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I'm an Alligator!

PostPosted: Sat Aug 13, 2005 12:36 pm
by howard male
I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa coming for you!

These are the first song lyrics (from Bowie's Moonage Daydream') which sprung to mind when I thought of starting up a topic on surreal, impressionistic, or nonsense lyrics in popular music, as a result of Garth making a distinction between 'intelligent' lyrics and 'impressionistic' ones, the other day, elsewhere on this forum.

Whether they are surreal, impressionistic or nonsensical, really depends as much on personal opinion as it does on critical concessus. And the reasons a particular lyric appeals can be as obscure as the lyric itself. It might be the sound of the words and the way they rub up against each other, it may be the images they conjure, or maybe it's that indefinable frisson which thrills or amuses you, every time you hear Captain Beefheart growl:

There's ole Gray with 'er dove-winged hat
Threre's ole Green with her sewing machine
Where's the bobbin at?
Tote'n old grain in uh printed sack
The dust blows forward 'n dust blows back
And the wind blows black thru the sky
And the smokestack blows up in suns eye

I've always preferred the emotive lyric to the straight narrative one, because music itself is essentially an emotive, abstract language, and whenever I've heard a long 'story song' or a political diatribe song, I nearly always get the sense that the lyric has been shoehorned into the music rather than being a natural offshoot of it.

But most importantly the surreal flight-of-fancy lyric is an escape from the omniscient love song. Paul McCartney may not be able to get enough of silly love songs, but the rest of us need the occasional journey to somewhere other than a lover's arms. McCartney's nemesis knew this only too well, which maybe partly why he started manifesting Dadaist lyrics like they were going out of fashion (of course the drugs may have had something to do with it too - but that's another story).

When McCartney let his subconscious be his muse, the result was 'scrambled eggs', which after a nano second's consideration he changed to 'Yesterday'. But Lennon - the realist and the humourist - was in his element when he went off on one, such as in 'I Am the Walrus:

Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come
Corporation teeshirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you been a naughty boy. You let your face grow long
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen
I am the walrus, goo goo goo joob

I personally find such Beatle's lyrics overrated and over-read into. They have a Goons-like affected eccentricity but very little literary merit.
Slightly better - as it's less selfconciously wacky - is Strawberry Fields:

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me
Let me take you down, cos I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

But, before this posting turns into a book, let me mention some personal favourites in the freeform stylee. Bowie was one of the first rock writers to come out of the closet and own up to his use of William Burrough's cutup technique of writing, whereby a page of prose is cut into strips and then randomly reassembled. For me, one of the most resonant Bowie lyrics comes from 'Candidate' on 'Diamond Dogs'. The scene is literally set with the opening lines:

I'll make you a deal, like any other candidate
We'll pretend we're walking home 'cause your future's at stake
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street
There's a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friend
Someone scrawled on the wall "I smell the blood of les tricoteuses"
Who wrote up scandals in other bars

Then later, as the song goes into overdrive, this great couplet:

On another floor, in the back of a car
In the cellar of a church with the door ajar

We get tantalising hints of a narrative and vividly conjured scenes, but then the lyric cuts to something else - a different perspective or another striking Baconesk image. Sense is only in the eye of the beholder.

But with my other teen hero - Marc Bolan - words are merely playthings for stringing together like pretty necklaces - whimsically chosen at random to emote rather than to describe. This is from the 1968 track 'Seal of Seasons:

Her night it came and then she hooked her head
Unto the fleeing sun and then she fled
And flew woo!
Just like a dancer, - a gypsy dancer
A salty shimmered shell of foam

...I love that salty shimmered shell of foam! Bolan just delighted in words, and with sweet naivety just made them serve his purpose. He really didn't care if they made sense or not. Sense would somehow, on some level, manifest itself through melody and delivery.

So that's enough from me for the moment. Let's have your favourite surreal Dylan or Beefheart, crazy lyric. Or Little Richard, or Lou Reed, or Brian Eno, or Kate Bush, or...

PostPosted: Sun Aug 14, 2005 10:47 am
by howard male
As this topic is getting off to a slow start and it's a staying in kind of day - and Marcia's teaching kids how to carve outside Peckham library (if you happen to have a kid who'd like to's free, no appointment needed) - and I only mentioned in passing my biggest hero of the unhinged lyric and the surreal song - Tom Waits - here's some more....

The great thing about Tom is you never know where sense ends and nonsense begins. His lyrics - like much great poetry - is an amalgam of references; personal, obscure, universal, self mythologising and simple mischief-making. As with all crazy lyric writers, there is also a simple love of juxtaposing unusual, unlikely words in order to manifest striking imagery, or smiles of admiration.

I think the 'exotic' quotient present in a Waits lyric is actually greater for the non-American listener. Perhaps the same rule applies for American fans of Ian Dury. As soon as one understands some of the many colloquialisms present, bits of the jigsaw of meaning start to fall into place.

