I've been inspired lately by something I read in a NY Times article by Roseanne Cash. She tells a story about sending one of her meticulously vetted lyrics to the late John Stewart for his opinion. John replied to her, "But Rose, where's the madness?"
This reminded me of my own journal passages (posted at songwriter's journal) where I write about something similar:
February 10, 2004
"People want the writing process de-mystified. First thing I tell them is there's a good deal of mysticism involved in the writing of a great song. You can never precisely pin down why a song is great. It resonates, it says things it doesn't appear to say, it brings powerful emotions to the surface in semi-magical ways. These are all very mystical things. Words are symbols that sometimes have arcane meanings that we interpret at subconscious levels. Melodic intervals can effect our moods. Harmony in chord structure can affect our brain-waves. All of these ingredients get mixed together like sorcery."
Whether madness or magic, writing is not simply a logical progression of thoughts that arrive at a "hook". We can't solve a song like a math word problem. My friend John Mock says that great art is like an opened window. That's a great metaphor for what happens when we experience a great song or poem. It's a revelation of sorts, a new view.
I recall vivid moments in my life when I was overpowered by the intensity of a starry sky, or caught off guard by the pungent scent of the river on an early summer morning. In these brief moments of sensual surprise the balance is lost and we tip slightly into the madness, and it's sweet.
I think our society has a deep sickness caused by the bottling up of the madness. I don't mean violent insanity, I mean the ability to go beyond the boundaries of logical ordered existence and feel beautifully lost in incomprehensible things. It's good for the soul now and then.
Try to accurately describe the flavor of delicious food and you'll quickly see how insufficient normal syntax and meanings really are. Describe the most beautiful face you've ever seen without saying, "more beautiful than words can say".
We need a little madness in the writing because the desire to express inexpressable things will drive a writer mad at least temporarily. Here's another entry from my journals :
Monday, January 23, 2006
"There's a kind of evocative power in mysterious language when it's used skillfully. Words are vibrations that have literal meaning and also a sonic effect. The sonic part is sometimes ancient-- dating back to dead languages-- and some words were contrived based on what an object represented spiritually or how an experience felt viscerally. When you think of vague similarities in meaning and sound in words like "cloud" and "shroud", or how beautiful words like "divine" and "harmonic" sound, or how mysterious the word "mysterious" sounds, it seems as if language must be used with the literal meaning as well as the sonic vibration in order to have full effect. Sometimes the sonic power actually overwhelms the literal. When that happens you get poetry that must be experienced rather than thought about like: "Trailing fingers through the phosphor or asleep in flowers of foam" [Shane MacGowan]. It does mean something literally, but it means more as an accumulating vibration of language in motion. When you speak the words, or sing them, it is almost like an incantation."
Setting aside whether a song is commercial or not and examining the process is important. You don't have to be a poet to recognize that Dylan was lost in the madness when he wrote:
"I stood unwound beneath the skies
And clouds unbound by laws"
("Lay Down Your Weary Tune" Bob Dylan, © 1964; renewed 1992 Special Rider Music)
Sometimes when I'm writing I have to push myself off that safe ledge and free fall into the imagination. Let a feeling find it's own expression rather than forcing words upon a feeling. Forcing words on a feeling is like putting a straightjacket on the madness. It inhibits the writing.