Back in 1978, I created and published a poetry magazine called Plainspeak. It was devoted to clear, impactful, no-frills poetry, and its motto was “Poetry to the People.”
I dug out from the inaugural issue my first column about song lyrics and thought you’d enjoy.
Song lyrics are a kind of poetry we hear every day. We work to them, drive to them and relax to them, yet how often do we stop to examine them either as poetry or as meaningful words and phrases? Plainspeak would like to haul all those mumbled lyrics out from in back of the music and present them on the page where they must stand on their own.
Each issue will award a Best and Worst Song Lyric Award to the lyrics that are most deserving, in the ears of the editors. We need you to help by nominating your favorite or least favorite lyrics. Just write them out and send them in care of this column. The lyrics need not be contemporary or even in English (although a translation must accompany foreign language lyrics). Any kind of song will do, although nothing too raunchy will be used in the column. We’d also like to publish your original lyrics in this column; you can retain all rights and vie will print a notice of copyright in your name if your song is used.
But now on this issue’s classics. The Worst Song Lyric Award for this issue goes to the unofficial Bad Song Lyric Champion–“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. This song is best remembered for the following excerpts:
Your hair strategically dipped below one eye
Your scarf, it was apricot
You had one eye on the mirror
And watched yourself gavotte
Well I hear you went to Saratoga
And your horse, naturally, won
Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia
To see the total eclipse of the sun
I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee
Clouds in my coffee, and
You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, you’re so vain
I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Simon uses a very obscure word (“gavotte”) just to make a rhyme, creates a totally off the wall image (“clouds in my coffee”) that has no apparent relation to anything, and gives us that positively smashing line “You flew your Lear Jet.” Beautiful! And to think that I coulda swored I ‘d never hear “Lear Jet” and “Nova Scot ia” in the same song, let alone the same line! Notice how Simon has to change word order (“Your scarf it was apricot”) and throw in extra words (the Lear Jet line simply stated is “You flew to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse”) just to make her ungainly lines work out right.
And yet despite all this, we like the song, mainly for its bitter, mocking edge and great backup singing by Mick Jagger.
Now for the Best Song Lyric Award, which this issue goes to Scottish folk and rock singer Al Stewart for “(Eyes of) Nostradamus” from his Past, Present and Future album. Stewart is one of the finest lyricists working in pop music today as his songs “Road to Moscow”, “On the Border” and “Time Passages” indicate, He cares about what he writes, and he cares about getting it right.
In “On the Border”, the imagery and rhythm are vivid and intriguing:
The fishing boats go out across the evening water
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish Border
The wind whips up the waves so loud
The ghost moon sails among the clouds
And turns the rifles into silver on the border.
Stewart’s rhymes are unforced (compare “apricot” and “gavotte”) and he makes good use of the sounds of the words (wind, whips, waves). Stewart’s image of the sailing ghost moon turning guns into silver works two ways: the light glints silver off the rifles which are going to turn into silver money when they reach port. These lines communicate the excitement and mystery of gun running along the coast of Spain. And notice how, unlike “Vain”, there are no unnecessary words in the lyrics.
It was hard to pick the best representative out of Stewart’s many fine songs until last month and the unfortunate death of Pope John Paul I. The Pope’s death recalled to us a line from “Nostradamus”, a song about the prophet Nostradamus, who was a doctor and astrologer in 16th century France and who predicted with uncanny accuracy Napoleon, the Great Fire of London, the death of Charles I and “Hister, the German of the Crooked Cross, Captain of Greater Germanie”. But what is most interesting is Nostradamus’ prediction that the Anti-Christ will appear in Asia and will be linked with the death of a Pope named Paul.
Paul the celibate will die three leagues from Rome . . .
Mars will take up his horrible throne, the Cock
and the Eagle, France and the three brothers . . .
Before Pope Paul VI died, the last Pope named Paul died in 1621. The Cock stands for France, as Nostradamus points out, and the three brothers are linked with the Eagle, which has caused many to assert that the three brothers are the Kennedys. It is interesting that Stewart wrote this prediction as “Three leagues from the Gates of Rome a Pope
named Paul is doomed to die”. A case could be made for the idea that Pope John Paul I, who reigned only 34 days, was indeed “doomed to die”. This song lyric may have been a bit of contemporary prophecy by Stewart. So for this reason, we award “Nostradamus” by Al Stewart the Best Song Lyric Award. Here are some excerpts:
Oh, the more it changes, the more it stays the same
And the hand just re-arranges the players in the game
A king shall fall and put to death by the English parliament shall be
Fire and plague to London come in the year of six and twenties three
An emperor of France shall rise who will be born near Italy
His rule cost his empire dear, Napoleon his name shall be
One named Hister shall become a captain of Greater Germanie
No law does this man observe and bloody his rise and fall shall be
Three leagues from the gates of Rome a Pope named Pol is doomed to die
A great wall that divides a city at this time is cast aside
Man, man, your time is sand, your ways are leaves upon the sea
I am the eyes of Nostradamus, all your ways are known to me
And so there are the winners for this issue. Weld like to hear what you think of our selections. We also need your nominations and original lyrics. So keep in touch.
Editor’s Note: For more on Nostradamus, see The Prophesies of Nostradamus by Erika Cheetham.