Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Meter Man"

There are things you can do, and things you can’t do.  There are also, along that “can do-can’t do” continuum, things you can almost do.

“Almost” is actually an elusive concept.  Because it means more than one thing. 

Let me explain.

In terms of our ultimate understanding, “I almost caught a fish” is the braggadocial equivalent of “I didn’t catch a fish.”  “Almost” simply makes you feel better.  And it is a somewhat superior story.  (Although less superior than the person telling it thinks it is.)

There is, however, another interpretation of “almost”, in regards to “almost able to do something.”  That incarnation of “almost” involves the intermittent ability to do something.  Sometimes you can do it, and sometimes you can’t. 

An example of this variability is me and lyric writing.  Sometimes, I can write lyrics, and sometimes I can’t. 

You would think that with something as uniquely specialized as lyric writing, you’d be able to do it consistently. 


Which makes me not a professional.

Stephen Sondheim has never had to return the money, confessing,

“Inexplicably, this time, I cannot make the lyrics fit the music.  And I wrote the music.”

I used to be write lyrics.  Year after year at Camp Ogama, I’d dash off mini-musicals where I’d come up with a story and write lyrics to already existing show tunes.

I recall one song delivered by a deluded Israeli “Mess Sergeant” who prepared food for the combatants – not on both sides, just one – during the Middle East “Six-Days War” which, in part, went:

(To the tune of “I Am I) Don Quixote” from Man of La Mancha)

“I am I, Chaim Goldbatt, the chef for the army
My borscht has the taste that appeals.
And my cooking inspired all our soldiers so much
They insisted on fighting through meals.

Remember, I was eighteen.

It seemed easy back then.  But you know, like a one or two year-old frolicking fearlessly in a swimming pool but then they turn four or five and it’s like,

I could drown in this stuff!”

This awareness turns “easy” into a paralyzed non-swimmer.

That appears to be me and lyric writing.  

Except I’m not four.

More than thirty years ago, I began writing this sort of sappy, country love song about how “my life turned around when I met you.”  This was not biographical; I had not, at the juncture, met anybody.  It was just a concept.  Songwriters do that sometimes.  Randy Newman explains that he simply works out ideas, which in no way, for example, reflect his personal view on whether or not short people have a reason to live. 

I believe him.  Because it was the same with my sappy,country love song.  The difference was, I could not finish it.

In the beginning, I excitedly dove in:

“There never was a time when I was happy
There never was a time when life was good
There never was a day when I’d get up and say
I think I’ll find my way, as if I could…

There never was a place where I felt welcome
I’d move from town to town but none was home…”

And that was it.  Thirty years later, I’ve got six lines of a sixteen-line love song.  I didn’t even get to the “turnaround”, where it all changed “when I met you.”  My motivational impulse simply dried up, like a car running out of gas unable to make it to the “Finish Line”.  You just hear that empty… (FILL IN THE BLANK WITH A DEMONSTRABLY “DRY GAS TANK SOUND).

(THROATILY)  “Chhh…(as in Chanukah)… chhh…  chhh… “

Something like that.

It used to bother me that I couldn’t write lyrics.  I mean, I’m a “Words Guy.”  What’s up with that!

Only recently did this insight belatedly came to me.

“Backstage” Information:

I habitually write my first draft here in about an hour.  After that, I put in two hours or more – of course focusing and tightening the content – but more than anything, my rewrites involve replacing words that do not fit the rhythm of sentences with other words that more rhythmically do.

That’s what I focus on – beats and syllabic emphases within every sentence.  To provide a subliminal smoothness for the reader’s sensibilities.

Here’s how it works. 

I revise a sentence for some reason, and suddenly, a word, once onomatopoeically appropriate, no longer is.  I then replace that previously “right” word with a “substitute” word that fits the rewritten sentence more rhythmically.

(For example, in that last sentence, the word “substitute” was originally “different”, but after rewriting, I found that “substitute” was better for the flow.) 

But it doesn’t stop there.

I revise a third time, and when I do, I find the “substitute” now falling clunkily on the ear.  I will then require another substitute.  Or I will sometimes return to the original word, which, once again, is rhythmically ideal.  Before I know it, I have totally missed lunch.

Here’s an embarrassing confession.  (As if the preceding was not embarrassing enough.)

Sometimes, after selecting a word for the rhythm, I will deliberately neglect to look that word up in the dictionary for fear of discovering it’s the wrong word.   Truth be told, although I would prefer my selected words to serve both functions, in the end – I am looking ashamed – I inevitably choose the word that scans better. 

I move words around, I include unnecessary words, I make new words up – all in the service of “natural rhythm.”  Natural to whom?  Natural to me.  But hopefully to other people as well.

It was then that it occurred to me – the aforementioned insight – that, given my intense metronomic scrupulosity, I am still, in effect, writing lyrics.

I am just not writing them in songs.

(Postscript:  Did you notice the “turnaround” in this story?  I can do it here.  Why can’t I do it in my sappy, country love song?)


Jeskiley said...

I always liked the music in your words, with a somewhat Hollywood tone to them. Also, your musical westerns are on point! Reminds me of my dad's day-and-age.

Jeskiley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JED said...

This is probably why your writing was so well received by television audiences and the people making those shows. Your words are meant to be performed. It's one thing to write a piece with the correct spelling and syntax but when you go beyond that to include meter and modulation, it can let an actor make it exciting, funny or heartbreaking.

Would we remember his address if Lincoln had started with, "Eight-seven years ago..."?