For example a 'blind pig' means a speakeasy or cheap bar. A 'Creeping Charlie' is both a house plant and a daddy-long-legs (and perhaps a DJ getting in late and trying not to wake his wife). A 'home-made special' is a home-made gun. 'Making feet for children's shoes' is, believe it or not, slang for having sex. 'Patterson's curse' is a purple weed that is prodigious during draughts. And of course 'Raindogs' refers to lost folk - when it has rained a dog may wonder around aimlessly because the sent it has left on mailboxes and trees has been washed away. And my personal favourite 'walking Spanish' which is when a prisoner is grasped by his neck and the seat of his pants in order to hasten his progress 'down the hall'.

But now you know what 'making feet for children's shoes' means, does the following verse from 'Singapore' make any more sense? It doesn't to me. But I still find it one of the most evocative songs ever written - full of the kind of imagery that might creep into the mind on the edge of sleep - sinister, peripheral hints at nightmarish goings-on, only made palatable by Wait's devilish sense of humour.

We sail tonight for Singapore,
don't fall asleep while you're ashore
Cross your heart and hope to die
when you hear the children cry
Let marrow bone and cleaver choose
while making feet for children shoes
Through the alley, back from hell,
when you hear that steeple bell
You must say goodbye to me

Waits actually begun as more of a straight forward narrative songwriter but then clearly got bored with that form, realising richer pastures existed in the Twilight Zone. You can only write so many sentimental songs about hookers, and existential nights on the town.

Before I try again to pass the baton, I would like to mention one world music artist - the great Tom Ze - the man is a fountain of insane wordery. Apparently their is a rich seam of politically subversive propaganda in his quirky little songs, but I have mainly just found bizarre and pleasing nonsense. From 'Politi Car':

Daughter of practice
Daughter of tactic
Daughter of machinery
This shameless cave
Of the entrails
Is always accommodating

From Xiquexique':

I saw a blind man reading the string of a viola
Blind against blind in a duel in the hinterland
I saw a blind man tie a cobra in a knot
I saw the blind man imprisoned
In the cage of sight

Ze must surely be the most Dadaist of all lyricists. Any other contenders?

PostPosted: Wed Aug 17, 2005 6:02 pm
by howard male
Come on folks, I'm really disappointed in you!

I thought this topic would be a real goer - I was looking forward to reading unknown, obscure lyrics from, for example, some of the oddballs that several of you have already mentioned in the Musicians and Madmen topic. Or some whacky Zappa, or a favourite enigmatic impenetrable Dylan couplet which has always stayed with you.

Handy hint (which I'm sure most of you know anyway) - if you can't be bothered to type out great chunks of lyric from memory, I found all of my quotes (except the Tom Ze one) through Google.

So let's have some weird, zany, dark, cosmic or just plain unhinged lyrics up here for us all to ruminate, laugh, cry or worry over...

PostPosted: Wed Aug 17, 2005 11:18 pm
by NormanD
Sigh...all right, Howard. Even apathy can be so tiring, sometimes.

Here's one:
The men in the forest they once asked of me,
How many black berries grew in the Blue Sea.
And I asked them right with a tear in my eye.
How many dark ships in the forest?

I know this mostly from "Birmingham Sunday", a song by Richard Fariña. He never wrote this, but as did his mate-of-the-time, Dylan, he nicked the lines from old British folk songs, like "The Week Before Easter", "I Loved A Lass", or "The False Bride", which all have variations of this motif. I'm buggered if I know what it's about, I don't think it's a riddle. It's nice imagery, and I used to think it was just pleasant words until I saw that crazy film by crazy Werner Herzog, "Aguirre, Wrath of God", in which crazy Klaus Kinski is floating on the raft and sees a boat in a jungle tree.

There is definitely a link between surrealism and traditional British folk music and crazy German film makers.


PostPosted: Thu Aug 18, 2005 9:40 am
by howard male
Norman wrote -

There is definitely a link between surrealism and traditional British folk music and crazy German film makers.

So many links, so little time..

Now that wasn't too painful was it Norman? And what's more you've almost aroused my curiosity about a folk song.

I knew you in particular would have a quirky verse or two you could impart. The sight of that other boat up a different tree in 'Aguirre, Wrath of God' 25 years ago, was my first positive experience of the delights of movies outside the mainstream. I can remember seeing it for the first time on a grainy black and white TV, in my cave of a bedsitting room, and still being hypnotised by it. Herzog clearly had a thing about boats in awkward places, because then he decided to haul one over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo.

You see - that's what I love about this forum - it's just an excuse for us to impart useless but hopefully interesting information to each other. The actual starting topic - like a Chinese whisper - soon becomes forgotten, but lots of curious other stuff materialises. So more please!

