BOB DYLAN: NASHVILLE SKYLINE
“Oh me, oh my,
Love that country pie.”
— Bob Dylan
Especially with singer songwriters, its’ fun to speculate which came first: the lyrics or the music. Bob Dylan’s 1967 album, “John Wesley Harding” appears to be a well-crafted set of poems that then are set to music. Dylan’s next album, Nashville Skyline appears to be a set of music compositions, with lyrics added afterwords. Adding the words later, creates a task much more difficult for the lyricist role of the singer songwriter, particularly if the music does not emerge from a set of chord progressions, but comes from the heart — a melody that one hears with or without its associated chords, that then one must fully form into a song. I am particularly amazed at the results of lyricist Lorenz Hart who was able to write such excellent lyrics to completed Richard Rogers songs.
However, writing great music to preexisting lyrics seems to be an almost impossible feat. As impressed as I am at the quality of Hart’s lyrics to fit into preexisting music, I am even more amazed at the quality of music that Richard Rogers was able to provide when he switched to working with Oscar Hammerstein, a lyricists whose method of creation was to first write the lyrics, handing those finished lyrics to the composer who then had to create appropriate music for those words.
So, I am not surprised that Dylan, who is not the quality of composer as Richard Rogers, comes up short musically sometimes when creating music to fit his own existing poetry as is the general case with the “John Wesley Harding” album.
Note that I may be completely wrong with this thesis, but I believe that with Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, released on April 9, 1969, several of the songs were written first with lyrics added. “Nashville Skyline Rag” was a rare instrumental by Dylan and gives us a clear example of Dylan writing music without preexisting lyrics, but I believe this is also the case with songs like “To Be Alone With You”” I Threw it All Away”, and “Lay, Lady, Lay.” Unlike the previous album, Nashville Skyline is not a series of songs with verses and no choruses but a collection of traditional, fairly catchy and easily singable tunes. The music sounds more natural, and comes across as the primary content — another indicator that the lyrics are there for the music and not the music being created to support existing poetry.
But an additional reason for my assertion that the music came first, is the generally simple quality of the lyrics. On scrutiny, this is a rather weak argument when one considers that not only most of the music, but the associated words are totally in alignment with expected character of late 1960’s country music, and so one could argue that Dylan once again wrote the lyrics first to get the level of authenticity needed for the project and rose to the task of fitting natural, catchy, country music to those lyrics. Either way Dylan deserves praise for the final product and his amazing adaptability.
He also deserves particular praise for the number of musical and lyrical cliches he was able to fit into a short twenty-seven minute album, given there is nothing inherently wrong with cliches: to quote Nicolas Slonimsky, one of the great musicologists of the twentieth century defending a particularly cliche in classical music, “yes, its a cliche, but it’s a good cliche!” Musically, we find heavy reliance on common country music chord progressions and melodic patterns, but it is the lyrical cliches that interest me even more. For example, the entire content of the third song, “To Be Alone with You” is almost entirely crafted from cliches:
“To be alone with you,
Just you and me,
Now won’t you tell me true
Ain’t that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through;
Everything is always right
When I’m alone with you.
“To be alone with you
At the close of the day
With only you in view
While evening slips away;
It only goes to show
That while life’s pleasures be few
The only one I know
Is when I’m alone with you.”
“They say that nighttime is the right time
To be with the one you love;
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you’re always what I’m thinkin’ of.
I wish the night were here
Bringin’ me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms.
“I’ll always thank the Lord
When my workin’ day is through —
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you”
And so it goes for the rest of the album with such often-used phrases as
“I treated her like a fool”, “in the palm of my hand”, “I threw it all away”. “Love … makes the world go ’round”, “stole my heart away”. “love to spend the night”. “future looks so bright”. “girl is out of sight”. “loved her just the same”. “And I love her so”. “you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen”. “You can have your cake and eat it too”. “tonight no light will shine on me”. “lost the only pal I had”. “I just could not be what she wanted me to be”. “I thought that she’d be true”. “what a woman in love would do”. “I didn’t mean to see her go”. “tell me that it isn’t true”, “They say that you’ve been seen with some other man”. “he’s tall, dark and handsome”. “It hurts me all over”, “all I want is your word”, “you better come through”, “I’m countin’ on you”. “playin’ ’til the break of day”. “that ain’t no lie”, “got nothin’ on me”, “Throw my troubles out the door”, “it was more than I could do”. “your love comes on so strong”, “I’ve waited all day long”, “Is it really any wonder”, “You cast your spell and I went under“, “I find it so difficult to leave.”
