Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Marriage In Meter

I had a friend once named Jack Keller. Jack passed away a few years ago, but I think of him often. He was a Tin Pan Alley trained songwriter, born and raised in Brooklyn. He took his craft to Hollywood for a while, writing for the Monkees and cranking out themes for TV shows, ultimately landing the theme songs for "Bewitched", "Gidget" and "Seattle". He wrote plenty of other hits, some you know and some you don't. He ended his days writing in Nashville for the same publisher I wrote for (EMI). This was back when EMI was just a fledgling company doing business as Screen Gems-Colgems-EMI in a little cottage at 1207 16th Ave South.

Jack could often be heard behind some closed door lecturing a young writer about his poor prosody, "Dat's not da hit ! Here's da hit (plunking single notes on the piano) da, da, da, DA, da, DA. Ya got too many syllables. Dat don't work. It's da marriage, I'm tellin' ya, da marriage!"

I wrote with Jack enough times to know that once he found "the hit", you didn't mess with it. He was a stickler for every line being perfectly constrained to the melody he'd composed. It didn't matter how good you thought your line was, if it didn't match syllable for syllable with his melody, he'd shoot it full of holes then calmly smoke his pipe until you thought of something better. His melodies were little gems of simplicity and distinction, nothing generic about them at all. Each note held it's place with purpose. But, man, did he ever insist on doing it his way.

Maybe you're saying to yourself, "What a stubborn guy". Thing is, he wasn't merely stubborn. He was right, maddeningly right. Every time I worked with him I learned more about the art of how NOT to compromise a hit melody for the sake of a line of lyric. His restrictions made me (gasp) a better lyricist! It forced me to find not just the right concept for a line, or the right rhyme, but the sequence of words that made the melody, concept and rhyme shine brightest.

Before you begin dismissing me with arguments about Bob Dylan and John Lennon, yes, I know. The discipline is broad. But hear me out for a moment. There are plenty of writers you can study to learn about loose meter, but few examples these days of the true Marriage.

You see, lyrics can to be both meaningful AND metered strictly. That is, in fact, the immortal challenge of both songwriting and poetry. Anyone can say a thought, but only a great writer can say it so concisely that it can never be said better again.

Classical composers use a rigid, almost mathmatical theme-and-variation approach to melody. Once the theme and variations are establish you don't deviate. Beethoven wrote his Ninth in the rhythm : "dit dit dit DAH. dit dit dit DAH." Not "dit dit dit DAH, dit di-dit dit DA-DAH". This theme business is one of the hallmarks of good composition. Many barriers have been broken since Beethoven, but we haven't always improved things. What is it that makes a song memorable to begin with? Isn't it a certain amount of repetition along with deceptively employed variations of that rhthmn? Are we really helping ourselves by pushing the envelope of theme and variation to the point where the average listener can longer even find it? The echoes are essential. The melodic echoes are the DNA of a melody. Without echoing themes a melody unravels too far.

I break the rules, too. I like Dylan as much as anyone and when I take liberties with the meter, I usually tell myself I'm following some branch of the songwriting tree that sprouted from his work. Sometimes I'm happy with the results, but many times my weak meter is just because I'm too lazy to get it right. Do you break up the Marriage with intent or out of laziness? Many writers seem to not know the difference. It takes some objectivity. You've got to know where that pulse lies and pick it up throughout the song.

The next time you're cramming all those extra syllables into your verse lines because you just need to get all the information into the song, ask yourself if it can be pared down for the sake of the meter, the pulse, the DNA of the melody. You won't be sorry you tried. Maybe you'll hear old Jack Keller's ghost say, "It's da marriage!"

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt


Monty said...

Nice story Craig and good advice as usual.You were very fortunate to have people to share with and learn from as you were coming up thru the ranks.That's what is great about SongU,we get to share and learn from the greats like you!

courtney said...

I think it works the opposite way, too. Sometimes I find myself adding stupid words like "just" and "babe" where they're not necessary and maybe don't even fit because I need another syllable to make the line feel right, and that's just as bad if not worse. There's no excuse about innovation to use there, it's all laziness.

Great post. Gets me thinking...

chromehead said...

Ah, yes, Courtney. And we try not to allow that kind of laziness to creep in either. The result isn't always broken meter. Sometimes it's just a very bland lyric. Here's an example I use when I teach :

Average line using 15 syllables :
"Maybe these eyes of mine have seen too much crying through the years"

Great line, same thought, same meter, also 15 syllables:
"Doctor my eyes have seen the years and the slow parade of tears" (Jackson Browne)

It takes a keen eye to spot the padding in "maybe" and "eyes of mine" and the lame modifier "too much" in the first line. It takes a great ear to hear that "Doctor" and "maybe" take up the same amount of space, and to hear the metaphor "slow parade of tears" instead of the more mundane "crying through the years"

This is what I mean about the same thought being written lazily, or being written so well that it can't be topped. Sticking to a melody requires a LOT of concentration on the thought to find the right words for expression inside the melody.

The "marriage" is essentially when neither melody nor lyric dominate the writing process. Each thought is expressed beautifully within the constraints of the melodic rhythm. It means we make no excuses and we rise to the challenge. But it's damn hard to do, and many writers just give up the quest out of frustration. Others never even imagined there was a quest...

Tim Wheeler said...

Reminds me of a favorite Limerick:

There once was a poet named Dan
Whose poetry never would scan
When told it was so
He said, "Yes, I know"
"It's because I try to fit every possible syllable into the last line that I can."


Tim McMullen said...

Tim Wheeler's limerick was perfectly apropos. I will incorporate it in my creative writing class.

The following is one that I use when I teach the limerick. Most students have even more trouble with the limerick than they do with the sonnet because they just can't get the rhythm, nor can they grasp the relationship of the longer and shorter lines. This fact corroborates one of the points in your blog: they do not naturally, nor have they been trained to, hear those rhythmical subtleties. I use haiku, tanka, cinquain, limerick, and sonnet for that very reason: they require a discipline that many free verse practitioners have lost.

This anonymous limerick brings in the writer only tangentially, by way of the pun, but I like it:

A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
While hunting around for the meter,
Touched a leak with his light.
He arose out of sight,
And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.

I enjoyed this particular blog for several reasons, but grades are due Monday, and I still have several sets of papers to wade through. I may weigh in later with a few thoughts about the rule breakers.

Thanks for writing (I mean that as a triple entendrĂ©—the writing of your songs, of your blog, and of your responses, as well as a double entendrĂ© referring to both the act of writing and the final product). Thanks for all of it...

Russ Keller said...

Thanks for the kind words about my dad, Craig. Those old Brill Building songs are standards. And I still marvel at the breadth of his catalog. But it was always a little challenging to write with him (coming from a post Dylan era mind frame). But man oh man… now I see that the songs I wrote with him were more than just co-writes… they were an education.


chromehead said...

Great to hear from you Russ. Your dad was da man!