Most poetry (almost by definition) is of the abstract emotive kind - otherwise, I suppose, it's prose. I used to love T S Elliot without ever bothering, or caring to know, what was symbolised or alluded to in his cubist narratives. So I think it's surprising more songwriters haven't taken the surrealist, poetic approach. The emotive, abstract lyric is clearly the natural partner to the intrinsically emotive, abstract melody.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 18, 2005 10:55 am
by Ted
Its obvious I know but:

What was he on about?

Is it just a terrible indictment of what bucketloads of amphetamines do to the human brain?

I love it.


PostPosted: Thu Aug 18, 2005 12:23 pm
by NormanD
I wrote:I'm buggered if I know what it's about, I don't think it's a riddle.
A better man than me, Tom Paxton, who has also recorded this song, has said: "It happens to be one of my favorite verses in all of traditional folk music. For me, it's all about how perceptions of good and evil change from person to person and how utterly inexplicable life can seem. An early Scottish existentialist!"

So there I have it. I should have looked it up first (which I did just now, so was able to lift the quote: ). I think I'll put my money on the surrealists rather than the existentialists.

And going back to Tom Waits, I often feel that some of his lyrics are Willie Dixon re-writes, like "Wang Dang Doodle":

Tell Automatic Slim , tell Razor Totin' Jim
Tell Butcher Knife Totin' Annie, tell Fast Talking Fanny
We gonna pitch a ball, down to that union hall
We gonna romp and tromp till midnight
We gonna fuss and fight till daylight
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
All night long, All night long, All night long

Tell Kudu-Crawlin' Red, tell Abyssinian Ned
Tell ol' Pistol Pete, everybody gonna meet
Tonight we need no rest, we really gonna throw a mess
We gonna break out all of the windows,
we gonna kick down all the doors
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
All night long, All night long, All night long

Tell Fats and Washboard Sam, that everybody gonna jam
Tell Shaky and Boxcar Joe, we got sawdust on the floor
Tell Peg and Caroline Dye, we gonna have a time
When the fish scent fill the air, there'll be snuff juice everywhere
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long
All night long, All night long etc.

Can't you just hear him growling them out?


PostPosted: Thu Aug 18, 2005 1:13 pm
by Dominic
Swell Maps - probably the best band in the world ever - were influenced almost equally by Can & T-Rex, which means I could quote any of their songs. Here's the shortest (in it's entirety):

My Lil' Shoppes 'Round The Corner (Lyrics by David Barrington)

Oh, my little shops round the corner
They sell everything
From greens
To cheese
To clothes
To TVs

PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2005 3:42 pm
by Martin_Edney
Dominic wrote:Swell Maps - probably the best band in the world ever

I certainly agree with Dominic's assessment of the Swell Maps. As for short songs, I'll go to the opposite, and quote the lyrics of their 7 minute epic "Adventuring Into Basketry" from their "Trip to Marineville" album:

    "Well I woke up this morning..."

It all makes perfect sense when you listen to it, and as a bonus the song credits feature Nikki Sudden playing the expensive broken microphone, which can't be bad.

PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2005 9:04 am
by howard male
As both Bob Dylan and T. Rex have come up a couple of times in this strand I was reminded of the fact that although Bolan's lyrics were mostly nonsensical, the odd reference to the real world would occasionally creep in. For example the song Telegram Sam with its mentions of 'golden nosed Slim', and ' purple pie Pete', also had a couplet which went:

'Bobby's all right, Bobby's all right,
He's a natural born poet
He's just outa sight'

Which was a direct reference to one of Bolan's heroes, Bob Dylan. To play the passing-the-baton game, Bowie name-checked Bolan on 'All the Young Dudes ('I need TV when I've got T.Rex') and prior to that wrote a whole song dedicated to Dylan, called, would you believe, 'Song for Bob Dylan.'

Anyone else got any favourite examples of songwriters with large egos momentarily feeling humble and paying tribute in song to a musical peer?

PostPosted: Wed Aug 24, 2005 3:29 pm
by NormanD
howard male wrote:Anyone else got any favourite examples of songwriters with large egos momentarily feeling humble and paying tribute in song to a musical peer?

I don't know about the humility, and it's more of a tribute to mentor than peer, but Bob Dylan (he's here again!) did "Song To Woody" (Guthrie) on his first album.

The Zim also did a song to Lenny Bruce (who did once do a faux rock & roll tune).

Tim Hardin also recorded a song to Lenny Bruce, both of whom used to hang out and partake together. There's also a version of Tim's song by Nico.

Tim also recorded "Tribute To Hank Williams"; again, mentor rather than peer.

Phil Ochs "....dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night".

I hope we're going to exclude - forcibly if necessary - all these mawkish posthumous tribute songs, though I bet there are a few unintendedly hilarious ones Forumistas can think of.


