Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Songwriting Philosphy, Part 1: Polishing a Lyric

Since this blog is partly about writing Sinatra-style songs, I thought I’d share a bit of my insights (if any) into one important aspect of this ineffable art and craft.

Polishing a Lyric, Pt. 1

Although polishing a lyric is the last part of the actual songwriting process, I think it’s something worth discussing immediately, toute-suite, pronto, right now, simply because most modern lyricists don’t do enough of it. And I’m not just talking about rock, pop and country songwriters, where the bar is set so much lower. This lack of attention to detail is even showing up on Broadway and in the world of cabaret, where you’d think that with Stephen Sondheim as the gold standard (at least he used to be), more lyricists would polish their words and phrases a bit more fully.

Johnny Mercer—who I think is one of the top five lyricists of all time—said that writing songs is like looking for the snark. It’s very mysterious; you never know what you’re going to find. He also said that composing, which he did successfully on several occasions—“Something’s Gotta Give” and “Dream,” to name two that Sinatra recorded—is the more mysterious art, while writing lyrics (Mercer wrote “The Blues in the Night,” “Moon River,” “One for My Baby,” “Drinking Again,” among many others that Sinatra also recorded) is the more dangerous. Why? Because most of the popular songs of his day (and this still holds true to a large extent) are love songs. And the worst that a composer can do is just not write a catchy or original-sounding tune, while a lyricist runs the risk that his words will be too sentimental or corny. As a result Mercer often took a lot of time to make sure each of his lyrics were perfectly crafted. In fact it took him over a year to write the lyric for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”.

The story goes that Carmichael played this beautiful melody for only one lyricist, Johnny Mercer. In those days a composer would sometimes give every lyricist in L.A. and New York a shot at a good tune, which is what happened with “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Laura” among others. But Hoagy gave Johnny an exclusive.

And while Mercer tried and tried to come up with a lyric he just couldn’t seem to do it. Every few months or so he’d call Hoagy and say, “I got nothing, Hoag. It’s a shame to waste such a beautiful tune. Maybe you should give it to someone else.”

But Carmichael kept saying, “No, I think you’re the perfect guy for this one. And don’t worry, John. I know you’ll come up with something eventually.”

Finally, Mercer came up with the following:


Skylark, have you anything to say to me?
Can you tell me where my love may be?
Is there a meadow in the mist
where someone's waiting to be kissed?

Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring
where my heart can go a journeying
over the shadows and the rain
to a blossom covered lane?

And in your lonely flight
haven’t you heard the music in the night,
wonderful music,
faint as a will-o'-the-wisp, crazy as a loon,
sad as a gypsy serenading the moon?

Skylark, I don't know
if you can find these things,
but my heart is riding on your wings.
So if you see them anywhere
won't you lead me there?

It’s exquisitely simple, and except for that “blossom-covered lane” bit not corny at all. (And even that’s debatable because of the beautiful way it fits the melody line.) On the other hand, Mercer had the ability to write very quickly as well. He reportedly wrote the entire lyric for “Midnight Sun” in his head, on a car trip from Palm Springs to Bel Air.

The Midnight Sun

Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice,
warmer than a summer night.
The clouds were like an alabaster palace
rising to a snowy height
Each star its own Aurora Borealis,
suddenly you held me tight.
I could see the midnight sun.

I can't explain the silver rain that found me,
or was that a moonlit veil?
The music of the universe around me,
or was that a nightingale?
Then your arms miraculously found me.
Suddenly the sky turned pale.
I could see the midnight sun.

Was there ever such a night?
It's a thrill I still don't quite believe.
But after you were gone
there was still some stardust on my sleeve

The flame of it may dwindle to an ember
and the stars forget to shine.
We may see the meadow in December,
icy white and crystalline.
But oh my darling always I'll remember
when your lips were close to mine
and we saw the Midnight Sun.

So here’s a lyric that Mercer wrote in three hours as opposed to the whole year it took him to write “Skylark” and yet it’s much more intricate and inventive. (I think I know why, too—it gave his mind something to do while he was driving through the desert.)

Years ago I attended an ASCAP musical theater writing workshop in New York City. At one of the sessions two old songwriting partners, Chet Forrest and Robert Wright, were on the panel. These guys wrote the Broadway shows Kismet and Song of Norway and are said to have re-written some of Cole Porter’s and Larry Hart’s lyrics for several films. They’re probably best remembered today for songs like “It’s a Blue World,” “Stranger in Paradise,” and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads.” (All sung by Sinatra, by the way.)

At the ASCAP workshop these two gentlemen told a story of running into Johnny Mercer on the lot at Paramount, where they had just gotten one of their first songwriting jobs after writing a minor radio and jukebox hit.

There was the usual “Hi, how ya doing,” “I love your work,” etc., then Mercer asked, “Say, fellas, how many lines can you write in a day?”

They looked at each other. (Lines?) They didn’t want to look foolish in front of one of their idols. So they said, “Well, we can usually write a whole lyric. Maybe two or three.”

“Really?” said Mercer sadly. “Because I’m lucky if I can write three lines…”

When they told this story at the workshop, Forrest and Wright were trying to make a point to quite a number of aspiring young songwriters there whose lyrics, quite frankly, sucked. The point was that you have to make constant, almost neverending revisions if you’re going to achieve any kind of greatness in your lyrics, or even be any good at all. (Music is a different art, and usually works best—except in my case—when it flows fairly quickly; revisions don’t usually improve the tune.) Forrest and Wright went on to point out that Mercer didn’t really write only three lines a day. He probably came up with three-hundred and thirty-three versions of each line. And it was only by trying every possible variation he could think of that he finally settled on the three best lines to fit that particular song. (This was years before he wrote “The Midnight Sun,” by the way.)

Here’s another interesting tale about this idea of writing and writing until you find the perfect line or phrase. It’s not about Mercer but Ira Gershwin. I don’t remember where I first heard this story—it might’ve come from Michael Feinstein (whom I’ve come to dislike*). The story goes that Ira Gershwin disappeared for three days while writing the lyric for “Embraceable You. George looked for him in all the Russian bathhouses (one of Ira’s usual places to relax, apparently), and went a little nuts about not being able to find his brother and writing partner so close to their new show’s opening. When Ira finally re-surfaced, a few days before opening night, it turned out that he’d been working on a single line of the song, and had been holed up in a hotel room until he’d finally “nailed it.”

The line he finally came up with?

“Come to papa, come to papa, do…”

Three days for that? Yet it shows you how hard these guys worked on polishing their lyrics.

At any rate, that’s the kind of thing I try to do when writing my own songs which, granted, are mostly just exercises in futility at this point—since the artist I write them for is no longer among the living—but they’re certainly well-crafted once I’m finished with them!


Next Time: 5 Easy Tricks for Polishing a Lyric!

*(Feinstein wrote in the New York Times that Cole Porter—who sits in the pantheon as one of the greatest composers and lyricists of all-time —was mediocre, and that Jerry Herman—who’s fairly talented but nowhere in the same league as Porter—is one of the all-time greats! Come on! How can you have any faith in a guy who favors Jerry Herman over Cole Porter?)

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