Every time I have a shower, be it the morning or evening, I find myself singing a stirring hymn. It could be Guide me Thou Great Jehovah (“Feed me now and evermore! Feed me now and evermore”). It could be Abide with Me (“fast falls the eventide, through out the darkness Lord with me abide”). It could even be How Great Thou Art (“then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee, how great thou art”).
It’s a habit. I love it. It rattles my rib cage and scours my bowls. Trouble is, I’m a staunch atheist. Not in the Dawkins conversion sense – I don’t mind what other people believe – but I’m firmly in the no-God camp. Yet every day I catch myself singing praise to the Almighty. And every time I get to the end of the verse, I think about switching it up to sing King Krule or Jessica Pratt or some such. Every time, I don’t. I just keep going, scaring my neighbour’s kid, waking up my housemates, feeling alive. Hallelujah!
But why do I sing these hymns, and why do they stir me? I was raised on Christianity, yes. I used to go to church as a child and attended Sunday school. But by the time I was twelve, I’d already decided it wasn’t for me. The future thence on was only Easter and Christmas in church. Maybe the odd funeral. It’s been a long time since I entertained the idea of the big man upstairs being true, or Jesus really dying for little old me. The hangover from this cannot be so powerful. It’s not the actual words that make my heart soar either. Consider these lyrics outside of the melody:
“When Christ shall some,
With shouts of acclamation
And take me home
What joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration
And there proclaim,
“My God, how great Thou art!”
Then sings my soul
My Savior God to Thee How great Thou art
How great Thou art”
I’m not down with the second coming, really. I mean, if it happens I’ll pretend I was, but I’m not convinced Jesus was the son of God, let alone that he’s coming back for a final reckoning. I don’t think God’s that great either. Feel free to differ, but it’s just my conclusion from reading the Bible. Does this render the lyrics meaningless then? Potentially, I think. The melodies are great in hymns like Tell Out My Soul or Thine be the Glory, even Shine Jesus Shine is a proper tune. I sing them without a second thought for the lyrical content or meanings behind the words. Which led me to thinking…
What other songs which I love to the bottom of my turgid, godless soul have I no genuine care for the lyrics? Take “Black or White”, by Michael Jackson. My favourite song as a nine year old. It’s still a tune now, don’t deny it. From the slam slam slam ‘eat this’ beginning through to the final refrain, Black or White is a stone cold classic. I never learned the lyrics to this song properly. I could pop onto Google now and find them out if I really wanted, but I have little motivation to seek the truth. It doesn’t matter to me what the lyrics are. But in case you are wondering, this is what I thought the second verse lyrics are when I was nine, and when I sing Black or White I still sing this version:
“I took my baby on a Saturday bend
Girl if you want it I got plenty to spend
I believe in miracles,
And I’m never gonna get one tonight.
Hey hey (this bit is definitely true) dah”
It’s quite clearly nonsense. That doesn’t matter to me. I still sing it like this. I still sing it with the same passion as if I was singing about racial harmony and mixed race relationships (which is what, I think, the song is about). It’s the rhythm of the lyrics that matter. Doobie doo doobie doo doo doobie doo doo. The voice is, obviously, an instrument. And in the case of Jacko, that’s cool. I get that. Hell, better to not be able to hear the lyrics properly than be able to here them. I know all the words to Heal the World. And they were clear as perspex. These are the sorts of things you can’t unlearn when you hear them as a young person. I’ll always have the phrase, “Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race,” in my head, with it’s clunky scansion and idealism forever background noise in my head.
So unintelligible lyrics are fine. They don’t have to make sense. The new Jack Cheshire record, Long Mind Hotel, is full of lyrics that don’t make sense to me. But that doesn’t matter because the feeling Cheshire is trying to get across to you is a psychedelic, other worldly state of hammered. He sings from a place where nothing makes sense in relation to anything else other than itself. That’s fine with me, liberating almost. I can sing a song like Cheshire’s “Gyroscope” with the wrong lyrics and not feel like I’m missing the point. But what if I’m supposed to be getting a story, or some deep philosophical message from my songs? What about Bob Dylan? The poet. The master. One of the most lauded lyricists of the modern era. What if what he is singing is mainly a glittering ball bag of bollocks? His voice is certainly not his strong point, so his lyrics must be what elevates him above mere mortals like Lee from Blue or KC & JoJo.
Let’s look at an example. One of my favourite Dylan songs is ‘Shelter From the Storm’ from my favourite Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks. When I hear it, it’s a brilliant song of loneliness, lost love, comfort, insecurity, chance and second chances. Then when you put the lyrics in a cold, sound proofed room things change.
“In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
‘Come in’ she said ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm'”
Out of context this is absolute gibberish. But even in the context of the song this doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is imagery there, sure, but it’s not related to anything. He’s created a whole cement mixer of pictures; gambling, nakedness, euthanasia, deliverance. None of them relate to each other and none of them stand on their own. You can give me that analogy/metaphor stuff if you like, but only Bob really knows what’s going on here. Don’t get it twisted, I lust after this song, and I sing it on the daily, but I don’t know what the hell I’m singing. It’s the atmosphere of the song that I like, the blank canvass that obscure lyricism offers me. I can paint my own picture on top of Dylan’s. So what am I actually hearing, a ‘brilliant song of loneliness, lost love and insecurity’ or garbled rabbit?
