Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Simple Song

"A simple song is the hardest to write," a quote often attributed to folk singer Pete Singer, is a great aphorism because it is so true.  To a point.  A simple good song is hardest to write (Pete, of course, only had good songs in mind).  "Oops I Did it Again" is obviously quite simple and is not thought by many to be a particularly good song, except perhaps by Richard Thompson (as illustrated by its inclusion in his 1000 Years of Popular Music with tongue firmly in cheek). By the way, I think this app may be reason alone to steal my wife's IPAD-how cool does this look?

Think about it.  As great an album as Blood on the Tracks was, "Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" certainly doesn't get stuck in your head, at least not mine.  I find it mostly tedious as a story song.  In contrast, take "Fourth of July," penned by Dave Alvin and recorded by Alvin solo and by the band X when Alvin was with them.  I've loved this song for years and played it as a cover many times.  Recently, I was sitting around with my old friend Paul noodling around with covers and I pulled it out for us to play.  It struck me like a sort of revelation that Alvin tells a compelling, emotionally resonant story of two people in two verses, a chorus and a one line refrain:

She's waiting for me when I get home from work
But things just ain't the same 
She turns out the light and cries in the dark 
Won't answer when I call her name 

 On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone 
The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below 
Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July 
Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July 

She gives me her cheek when I want her lips
And I don't have the strength to go
On the lost side of town in a dark apartment 
We gave up trying so long ago


Whatever happened, I apologize 
So dry your tears and baby, walk outside
It's the Fourth of July

It's a simple, direct and powerful story, arguably more of a vignette--yet it tells us more about the couple in the song that most long narratives ever do.  This couple was once happy, but he comes home to find "things just ain't the same."  Their apartment is dark (as noted again in the second verse), but it's light outside; in fact, it's the Fourth of July, but they're arguing so much neither realizes it until he walks outside to smoke a cigarette and hears fireworks.  The last verse ends with a vivid description of hopelessness and resignation: "On the lost side of town in a dark apartment, we gave up trying so long ago."  Yet, the song ends with a hint of promise when he tells her to "dry your tears and baby, walk outside," because it is, after all, the freakin' Fourth of July.

The songs I wrote as a kid and more recent ones tended to be needlessly wordy.  It's easy to find yourself stacking a nice turn of phrase on another simply because you like the line, even if it doesn't do much for the song's story.  As a prose writer, it was engrained in me that you must be disciplined enough to kill your children (er, words, not offspring literally, as tempting as that can sometimes be).  Learning to be ruthless in editing yourself and letting go of every word that isn't essential is perhaps the most difficult trick to writing anything.  It holds just as true for songs and poetry as for prose.

Whenever I feel I'm losing my way and just need to keep it simple, I reflect on how much emotion and story line Alvin captured in so few words.  The song is a masterwork of Americana and American songwriting generally, but sadly, like most of Dave Alvin's work, it's criminally under appreciated.   

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