Thursday, September 8, 2011


Taking some songwriting lessons this morning. Which is to say I’m listening to the new Paul Simon album (“So Beautiful or So What”). And yes, Simon’s writing is idiosyncratic, for sure, but so is Mozart’s and so is Sondheim’s. Paul Simon has forgotten more about songwriting than I’ll ever know.

The lesson I’m leaning – that I’m re-learning – is how to not tell the story. Most of us overexplicate. We explain, we add so many words, we narrate – we are afraid of leaving gaps in the listener’s mental image, and we are afraid of leaving out connector words (definite articles, prepositions, etc.).

In one song about the afterlife (lots of songs about the end of days and the kingdom to come, Simon just turned 70), he sees a beautiful girl and tries to pick her up. The lines are short with internal rhymes, and without (literally) missing a beat, he says “Maybe you/ Maybe me/Maybe baby makes three” and there you have it. Says it all, cleverly, compactly, without spending several sentences about him trying to pick her up. Economy of language and thought.

In another song, he is listening to the radio, and he comments on how the pop station doesn’t sound like the music of his youth, he comments on the talk radio station, and stops at the gospel. Is that a perfect metaphor for life or what? Pop radio = youth, talk radio = middle-age, gospel = end of days. And that’s not even what the song is about, it’s just woven into the narrative.

He makes it seem effortless, but of course it’s not. He has said in interviews that he thought of the line “So Beautiful or so what” years ago and held onto it. It’s only now that he found a way to use it, or knew that he knew how to write it. It was too good a line to waste, and too good to use prematurely.

It’s the song “Rewrite” that grabs me most on the first few listens, in terms of songwriting economy. It’s about a Vietnam vet, old and broken down, working at a car wash. He’s either literally working on a screenplay at night, or he’s mentally working on a screenplay of his life (or it’s a metaphor) – rewriting it for a happy ending. Chorus is a simple eight lines:

I been working on my rewrite
Gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite
Gonna turn it into cash

Lovely rhymes across the verses (ending/spending, rewrite/midnight), spoken in vernacular, sketched in image of late nights and futile hope.

And there are only two eight-line verses, with very short lines, sketching in the story, but sketching in the barest details we need to know. In the first verse, he says he’s working at the car wash and:

Everybody says the old guy
Working at the car wash
Hasn’t got a brain cell
Left since Vietnam

That gives you a lot to think about. And it’s one long sentence spread over four musical phrases (that’s half the verse right there). “Everybody” – customers, coworkers – thinks he’s a dimwit. You can picture whomever you want but you get the picture.

And the second verse starts with:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm

And there’s your story. The second half of the verse says that he’s going to put in a happier ending but you almost don’t need to know that. In another extended line he has told you how he ended up at the car wash, and why he’s “rewriting.” The short bridge is just a short internal prayer for help, and like most good bridges, gives the song a little pause so you can live in it another moment or two.

What sort of breakdown? Drugs? Alcohol? PTSD? Other mental illness? Do we care? Does it matter? It doesn’t matter – it’s a detail that needed to be removed.

You need to strip your story down, scrub it clean, take out every word and idea that doesn’t add. You *can* do a more complicated song, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but you need to choose to write that way. And you can’t choose to do that unless you have the discipline to strip it down to the bone before building it up again.

When you rewrite.