Poetry: My Life in Lyrics | clivejames.com
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My life in lyrics

When I was still in short pants, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s basso profundo voice crossed the Pacific like a Boeing Stratocruiser and landed massively in the Australian hit parade. It sang: “I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.” My unwashed ears flapped. “I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.” My unwashed ears came to a point. I just loved the way those words were energised by the music, and I walked around for weeks doing my imitation of Tennessee Ernie Ford. I was a long way from Tennessee and eventually my mother was a long way from sanity, but the pint—sized uproar was a birth pang: a new lyricist was born.

If Tennessee Ernie and Sixteen Tons hadn’t done it for me, the Four Lads would have. In their hit, Moments to Remember, there was a soaring line that went, “The night we tore the goalposts down”, and the way an almost impossibly agglutinated set of consonants — “goalposts” — could sit so comfortably on the musical notes fascinated me. How could they sing so easily what I could barely say? Imitating a whole barbershop quartet, I sang the line repeatedly, arousing an intense public reaction in the area of Kogarah, my home suburb in Sydney.

More than half a century later, writing song lyrics is my favourite form of writing anything. I’ve never managed to become famous for it. In fact, I’m almost entirely obscure for it, and I fear that being attached to me has done a lot to prevent my musical partner, Pete Atkin, from reaching the degree of celebrity he deserves. But, for me, writing lyrics is up there with writing poetry, the chief difference being that while writing poetry has always paid me little compared with writing prose, writing lyrics has paid me hardly anything at all. There are lyricists who become millionaires. I’m not one of them, but lately I’ve found myself writing lyrics again, after a long lay-off that was really due to a lack of attention rather than lack of income. You can do without armies of raving fans, but not without a certain level of interest. I’m glad to say that the certain level of interest is not only back, but has gone up a notch.

My colleague Pete, who composes the music and does the singing, has just released a new album called Midnight Voices, which Amazon is currently reordering hundreds of copies at a time to meet demand. They can reorder it from him. They don’t have to reorder it from a record company, and that’s the big difference between now and when we started: nowadays, you can be in business for yourself. Of course, hundreds of copies aren’t thousands, nor are thousands millions, but to reach only a minority market is no longer the killer that it used to be.

You can always hope for more, but those happy few should be enough to keep a songwriter going if the song, and not the celebrity status, is what he really cares about. This is probably true for all genuine songwriters, and especially for lyricists, who wouldn’t be trying such a second-fiddle thing unless they found it so satisfactory to get right. You can hear the click when the words fit. If you find it hard to like Carla Bruni, listen to her first album, the one where she sings her own songs in French: the neatness of the carpentry will impress you even if you’re famous in your family for having ordered the pamplemousse under the impression that it was a pudding. Maybe the president of France married the right woman after all. You can imagine her singing him a little song. Vous êtes le Président/ Et moi, je suis une enfant ...

There was a 25-year stretch back there when Pete and I didn’t write anything together because we thought there was no way of getting through to a public, no matter how small. Pete still did gigs in clubs, but “club” can be a big name for the back room of a pub equipped with a sound system from the Jurassic period. Now the public comes to us. Not a huge public, but they seem to appreciate what we do, even if it has no classification. Back at the start, when we told the record company executives that what we did was a blend of jazz, rock, pop, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and anything else except folk, they would purse their lips and suggest that we call it “Different”. The executive who called it “Folk” we preferred to ignore, which turned out to be exactly the way he felt about us. A pity: though he had a small brain, he had a large car, in the back of which we would sit with him while he told us that we would get nowhere unless we wrote a hit. He was quite right, but times change.

For me, there was never any doubt that what we were doing was in a tradition going back to the troubadours, who were never in the hit parade either. The words mattered, but the music came first. Long before I had met Pete in the Cambridge Footlights clubroom in the mid 1960s, I was already continuing my childhood researches into the way music gave an extra dimension to the simplest words. There were countless examples of ordinary spoken phrases being made extraordinary when set to music. In his song I’ll See You Again, Noel Coward transformed the title line by putting the musical emphasis unexpectedly on the word “you”. Nothing when read, but everything when heard.

