Poetry: Song Lyrics | clivejames.com
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Song Lyrics

Prefatory Note to the 'Song Lyrics' chapter in The Book Of My Enemy

This selection from the song lyrics I have written for the music of Pete Atkin adds up to less that half of the total in existence. I have left out all the love songs. (There was a time when that sentence would have started me writing another one.) Many of them I am quite proud of and I hope there is none without its turn of phrase. But they are all written within the courtly love tradition; and are thus mainly more about the loss of love than its acquisition; and so, without the music to help them sound universal, they give the exact effect of a single, lonely man crying repeatedly into his beer.

Other strong candidates for exclusion were those lyrics, mainly from early on, which needed too much help to get started from phrases unwittingly lent by Ronsard, Nerval, Laforgue, Apollinaire, Leopardi, Rilke, W. B. Yeats or T. S. Eliot. Some of the lyrics I have included do indeed contain literary allusions, but the allusions are not the driving force. When listened to, such anacreontic borrowings can add to the texture without insisting on separate notice. But on the page, if they come too thick and fast, they can look like a misplaced claim to erudition. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Moore, for the publication of his collected lyrics along with his poems, would unapologetically gloss his Latin and Greek borrowings with learned footnotes, to a total length that often exceeded that of the lyric itself. Still feeling obliged to prove his kinship with learned colleagues, he failed to realize that when his lyrics were sung in the salons, they silenced not only the audience but the competition. With the living laurels already his, he went on striving for the bronze simulacrum, never publishing even the slightest lyric about a shy damsel of Dublin without appending some supererogatory rigmarole about an intransigent priestess on the island of Hypnos. Today the practice would look absurd, not because the lyrical tradition is less robust but because it is much more so. If Dorothy Fields could draw a perfect lyric from what she heard on the sidewalk or in the subway, we can expect no points for flagging the help we got from Dante.

As for the lyrics that have been included, the first criterion was that they should have enough poetic content to be of interest when read. But they would be true poems only if they could altogether do without their common organizing principle, which was music. Deprived of that, they are something else. I hope they are not something less, but some readers might decide they can be safely skipped. Other readers, however, might be encouraged to seek them out in recorded form. If that happened, I could give myself credit for a cunning plan.

Clive James

[ Here are the titles of the songs whose lyrics Clive chose to include in the book. These, and the remainder of his song lyrics (over 150 in total), are included in our Lyrics chapter. Most of the songs, in versions recorded by Pete Atkin, can be audio-streamed to your device — Archive Editor ]

The Master of the Revels
The Ice-cream Man
Stranger in Town
Nothing Left to Say
National Steel
I See the Joker
Sessionman's Blues
My Egoist
Song for Rita
Senior Citizens
Shadow and the Widower
Payday Evening
The Double Agent
A King at Nightfall
Apparation in Las Vegas
Be Careful When They Offer You the Moon
Touch Has a Memory
Frangipani Was Her Flower
The Rider to the World's End
No Dice
Driving through Mythical America
Thief in the Night
Practical Man
Beware of the Beautiful Stranger
Have You Got A Biro I Can Borrow?
Laughing Boy
Sunlight Gate
The Faded Mansion on the Hill
Thirty-year Man
Carnations on the Roof
The Hypertension Kid
Perfect Moments
The Road of Silk
The Hollow and the Fluted Night
Secret Drinker
Search and Destroy
Care-charmer Sleep
I Feel Like Midnight
Ready for the Road
Commercial Traveller
Urban Guerilla
The Eye of the Universe
My Brother's Keeper
History and Geography
Femme Fatale
A Hill of Little Shoes
Dancing Master
I Have to Learn to Live Alone Again
Winter Spring