One has to conclude, even if reluctantly, that there is a genius at work here, and whether the lyrics came first or were cleverly fitted into the music, it’s impressive how all these cliches were incorporated into these few songs.
One personal note: “Lay, Lady, Lay” was repeatedly played on AM radio, over and over, starting in July 1969. I cringed every time it came on. I was fourteen, and this is second worse traumatic experience for me that year — the worst was having to hear The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” on the radio, relentlessly repeated with the resumption of the school year that September. What an ordeal! A poor, suffering, helpless fourteen-year-old freshman high school student being subjected to the one song that most exemplified (and historically defined) bubble-gum pop music — and subjected to such inane music and lyrics every morning and every afternoon on the school bus ride. “Lay, Lady, Lay” was a welcome relief in comparison.
Musicians [from Wikipedia]
Bob Dylan – guitar, harmonica, keyboards, vocals
Norman Blake – guitar, dobro
Kenneth A. Buttrey – drums
Johnny Cash – vocals on “Girl from North Country”
Fred Carter Jr. – guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, guitar
Pete Drake – pedal steel guitar
Marshall Grant – bass guitar on “Girl from North Country”
W. S. Holland – drums on “Girl from North Country”
Charlie McCoy – guitar, harmonica
Bob Wilson – organ, piano
Bob Wootton – electric guitar on “Girl from North Country”
LEONARD COHEN: SONGS FROM A ROOM
Released on April 7, 1969, Leonard Cohen’s second album Songs from a Room, did well on the US Charts (peaking at 63) and impressively in the UK (getting as high as second spot on the UK charts.) This seems to be another one of those singer-songwriter album which has songs that are based on poetry set to music rather than lyrics devised to fit the music.
The most amazing song, on a relatively strong album, is the powerfully compelling “Story of Isaac”, basically an anti-Vietnam song, set within the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s message extends much more broadly, and the song unfolds first as a narrative and then as a commentary. “A scheme” such as capitalism or communism poorly compares to a divine vision, and if what Abraham did is clearly inappropriate, how much more so is sending our youth off to fight politically-motivated wars? Or to kill off the promise of future generations by reckless consumption of our planet’s precious resources? One has to be astonished at how artfully and convincingly Cohen has crafted his message.
Cohen delivers intimate, personal songs from his room that can fully enjoyed when we provide undivided attention to the music emanating from the speakers in front of us in our rooms.
Musicians [from Wikipedia]
Leonard Cohen – vocals, classical guitar
Ron Cornelius – acoustic and electric guitar
Bubba Fowler – banjo, bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar
THE NAZZ: NAZZ NAZZ
Todd Rundgren and The Nazz, released their second album, “Nazz Nazz” on April 7, 1969. This was effectively their last album, originally intended as a double album, with some of the music held back and then later released as “Nazz III” by SGC Records coinciding with Todd Rundgren’s blossoming solo career starting to provide a commercial audience for these earlier tracks.
The diversity of this album is remarkable. There are two solid blues numbers, “Kiddie Boy” and “Featherbedding Lover”, a fine-blues based hard rock number “Hang on Paul”, sounding as it would almost fit into the Beatles’ White Album, the melodic “Gonna Cry Today”, the richly euphonic “Letters Don’t Count” with its glass harmonic intro and coda and its layered vocals, the heavy “Under The Ice”, the confusingly psychedelic “Meridian Leeward”, and the artfully composed “A Beautiful Song.” One hears not only influences from The Beatles, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach, but Todd’s own singular voice in all the compositions (particularly in the melodies and harmonic modulations), the arrangements, and the overall production. In addition we have Rundgren’s distinct guitar work and his general lyrical competency which sometimes rises to be as profound and effective as anything by the more renown singer songwriters of the sixties. Case in point is this verse from “Gonna Cry Today”
“Are you turned off by my lack of composure?
Please excuse my state, it’s just that I know
Your gonna take away something that I never had
But I thought was mine.”
which is perfectly understated, identifying the essence of not only romantic loss but loss in general.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
All songs written by Todd Rundgren.
- “Forget All About It” – 3:15
- “Not Wrong Long” – 2:30
- “Rain Rider” – 3:52
- “Gonna Cry Today” – 3:15
- “Meridian Leeward” – 3:20
- “Under the Ice” – 5:40
- “Hang on Paul” – 2:42
- “Kiddie Boy” – 3:30
- “Featherbedding Lover” – 2:47
- “Letters Don’t Count” – 3:25
- “A Beautiful Song” – 11:15
Robert “Stewkey” Antoni – vocals
Thom Mooney – drums, vocals
Todd Rundgren – guitar, keyboards, horn arrangements, string arrangements, vocals
Carson Van Osten – bass, vocals