On Words In Music

Written by Dan Schwartz

I was trying to figure out when and where I first tried my hand at writing lyrics. The first time that I can still remember, they were written on the wall behind Stuart Marmelstein’s parents store on a starlit evening in 7th grade. They weren’t great, but you know, back then, it was a beginning. When I found out, upon his death, that David Bowie’s lyric writing method was sort of haphazard, I kicked myself for giving up.

Bob Dylan has said people don’t often give him credit for his music — it’s all about his lyrics. Why not? He has so much to say that’s worth hearing. (Though personally I rate his music even higher.) There are certain (a very few) lyricists I admire for their words as much as their music. John Lennon, Joni Mitchell — all the obvious ones. But generally, I think what Brian Eno told me about his lyric comprehension applies to me, too: Meaning Myopia. If they sound right, my ears hear them as part of the music, and that’s enough. Most opera falls into this category. Think about Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s words for “Einstein on the Beach”:

One two three four

One two three four

One two three four five six

One two three four five six seven eight

And then it repeats. (Obviously — it IS Philip Glass, after all). It’s not quite Mitchell’s “Hejira”, or the Fab’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but in the context, it works beautifully. But some lyrics are poetry as well as lyrical. Which brings me back to Rosanne Cash’s album Black Cadillac; and in particular the song, “The World Unseen”:


I’m the sparrow on the roof

I’m the list of everyone I have to lose

I’m the rainbow in the dirt

I am who I was and how much I can hurt


So I will look for you 

In stories of the kings

Westward leading, still proceeding

To the world unseen


I’m the mirror in the hall

From your empty room I can hear it fall

Now that we must live apart

I have a lock of hair and one-half of my heart


So I will look for you

Between the grooves of songs we sing

Westward leading, still proceeding

To the world unseen


There are no gifts that will be found

Wrapped in winter, laid beneath the ground

You must be somewhere in the stars

‘Cause from a distance comes the sound of your guitar


And I will look for you in Memphis and the miles between

I will look for you in morphine and in dreams

I will look for you in the rhythm of my bloodstream

Westward leading, still proceeding

To the world unseen

On the night we recorded the song, virtually as you hear it on the record, I got home near midnight and I awoke my wife to repeat the last chorus to her, I was so moved by what we had done.

As with taste in music, who can say what makes something make sense to one person, yet the same words can be meaningless to another? I look back on the most lyric-intensive time of my life with only a few items, besides Rosanne’s album, having made much difference to me. With most of the people we worked with in those years, while their lyrics may have great meaning to them, for me it was a case of my suffering from Meaning Myopia.

I’ve written about the bridge to “We Do What We Can” before. A few of Bill Bottrell’s songs mattered to me — in particular one tune that no one heard called “If I May Be So Bold”. For most people, David Baerwald’s lyrics are what his music is about. For me, as long as he sang about what he talked about, I was good. It’s the sound of the music that matters here – it’s a very rare artist who writes lyrics that convey meaning while writing mediocre music; more common is the reverse.

But even more rare is someone like Rosanne, where it all comes together.

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