Maturity, most people will tell you, comes in your twenties (physically), your thirties (emotionally), or your forties (intellectually). Few people think of maturity arriving during the golden years of a normal lifespan. Yet the music world – and in particular the classical music world – is not short of examples of composers and conductors who have produced their best work in their seventies and eighties. Music produces such a complex and conflicting span of emotional responses that, perhaps, it is not unreasonable for them to continue to come together over the long course of a lifetime. For composers and conductors, perhaps, if their mental acuity and physical stamina is able to keep up, maybe it is not so surprising that their later decades can be when it all finally comes together.
For the rest of us, it is mostly our appreciation of other people’s music that has the ongoing capacity to mature. I noticed this most clearly in my own appreciation of song lyrics. When my son grew up, it was naturally very satisfying to find that he – for the most part – enjoyed listening to the same music as me. Including what people annoyingly refer to as the ‘Classic Rock‘ genre that you can excuse his generation for being inclined to turn their noses up at. However, it became clear to me that, while he enjoyed listening to a “broad church” of musical repertoire, he was getting something quite different from it than I was. In particular, he was always quick to point out when the lyrics were especially expressive, powerful, observant, or poignant.
I guess, if I ever had a view on the matter, lyrics for me were no more and no less than the words the singer had to sing. To the extent that they had any meaning, or provided any room for interpretation, for me they were of little more import than the headlines in a newspaper. I could quote them only to the extent that they were easy to remember and were conflated with, and inseparable from, the music. As long ago as the sixties, I recall my mother asking me if I knew what “Michelle, ma belle – sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble” actually meant. It baffled me that she would ask that, because even then, to me, they were just the words in the Beatles song. It mattered not a jot to me that I didn’t know what they meant. It mattered even less to me when I learned French and found out!
There are, I suppose, two ways to write a song. You either start with the words and add the tune, or you start with the tune and add the words. I guess you can also meet somewhere in between, but you get my point. Examples of the former include virtually all of the great songwriters that come to our minds. Examples of the latter include – for example – Paul McCartney. Even in my younger days, I was well aware that McCartney’s lyrics were shallow and syrupy, yet sprang almost organically from the music. And this made some kind of sense to me. Which was why, when I tried writing songs back in the ’70’s for a band I played in, I couldn’t do it.
Many years ago I first heard The Tragically Hip’s “Bobcaygeon“. I thought that was hilarious! I mean, the word Bobcaygeon (actually a small town in Ontario) does not spring organically from any line of music I can think of. And yet The Hip wrote a song about it. So for the longest time I thought of it as some sort of musical parody because of the bumbling juxtaposition of that awkward word within an almost schmaltzy rock ballad. I’m sure Mr. Bean could have made a great skit out of it.
I think the transformation of the Internet into a tool that most everyone now has permanently at their fingertips has, amongst many other things, meant that song lyrics are now readily accessible. You want to sing along with a song? Click – here are the lyrics. Ever wondered what the heck AC/DC are screaming? Click – here are the lyrics. Why on earth are The Police singing “We’re upstairs, in the material world”? Click – ahh… right. Lyrics are now – in its literal sense – accessible in a way that they never were before. Little things like that have the power to change the world. Little by little, bit by bit.
Back to the maturity thing. A short few years back I watched a Tragically Hip concert on DVD. And suddenly, in those two short hours, I finally got it! Gord Downie somehow managed to open to his audience a glimpse of the deep meaning behind his powerful lyrics. Downie is an extraordinary performer and communicator. He immerses both himself and you, the audience, fully and completely into his music. And not just the notes, melodies, harmonies, cadences and rhythms. He immerses you in his poetry. He is a spellbinding performer. But maybe it was just my time. Maybe that was the instant in my life when all of a sudden the sum total of my life’s experiences came together in such a way that at last I could appreciate simple lyrics.
Truly, it was like that. From that moment on, lyrics of songs I knew by heart for decades were possessed of layer, nuance, and meaning. I continue to listen to old songs anew, regularly gleaning insights I never knew I had. At the same time, I totally fail to see why these same things were not blindingly obvious to me beforehand. But they weren’t. And now they are. Go figure. (That maybe reads as being subliminally religious, something which I assure you was not intended)
And that song “Bobcaygeon”? It turned out to contain some of the most beautiful lyrics I have ever heard. Or not heard, you could say:
“It was in Bobcaygeon that I saw the constellations reveal themselves, one star at a time“.
I hope that one day the insights of the finest lyricists of our times choose to reveal themselves to you, one line at a time.