I’m not sure that it matters, but I am sure that the lyrics are useless to me. Dylan could have sung absolutely anything and I’d still lap it up. Because I want to lap it up. I want somewhere to place the pretentions and unclear imagery of my mind. I need somewhere to put the stuff I think and say that doesn’t really make sense. Dylan is the perfect foil. Remember, in the film Dangerous Minds, when Michelle Pfeiffer says Bob Dylan is her favourite poet? Well that film was rubbish, so that maybe proves my point. Maybe.
My third example is Morrisey. Wait… come back. I’m not that guy, I promise. I like the Smiths as much as the next man. Unless that next man is some Indie kid who actually likes the Smiths. Even so, This Charming Man is a tune. When I first heard This Charming Man I heard the lyrics like this:
“A jumped up country boy
Who never knew his place
He said return to me
He knows so much about the hills
He knows so much about the hills”
That’s quite clearly not how the lyrics go. Morrisey is actually singing about ‘pantry’ boys and returning ‘rings’. Opaque for the sake of it, or probably referencing some film. But what I heard, I heard for a reason. I was a jumped up country boy. I grew up in the Kent downs, I know so much about hills. I never knew my place.
I wanted to hear those lyrics. I wanted the song to mean something to me, so I deliberately (though not consciously) molded the song around my own experience. I liked the idea that Morrisey was singing about the boredom of country life, the rural malaise. The line, “Will nature make a man of me yet” made way more sense in my version. I thought – yes! Nature will make me a man of me and I’ll move to London as strong as an ox and as wise as old Mozza himself.
Of course, I found out what the real lyrics were. I’m not a philistine. I can use a search engine. But when I found out the truth that didn’t change a damn thing. I thought – you know what Morrisey, my version is better and it means something to me. You can shove your pantry boy where the Guardian thinks the sun shines out of you.
Even with Morrisey, one of Britain’s most celebrated lyricists, I’ve managed to render his actual lyrics useless by replacing them with meaningful ones to me. This is not the same as Jacko, where I replaced (possibly) meaningful lyrics with nonsense, nor is it the same as Dylan where I’m okay singing his hogwash, or even hymns where I just ignore the meaning that I know is there. It’s a different move again.
These three examples lead me to think that I don’t really give a tinkers toot about the lyrics musicians write. I mean, I care in the sense that I don’t want Bill Withers singing the words, ‘Zig-a-zigar’ but I don’t listen to Bill for his lyrical content, despite the fact that he has a way with words. Which reminds me, one of my favourite things is to adapt lyrics to a present situation. Last summer I adapted Bill’s song ‘I Can’t Write Left Handed’ – a moving, sad ditty about a Vietnam veteran. I was watching the Ashes and Aussie batsman Phil Hughes had a bad series. Each time he walked out to bat, I would sing, “I Can’t Bat Left Handed” at him from my sofa.
I’d like to leave you with a final example to demonstrate that lyrics really are a problem for me. That example is Public Enemy at the Essential Festival 2001, Hackney Marshes. I’m eighteen. I love Public Enemy. Chuck D is a hero. It Takes a Nation of Millions and Fear of a Black Planet are two of my favourite albums ever made. Not unusual for a white hip-hop fan, but nonetheless difficult when you are rapping along at a live gig. I’m at the front, in a majority white crowd, and Chuck has just started ripping into the beginning of “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”.
“I got a letter from the government, the other day
I opened and read it, it said there were suckers!”
I’m spitting these bars hard along with Chuck, looking up at him, my teenage hero.
“They wanted me for the army or whatever,
Picture me giving a damn I said ‘Never!’”
Line by line, cadence by cadence, syllable by syllable I’m perfectly in sync with Chuck. We run through the verse together. The rest of the crowd at the front is shouting the lyrics out loud with a passion.
Then just as we hit the big line, the killer point of the first verse, I turn round to the blonde guy, topless guy in the crowd next to me and we rap at each other with ecstatic grins:
“They could not understand that I’m a black man
And I could never be a veteran”
At that moment that I saw this other young white boy rapping that line to me I saw myself. I saw the inherent ridiculousness of that line coming out of my mouth. I saw my unknowing and naïve appropriation of the black American struggle. I saw the complete lack of thought I had given that line in reference to myself. I had never even considered that I had no real idea what this line actually meant in the regards to structural racism; the military industrial prison complex; civil rights; black power; political representation and identity. Though I came to read and learn about these things later in my life, I knew at that moment on the Hackney marshes that I had just rapped along with something of which I had no experience and would never have any experience. It was just angry rebellion at the time. Something I had simplified in my mind to fit my own situation.
See, even Chuck D, one of the most articulate and gifted emcees in the history of hip hop can’t get the right message over to me. And it’s definitely a problem on my side and not his.
Maybe I should just listen to film scores, classical music and Boards of Canada for the rest of my life.