PostPosted: Thu Aug 25, 2005 1:24 pm
by ritchie
and of course everybody knows that Carly Simon wrote 'your so vain' about ......., or did she?

PostPosted: Wed Oct 05, 2005 9:03 am
by howard male
I think this topic on weird and wonderful song lyrics is the place for me to finally get around to posting comments on the already much discussed Dylan documentary. Here because, for me the most revealing moment was the scene on the street corner were our hero was taking childlike (in the best sense of the word) pleasure in verbally shuffling words he'd just read on street-signs or newspaper headlines, to increasingly bazaar and surreal affect. It was the happiest we saw him in the entire film, and that, to me, says everything about who the real Bob Dylan is.

I'm not ashamed to admit I'd not really got Dylan before - perhaps it's because I was ten years too late for him to profoundly effect my musical and/or political identity. But at least with this film I began to see what all the fuss was about.

Most interesting was the compulsive need fans and journalists alike seemed to have for finding specific meaning in his songs, even in the face of his continued, exasperated protest. He was a protest singer who seemed to spend most of his time protesting that his songs weren't as pin-downable and specific as his audience would have liked or needed them at the time to be.

The man was a poet, and like the other Dylan - Dylan Thomas, who once said "I'll take care of the words, let the meaning take care of itself", he revelled in the ambiguities his subconscious mind came up with. He didn't use the English language to nail an idea or a political truth. Truth was in the electrical sparks that flew between the words as much as in the words themselves. He loved the idea that a song - or at least one of his songs - was as open to as many interpretations, as there were people listening to it. A song was a personal gift to a million individuals, not a oblique political manifesto that once unravelled would bring peace to all mankind.

He was also unarguably an enigma, so it's only appropriate that his songs should be enigmas too. The truth of a Dylan song is in the ears of the beholder, and this wonderful film as well as being a portrait of the man and his time, was also a portrait of the artist and his public, either running to keep up with him or running, with horror, in the opposite direction.

Finally, on a more personal level, when Dylan said that a writer has lost it, if they ever wake up thinking they can now do this writing thing. This was immensely reassuring to me as a someone who wakes up each morning thinking, I can't do this thing! To know that's what I should be feeling in order to produce decent work, is valuable advice indeed. Obvious really, but sometimes a simple truth has to be couched in such a simple way for it to sink in.

So yes - great documentary - and great artists, both Dylan and Scorsese.
And if all you Dylan people (and I know you're out there) would care to follow Ted's example and post some more of your favourite ambiguous Dylan lyrics here, I'd be delighted to read them.

PostPosted: Wed Oct 05, 2005 11:00 am
by Ian M
Yes, Howard, i agree, that showed a playful side of Dylan and his obvious love of words which often gets lost by the Dylanologists . There was so much to like about the programmes, not least as a social and cultural history of the early sixties. Those English kids, mostly the chaps - so earnest and certain of what Dylan 'ought' to be doing (!) And so young! Another small point I found very interesting was when Dylan said that you can kill an audience with kindness ie by giving them what they want or think they want. He wanted to push them and himself, and obviously felt he was going somewhere extraordinary enough to make it worthwhile. I thought the film captured that really well. And The Band were great.

I don't know if you have read it, but the perfect companion to this is his book Chronicles. It is absolutely beautifully written, especially evocative about New York in 1961/2. It is also a fascinating meditation on creativity, art and music - just read what he has to say about Robert Johnson for instance. Guaranteed to get you rushing to put the CD on.

PostPosted: Wed Oct 05, 2005 11:13 am
by Con Murphy
Ian M wrote:Another small point I found very interesting was when Dylan said that you can kill an audience with kindness ie by giving them what they want or think they want. He wanted to push them and himself, and obviously felt he was going somewhere extraordinary enough to make it worthwhile.

He was the first punk! I've always wanted to say that. Agree with Ian about Chronicles Vol 1. It's written in that spare but evocative prose of which only American writers seem capable.

There was a line in the documentary that went something like "Dylan didn't go to you, you came to Dylan." I think that still holds true now. If you were too young to be a contemporary of his, you tend to grow into his music. He starts out as a boring irrelevant old hippy and ends up one of the coolest dudes (sorry, there is no other word to describe it) on the planet.

And the great thing about being a retrospective fan of Dylan is that you are unburdened by any expectations of him speaking for you or holding some key to the Universal Truth of Protest Song.

He was just a bloke who for half a dozen years or so made words sound better than they had ever done before (and have ever done since) within the framework of the popular song (at least in the English language, anyway). And when he spoke directly, he managed to write some of the most tender love songs (and most emotional break-up songs) ever.

None of which helps you in your search for ambiguous lyrics, Howard, but I thought I might as well put down my thoughts on the man as everyone else is. Well, everyone else male and over 30 that is. I'd love to know what younger and/or female members think of the man and our obsession with him?