‘Songwriters are not poets, Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors.’
By and large, I wouldn’t disagree with Armitage’s claim. The vast majority of song lyrics exist simply to keep the walls of the song from falling in. There’s always been more than an element of service industry to the work of the professional song writer. Horses for courses is the intention and it’s the overall subscription to the genre/style in question.
For me, only a handful of lyricists’ compositions stand up proud without the superstructure of music around them. Amongst them, I’d nominate Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Ian Dury, Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan…
Now, having set myself up for ridicule and scorn, here’s a group of lyrics that I wrote for my good friend Steve Moorby to set to music. Each one has been fully arranged and, until lockdown, was being played at gigs by the trio we share with fellow songwriter Gemma Moorby, named, somewhat unimaginatively, Moorby Jones.
I don’t know whether they have life beyond the vehicle of the song. But they derive from the same underground source that produces my poems so at worst they have the status of cousins. Here they are, all standing up stark naked, waiting patiently to be cloaked once again in music…
There’s a houseful of lights on the cliff top up high.
At the end of the track there it’s shining.
And the summer dark swarms like invisible wind
all around us where we two are climbing.
There’s sand on our skin and rime in our hair
and salt on our tongues as communion.
I smile in the dark; I know you’re smiling too
as we clamber towards the reunion.
It’s deep into night and we’re stumbling blind
with just candles of gorse here to guide us.
Voices rising like sparks: friends and lovers above
and a world that must shortly divide us.
As we rise into light and our story is told,
we take up our place in the chorus,
ghosts in the present, ghosts in the past,
ghosts through the long years before us.
This is where they live, the wise ones,
in the gap between each heartbeat,
in the space between each breath.
There the light will always find them,
clear before, no ghosts behind them,
cold eye cast on life, on death.
Past is past,
it’s just a story,
What’s to come
is just a notion,
part still life
and part commotion.
On the way
we count each second,
each star numbered
in the sky.
Now’s the moment,
grain of sand,
hand to hand.
Pinch in passing
or watch them dwindle
down to none.
It was snowing hard that day in New York City,
drifting deep all the way down Amsterdam.
I stopped at EJ’s Diner along West 59th,
checking out of limbo, out of winter wonderland.
Davy Jones is crooning in the neon light.
Crazy Jane slips off her stool to dance the blues.
I’m seeking broken ghosts within the shadows that she throws.
Time, old man, I say, to shift your highway shoes.
Yellow cabs and police cars are spinning in their chains,
caught within the frozen river’s flow.
I navigate the canyons like a pilgrim in his time,
walking down from Riverside and a mile or three to go.
Dreams are made in fire and thoughts are made in ice.
We burned our dreams in Gramercy that night.
Booth looked down and smiled, his hand upon his breast
and the snow came down between us and took away the light.
On East 11th I’m standing like a tracker out of trail,
but Biaggi’s slinging pizzas hand to hand,
and the lights above O’Halloran’s spell out ‘Home is in the heart’
and like St Paul, Damascus bound, I think I understand.
True love’s like a compass with its needle spinning free,
from magnetic north to east, to south, to west.
If your heart can be your lodestar and you let it spin its fill,
magnetic north is where the needle comes to rest.
Light spills out like honey on the sidewalk in the dark
and the door to Benny’s Bar-and-Grill swings open.
Lovers who were strangers are now lovers once again
and the song up on the jukebox is ‘The Circle is Unbroken’.
Too much of distance,
too long of time,
too many stations
from the old borderline.
Two drifting solo
like boats out at sea,
to the edge of forever,
from our same old used-to-be.