When I finally found my own musician, I took delight in leaving him room, by the way I put the stanza together, to try the same thing with a lot of other simple phrases. I might have overdone the supply of phrases that weren’t simple at all, but we probably would have been in trouble anyway, because even the most enthusiastic critics didn’t know what to call the results. The word chanson rang no bells in the English-speaking countries. In France, we might have done better. In France, the poets have always written lyrics, and at least one serious songwriter has married the president, as I might have mentioned. We had to settle for less spectacular rewards, but some of them were gratifying. I remember one evening when Stephen Fry quoted one of my own lyrics at me, and I was so pleased I couldn’t speak — for me, a rare condition.

Moments like that did something to offset the frustration. The only real cure for frustration, however, is work, and, for the quarter of a century we were behind the moon, I kept in shape by writing poems, which have their own music — or should have. But I always missed the thrill of hearing a set of syllables being absorbed by a row of notes, in a kind of mid-air mating dance that transmits a new emotion.

Then, in the late 1990s, our music came back from limbo. The first generation of fans had found each other through the net, and it turned out that there was a second generation who had grown up with our songs echoing in the house. We went on tour in both Britain and Australia, and found that the audiences we played to didn’t just want to hear the old stuff, they wanted to hear that we were still writing.

No problem there. We couldn’t stop, and gradually we realised that we had never stopped. The long hiatus had been part of the process. We had just been gathering our strength in the interim, as a coalminer must sometimes pause and mop his brow.

“If you see me comin’, better step aside/ A lotta men didn’t and a lotta men died ...” What a lyric! There is still a controversy as to whether Merle Travis wrote it or ripped it off. Either way, it made him a lot of money. Sigh.

5 Favourite Lyrics

Every Time We Say Goodbye
Cole Porter was the man in the velvet mask. As a gay man who had to disguise the gender of his feelings, he often wrote regretful lyrics even to his most exultant melodies, and when the melody was regretful the lyrics could be desperate. Every Time We Say Goodbye is the complaint of someone whose heart is being broken not just once, but over and over, so the little flashes of wordplay sound like tears being fought back. “When you’re near there’s such an air of spring about it/ I can hear a lark somewhere begin to sing about it.” When Ella Fitzgerald sang this song the way it should be sung, plainly and without emphasis, she was up there with Edith Piaf singing Et Moi, and Marlene Dietrich singing In den Ruinen von Berlin. A song can be monumental.

You Don’t Know What Love Is
A cocktail piano song of rare power, this combines a sweet melody by Gene de Paul with a bitter lyric by Don Raye. Billie Holiday was one of the many singers who knew they were on to something great when they sang the penultimate line, “Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes.” The trick is for the singer not to overdo it: the emotion is already there.

I Wonder What Became of Me
The quiet titan of the American music business, Johnny Mercer sang with big bands from Paul Whiteman through to Benny Goodman before, as the founder of Capitol, he became one of the formative talent scouts. Of the countless songs he wrote with Harold Arlen, none beats this one. A couplet like “And they pour champagne/ Just like it was rain” sounds so simple, but nobody ever wrote like that by accident.

Folsom Prison Blues
Written and sung by Johnny Cash, this is one of hundreds of country songs that become even more enjoyable when you look closely at how they are put together. Cash was especially good at approximate rhymes, which are very tricky to do. “I hear that train a-comin’/ It’s rollin’ round the bend/ And I ain’t seen the sunshine/ Since I dunno when”. “Bend” and “when” didn’t really rhyme, but they did when he sang them, because that’s the way he spoke.

Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick
A palsy sufferer, Ian Dury had more to offer on stage than his exemplary bravery. That twisted body of his was the incarnation of rhythm. One of his most vivid flights of fancy, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick hasn’t really got a melody, just a relentless forward drive, over which he speaks the lyric rather than sings it. Yet the lyric is perfect in every respect. In a catalogue song that does nothing much except name exotic places, he gets a wonderful air of adventure out of the precision of his rhymes. “In the deserts of Sudan/And the gardens of Japan/ From Milan to Yucatan/ Every woman, every man ... ” Among all the million musical moments on YouTube at the moment, Dury singing this amazing song is probably the single most exciting thing. I tune in half a dozen times a day, wondering what I have to do to make my words even half that good.

Guardian, 1 April 2008 [ online version includes Pete Atkin audio track Perfect Moments ]