September 14, 2005

God Said to Abraham, Kill Me a Song

Michele very sweetly cites "I Don't Need You Now" as a song she wished she had written:

I always wanted to be clever. Clever, as far as songwriting goes, means you have the ability to be witty and punchy while remaning serious. Ironic poetry? Maybe. I could never pull of clever. I wanted to write songs that could make people smile at my turn of phrase, grin at my witty use of rhyme schemes, chuckle at my cleverness, yet, when the song is over, think well, that kind of hit me in the gut.
I'd hesitate to place my song in that category, not only as a matter of decorum and for the preservation of the possibility of future self-deprecation, but more importantly because I don't think that's a judgment you can make about your own songs. I mean, how can your own song "hit you in the gut"? If nothing else, your own songs by definition have lost the vital element of surprise.

But Michele's description of what happens when a certain type of song "works" is dead right, and quite gratifying in the case of that song because that's precisely what I was going for when I wrote it.

So what song do I wish I'd written? There a lots, of course, though I admit I don't often think of it like that. More often, what I'm envious of is the central idea or conceit of a song (I usually use the word gimmick, but some people see that as too negative), almost regardless of whether I like the actual song or if it's any good. If someone has a great idea and pulls it off, that's great; if it's a weird or interestingly crazy idea and he still pulls it off, so much the better; but even if it doesn't totally work, I appreciate it anyway. It doesn't have to be especially clever or complicated or perfectly composed. What I'm looking for is something that makes sense and resonates, something that makes me say "yeah, that's what that feels like" - yet at the same time isn't like every other song out there. A new, unexpected twist on something extremely familiar. When you think about it, it's not too surprising that it's kind of hard to do that.

And of course there are scads of songs, including a great, great many of my own, that I wish I could just unwrite, erase from the universe, or at least from my memory.

But I don't mean to dispute the premise of the assignment like I'm in some kind of gifted and talented program at the junior high school.

Out of hundreds of songs I wish I'd written, here's the one that popped into my head just now, "I Feel Beautiful" from Robyn Hitchock's Jewels for Sophia album. You really have to hear the melody and the way he sings it to get the whole picture, of course, but here are the lyrics:

I feel beautiful Because you love me

I water the tomatoes and I think of you
No one's ever watered me the way you do
I feel beautiful
Because you love me

I feel like a creature that is sleekly groomed
Not some poisoned soul that is alone and doomed
I feel beautiful
Because you love me

I see the clock in shadow and I see your face
You and me belong in the same time and place
People never celebrate the things they've got
Honey without you I wouldn't have a lot
I feel beautiful
Because you love me
Because you love me

Yes, we're alive at the same time
Like mayflies
Like fireflies

I've been hanging round Covent Garden for you for centuries
I've been waiting on Festival Pier for you, honey, for decades

I wake up in the morning and I face the East
I am in the paws of an enormous beast
I feel beautiful
Because you love me
Because you love me

Posted by Dr. Frank at September 14, 2005 06:36 PM | TrackBack

In her post a little further down where she asked which song we would choose, I chose the same one.
"I Don't Need You Now" is just so perfectly written, so perfectly descriptive of a relationship gone wrong and what you feel after.
I can't say anything else without gushing like a 14-year-old meeting Clay Aiken for the first time, but I consider this one of my favorite songs of all time.

Posted by: Megan at September 14, 2005 08:24 PM

i just went through the most difficult break-up and i've been listening to "i don't need you now" like it's my job.

it pretty much elaborates everything i'm thinking or saying or should be thinking or saying, in a way that i haven't felt about music in years. nice coincidence that someone else wrote about it too.

Posted by: kate at September 14, 2005 08:49 PM

One song I think of in this category is a Eubie Blake-Andy Razaf tune "I'd Give A Dollar For A Dime," written in 1941. It's set in the same relationship-time as "I Don't Need You Now." The premise is that the narrator wants to play "their song" on the jukebox, but doesn't have the change. If you'll allow me, a quote from Andy Razaf's biography by Barry Singer sums it up nicely:

"The song is perfectly elegant in its bittersweet simplicity, The sentiments expressed are moist, but the lyrics, as written, are absolutely dry-eyed, asking not for sympathy or pity, just change for a dollar. . . The lyricist's sadness, his song makes clear, is great, but the sadness does not weigh on the listener. It is born with gentle grace."

