What Am I Reading? Lyrics.

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When someone finds out you’re a writer, people seem to want to know what you’re reading. I suppose what they’re really asking is, “Which authors inspire you?”

There were many years when I was an avid reader. I don’t know if I should admit this, but for some time, the truth is I’ve found the moments that jolt a creative nerve in me have darted out from lyrics rather than from words on a written page.

“Regrets collect like old friends, here to relive your darkest moments.” – “Shake It Out”, Florence & The Machine

Really, I can listen to that song on repeat for longer than I want to admit. The thing about lyrics is they have to shape a strong emotion using so few words. Songwriters don’t have the luxury of a 110 page script or a 200+ page novel. They basically have to get it all down on one page. And make every line count.

“I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame, and every time I pass that way, I always hear my name.” – “Every Grain of Sand”, Bob Dylan

Show, don’t tell. Songwriters, the good ones, follow the rule out of necessity. I tend to realize during my second or third drafts that there’s too much exposition or scenes don’t flow because I’m telling too much.

“I took my love and took it down, I climbed a mountain and I turned around; And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills, til the landslide brought me down.” – “Landslide”, Fleetwood Mac

Mystery. Sometimes, you can sing along with a song countless times and then suddenly ask yourself, “What’s this about?” Not that it’s incoherent, but there’s a message that has an ability to mean different things to different people. And there are songs that carry separate meanings at different times in one’s life.

“Let it out, let me in, take a hold of my hand; There’s nothing like another soul that’s been cut up the same.” – “Handwritten”, Gaslight Anthem

Action. Lyrics by their nature keep the narrative moving, they push to make things happen. Of course, not always. My favorite song by The Beatles is “In My Life”, which is entirely contemplative. Even in that case, the words are concise and evocative. There’s no time for stream of consciousness ramblings.

“Just a perfect day, you made me forget myself. I thought I was someone else. Someone good.” – “Perfect Day”, Lou Reed

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lou Reed was asked what he was most proud of. “The thing I’m proudest of from a career point of view is writing. When I can write a really good line, I get enormous pleasure from that.” Later, he added, “When you put simple words together, you can generate a great deal of emotion.”

Exactly. And sometimes, it can be one well-written lyric that serves as a catalyst for a bigger writing project to launch.

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Bob Dylan. At Last.

1966, USA --- Musician Bob Dylan posing for the cover of his album . --- Image by © Jerry Schatzberg/Corbis

Image by © Jerry Schatzberg/Corbis

I’m not sure when Bob Dylan entered my consciousness, but it had to be by 1965. It was the year he released “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “Positively 4th Street”, among other singles. It was also the year that my older sister and I spent our evenings playing her new board game, “Mystery Date”.

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The concept of the game was simple. You took turns moving your piece around the board until you reached the magical moment when you could turn the doorknob on the plastic door in the middle of the board and see who your date was going to be for the night. I believe there was a Buddy Holly-like bowler, a bland Prom Date holding a corsage, a surfer…I wasn’t interested in them. Much to my sister’s annoyance, I crossed my fingers to get the open collared guy with tousled hair. Referred to by the game rules as the “Dud” or the “Bum”. Every time my sister would point this out, I’d reply, “No, it’s Bob Dylan!” I was five years old. A fair mistake.

I was never a rabid fan, collecting every bootleg and alternate version of his songs. But, as the years went by, along with most other living people, I could sing along with “Lay Lady Lay”, “If Not For You”, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, and the brilliant “Hurricane Part 1”. As my path towards becoming a writer grew more focused, I was pulled into Bob Dylan’s songs not for their music, but for their lyrics. He’s written some of the best lines I’ve heard in songs to this day…from “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”:

“Perhaps it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ cov’rin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you been on my mind…”

To “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

“Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue…”

To “Like a Rolling Stone”:

“You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?”

Okay. You get the idea. I can easily fall down the rabbit hole of Bob Dylan’s words.

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It’s interesting how songs can form soundtracks in our lives. I remember a particular moment. I was having dinner with an ex-boyfriend who had flown out to Philadelphia to see me. As we spoke and got caught up, I felt completely confused about which direction the relationship was going to go. I remember thinking–and, yes, knowing how completely irrational it was–that the next song that played would give me my answer. And almost immediately, the opening bars to “It Ain’t Me Babe” began. It’s not that it made my decision for me, but that song at that moment confirmed what I’d known all along.

And now, decades after all of this, I have tickets in hand for my husband and me to see Bob Dylan in concert this Wednesday night. If I had a bucket list, this would be on it. If there’s any performer I want to experience live, it’s him. When I think about it, really, it’s about time. It’s been a long wait.

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