campaign via Twitter, blog and discussion board.
One Comment
  1. November 16, 2009 6:20 am

    I, also, write with music, but mostly classical, such as Beethoven, Dvorák, Bach, Telemann. I find words in songs interfere with my own.

    My most favourite writing song is Tracy Chapman’s Telling Stories.

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