Frank, I think you've got more than your share like this under your belt as well.

PS--Joe Williams's recording of this song is pretty great, and available on iTunes.

Posted by: Ethan at September 15, 2005 05:04 AM

Yes, I Don't Need You Now is awesome for srsly.

Posted by: Alex at September 15, 2005 07:03 AM

That sounds pretty cool, Ethan, I'll check it out. On that pecuniary theme, I nominate Frank's "She Runs Out When the Money Does". (Has anyone else recorded that yet?)

Posted by: Wes at September 15, 2005 12:53 PM

I agree with Frank's labeling of the clever song's conceit as a "gimmick." I think this is sometimes mischaracterized as "novelty," which to me carries the more negative connotation. I view the gimmick as the song's conceptual hook. At the risk of stating the obvious, put a great gimmick with a great melodic hook, and you've got a song that "works."

A terrific song in this vein that Frank is connected with is the Bomb Bassetts' "That's All She Wrote."

Posted by: Paul at September 15, 2005 02:55 PM

"that's all she wrote" is one of the best recordings i've ever listened to.

as for song i've wished i'd written... too numerous to even contemplate this early.

Posted by: kendra at September 15, 2005 03:06 PM

There is definitely something pretty beautiful about a "clever" song that that catches you off guard with its emotional resonance. In addition to Dr. Frank, I find that Stephin Merritt and Franklin Bruno are a couple of other modern songwriters who are fairly consistent in that respect. However, one of my top "I wish I wrote that" songs has to be "Ruin My Day" by Jon Brion, which mines a fairly similar emotional terrain as "I Don't Need You Now," but with the distance of more elapsed time since the painful breakup.

Posted by: Oswald at September 15, 2005 04:15 PM

The Dr. Frank song that I wish I'd written? Either "Deep Deep Down" or "London", but seeing as how I'm a shitty songwriter and only a bit better musician I'll pose this question:

I'm a writer, usually screenplays for my own amusement, but I've done little "What if's" where I'd write my version of a movie or my own episode of a TV show. Now, I submitted one of these one time to a college professor for an episode of "the X-Files" and I shit you not, about a year later a whole page of dialog I had written was there on Fox, word for word. Was it ripped from me? Did I know the character's dialog so well that it was a remarkable coincidence that I wrote the same piece of dialog as Chris Carpenter?

Has this ever happened to you Frank? You've written something and later on read or heard it from somebody else?

I was just shocked and awe-struck, but this being your profession, I'd imagine you'd be pissed.

Posted by: Zaphod at September 15, 2005 06:26 PM

"And of course there are scads of songs, including a great, great many of my own, that I wish I could just unwrite, erase from the universe, or at least from my memory."

This is MUCH more interesting that songs you wish you'd written. Do tell!

Posted by: David at September 16, 2005 01:49 PM

Why not file a law suit?

Posted by: josh at September 16, 2005 02:12 PM

Not worth it, would never hold up anyway. Makes for a good barroom story though.

Posted by: Zaphod at September 16, 2005 05:03 PM

Yeah, with those lines, if you say them again, you're gonna sound just like them.

(stretching... stretching...)

Posted by: Wes at September 16, 2005 06:48 PM

zaph,you're not the only one i assure you...

"somebody's reading your mind,stealing back your best ideas,...(something something i can't remember)you cover your windows with lead,even keep in the pets outside..."

The Spawning of The Cage and Aquarium
-They Might Be Giant(circa '85 i think)

Posted by: just me at September 19, 2005 09:03 PM

just in case this post is still being read i rememebered the something something:

they're digging through all your files,stealing back your best ideas"(i misplaced that lyric,in its place should be something like" danged if you know who it is")

Posted by: just me at September 20, 2005 06:51 PM

I was listening to that very song right when I scrolled by.

Posted by: Andrew at September 27, 2005 11:19 AM