A Few days ago, Miley Cyrus sang a Bob Dylan song on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and Ellen, by way of introduction, told her tv audience that Bob Dylan was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Hmm. I can name quite a few of his that are good songs: "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are a Changin'," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and others. But are they great? And exactly what makes for a great song? Obviously it’s a serendipitous union of music and lyrics, and many songs have two writers for those two elements, many songs have only one. Dylan’s body of work is huge, many songs of which are considered great because of their timeliness as well as their timelessness, their singability, their popularity. But I’m not sure about them being great—maybe good, but not necessarily great. Of the two, I think the lyrics are most responsible for great songs, and Dylan’s songs often have only average lyrics. For example, one of the closing sections from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome”:
“Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad,
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair.
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
And the closing section:
“I’ll look for you in old Honolulu,
San Francisco, Ashtabula,
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above,
In the tall grass, in the ones I love.
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
These lyrics are at best only average.
From the past I can point to Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Larry Hart, Oscar Hammerstein as great lyricists. From the present, Steven Sondheim and the Bergmans, Alan and Marilyn. And of all the songs ever written, the Bergman’s have what I call the greatest set of lyrics ever in “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”
“What are you doing the rest of your life?
North and south and east and west of your life,
I have only one request of your life,
That you spend it all with me.
All the seasons and the times of your days,
All the nickels and the dimes of your days,
Let the reasons and the rhymes of your days
All begin and end with me.
I want to see your face in every kind of light,
In fields of dawn and forests of the night,
And when you stand before the candles on a cake
Oh let me be the one to hear the silent wish you make.
Those tomorrows waiting deep in your eyes,
In the world of love you keep in your eyes,
I’ll awaken what’s asleep in your eyes.
It may take a kiss or two.
Through all of my life—
Summer, winter, spring, and fall of my life—
All I ever will recall of my life
Is all of my life with you.”
I love the symmetry of the comparisons, the neat rounding out of the references to time—points of a compass to her life, nickels and dimes to her days, their future together awakened with a kiss, and the seasons to his life with her. And the cleverness of the rhymes, of course. And with the music of Michel Legrand, words and music are joined at hip and heart.
Other lyrics that run close seconds and thirds are Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” Tom Adair’s “Everything Happens to Me” (which has a ‘40’s set of lyrics as well as a revised ‘80’s set, both of which are excellent), Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We?” The list goes on.
I need the play of exact rhyme, the contest to see if a rhyme pattern can be established and then stuck with throughout. Too many modern lyrics rely on approximate rhyme much too often. I consider that lazy. I like words and rhymes the writer has to work for. I like patterns that demonstrate the hard work and cleverness of the writer. I like words that surprise me, like Larry Hart’s “You have what I lack myself. Now I even have to scratch my back myself.” Or his playful rhyme for greenery in the conclusion of “Mountain Greenery”: “You would get no keener re-ception in a beanery, bless our mountain greenery home.” And his slender, surrender, send a tender in “Little Girl Blue.” Cole Porter was a master of surprise lyrics: “Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four-letter words writing prose. Anything goes. The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today, and black’s white today, and day’s night today, when most guys today that women prize today are just silly gigolos.” Porter was also one of the last great intro writers, a lost art among present-day writers: “My story is much too sad to be told, but practically everything leaves me totally cold. The only exception I know is the case, when I’m out on a quiet spree, fighting vainly the old ennui, when I suddenly turn and see your fabulous face.” Which then leads into “I Get No Kick.” And Larry Hart was no slouch at intros either. For example the long opening to “It Never Entered My Mind”: “I don’t care if there’s powder on my nose, I don’t care if my hairdo is in place, I’ve lost the very meaning of repose, I never put a mudpack on my face. Oh who’d have thought that I’d walk in a daze now, I never go to shows at night, but just to matinees now. I see the show, and home I go . . . Once I laughed when I heard you saying, etc.” Ah yes, they just don’t write ‘em like that anymore.
And all of those songs are better than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote.