The Peculiar Job of the In-House Lyricist

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The Peculiar Job of the In-House Lyricist

The recent deaths of Keith Reid (March 23 at age 76) and Pete Brown (May 19 at age 82) remind us of one of most peculiar jobs in rock ‘n’ roll: the in-house lyricist. Reid didn’t appear on stage with Procol Harum, but he wrote most of the band’s lyrics and was almost always in the wings watching his bandmates sing his words. Brown had much the same role with Cream.

There’s a compelling logic to this approach. For each job in music, you want the most talented person in that role. You wouldn’t want a talented poet doing a half-assed job playing drums, and you wouldn’t want a talented bassist doing a half-assed job writing lyrics. That makes sense, but the results of using an in-house lyricist have not always been happy ones.

Both Reid and Brown were poets before they were lyricists, and they stumbled in the transition from one to the other. They each trafficked in the kind of flowery language that schoolboys associate with poetry. Reid’s opening lines for Procol Harum’s biggest hit, 1967’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” were: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor.” Brown’s opening lines for Cream’s biggest hit, 1966’s “I Feel Free,” were: “Feel when I dance with you, we move like the sea. You, you’re all I want to know.”

That’s a long way from Jerry Leiber’s streetwise, vernacular lyrics for the 1959 hit, “Love Potion No. 9.” You could immediately picture the scene and grasp the situation when the Clovers sang, “I took my troubles down to Madame Rue, you know, that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth. She’s got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine, selling little bottles of Love Potion No. 9.”

Leiber was a kind of in-house lyricist (and producer) for rock ‘n’ roll bands such as the Coasters and Drifters, but he was never considered a band member. He came out of an older Tin Pan Alley tradition, where songwriters wrote the songs and singers performed them. But his long-term relationship with those bands worked two ways: Leiber’s lyrics helped define each band’s personality, and that personality shaped the kind of songs he and his composer partner Mike Stoller wrote for each in turn. They could be comic for the Coasters, while being romantic for the Drifters.

Allen Toussaint served much the same role for such New Orleans acts as Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and Aaron Neville. Toussaint’s opening verse for Thomas’s 1962 single “It’s Raining” evokes a scene and conflict as efficiently as Leiber’s. “It’s raining so hard,” Thomas sang, “looks like it’s gonna rain all night, and this is the time I’d love to be holding you tight…. Sitting by my window, watching the rains fall to the ground.” There’s something to be said for turning everyday language into such vivid passages.

Leiber and Toussaint paved the way for other non-band member lyricists: Reid, Brown, the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter (who died in 2019), the Blue Oyster Cult’s Patti Smith, Elton John’s Bernie Taupin and the Beach Boys’ Tony Asher. These lyricists were crucial to the sound and persona of the acts they worked with, but they didn’t perform on stage with them. This placed them in an awkward limbo—in the band, but not in the band—exacerbated by the snobbery of musicians toward anyone who isn’t accomplished on an instrument.

Just as many rock guitarists react to the snootiness of jazz and classical musicians by overplaying, so do many rock lyricists react to the condescension of rock guitarists by overwriting. In the same way a self-indulgent guitar solo can be stuffed with a rapid-fire geyser of high, squealing notes, self-indulgent lyrics can be crammed with polysyllabic nouns and non-sequitur adjectives. Reid was often guilty of such overreaching.

Reid wrote not about the lives we live but about a dreamscape populated by mythological figures from a romanticized past. That was bad enough, but then he tried to heighten his stories with tortured similes and garbled syntax. On Procol Harum’s second biggest hit, “Conquistador,” for example, Reid had Gary Brooker sing, “A vulture sits upon your silver shield, and in your rusty scabbard now, the sand has taken seed, and though your jewel-encrusted blade has not been plundered still, the sea has washed across your face.” That’s neither vernacular nor literary; that’s preening.

But prog-rock was made for such bombast, so it’s no wonder that the non-performing-lyricist band member was so often employed by art-rock and jam-band outfits such as Renaissance (Betty Thatcher), King Crimson (Peter Sinfield), Rush (Pye Dubois) and Phish (Tom Marshall). These examples do not lend much support to the notion that a non-performing lyricist is a good idea.

But it can be. Just look at Robert Hunter, whose lyrics translated the Grateful Dead’s music into a perfect blend of campfire cowboy songs and hand-me-down oral fables. There’s a romantic glow to his words, and that irritates some people, but his words complement the Dead’s psychedelic bluegrass as aptly as Lou Reed’s fit with the Velvet Underground’s urban-decay garage-rock.

A weaker singer than even Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Hunter was wise to stay backstage. A real poet who published a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke, Hunter’s storytelling was as economical and evocative as that of Leiber or Toussaint. Hunter mostly worked with Garcia as composer, while Weir wound up using another non-bandmember, John Perry Barlow, as his lyricist.

Another band that used multiple in-house lyricists effectively was Blue Öyster Cult. Often dismissed as just another lumbering hard-rock or prog-rock dinosaur from America’s 1970s basketball arenas, this band was redeemed by its pop hooks, its healthy sense of humor and its good taste in guest lyricists. Those writers included gonzo rock critic Richard Meltzer, sci-fi novelist Michael Moorcock (who also wrote lyrics for Hawkwind), producer Sandy Pearlman and the punk-rock poets Patti Smith, Helen Wheels and Jim Carroll.

Among his many Blue Öyster Cult collaborations, Meltzer wrote the words for the top-40 single, “Burnin’ for You,” which boasted the tongue-in-cheek wordplay of “Time everlasting, time to play B–sides, time ain’t on my side, time I’ll never know.” Moorcock leaned on his sci-fi-noir background to conjure up such outer-space-weary characters as the “Veteran of the Psychic Wars.”

A year before Smith released her first album, she was living with Blue Öyster Cult’s guitarist Allen Lanier and wrote the lyrics for “Career of Evil.” This impressive 1974 Blue Öyster Cult single didn’t chart but it did become the title for a 2015 novel by an admiring Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). “Pay me I’ll be your surgeon,” Smith wrote. “I’d like to pick your brains, capture you, inject you, leave you kneeling in the rain. I choose to steal what you chose to show.”

As an in-house lyricist, Pete Brown was rather a mixed bag. He wasn’t as smotheringly florid as Reid or Sinfield, but neither was he as original in his imagery or as forceful in his storytelling as Bob Dylan or Lou Reed. And Brown certainly wasn’t as concise or plainspoken as Leiber and Toussaint. Brown’s lyrics for Cream and Jack Bruce’s solo albums offered the listener a clear-eyed description, but what was being described was often a surrealist world far removed from the listener’s own.

For Cream’s best remembered song, “Sunshine of Your Love,” Brown wrote, “It’s gettin’ near dawn, when lights close their tired eyes. I’ll soon be with you my love to give you my dawn surprise.” It’s an easy-to-grasp description of an early-morning tryst but it wouldn’t be an especially memorable one, if not for Bruce’s immortal bass line.

People disagree on whether or not Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are the strongest part of Elton John’s songs or the weakest. I’m in the latter camp, for Taupin’s lyrics always sound better than they are. They roll off the tongue easily and sync up with John’s irresistible piano tunes perfectly. But if you pay close attention, they don’t really mean much. Even when they do make sense, they’re sentiments we’ve already heard too many times.

What, exactly, is “Philadelphia Freedom”? Who is the “Rocket Man”? What does the dance called the “Crocodile Rock” actually look like? Who is this “Someone” and how did they save your life tonight? These characters are not exactly a “gypsy with a gold-capped tooth,” are they? But even I have to give Taupin props for arranging his consonants and vowels so that when he slipped his typed lyrics through John’s mail slot, they inspired the catchiest of choruses.

Tony Asher is a strange case. His entire reputation as a lyricist rests on a single Beach Boys album, but that project, Pet Sounds, is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll recordings of all time. Brian Wilson’s previous lyricist, Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love, wrote some classic surf and car songs, but he also wrote some really corny stuff. Wilson’s subsequent lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, often lapsed into the Reid school of overwriting.

Asher avoided both Love’s clichés and Parks’ obscurantism and crafted understated, psychologically astute texts for Wilson’s coming-of-age opus. This simple but precise description of a young couple necking evokes more than the most extravagant metaphors: “I can hear so much in your sighs,” Wilson sang in a hushed whisper, “and I can see so much in your eyes. There are words we both could say, but don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder.”

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I myself was the in-house lyricist for a band called Billy Kemp & the Paradise Rockers. If you’ve never heard of them, that’s not surprising, for few outside the Baltimore area ever did. I was proud of the work we did, even if it never gained much traction, and I learned some important lessons about this peculiar job.

The first lesson was that the job isn’t to write poetry. You’re not writing words for a page to be read and re-read until the meaning is deciphered. You’re writing song lyrics, which are meant to be grasped the first time they’re heard out loud. And what should be grasped are strong visual images that create a sense of time and place, of someone speaking and someone listening. You don’t write about looking for a lover; you write about flicking on the high-beam lights and turning the car toward the shore.

Secondly, because you’re writing not for the eye on the page but for the ear near the stage, the sound of the words is even more important than in poetry. Rhymes should be unusual and tight at the same time. Accented syllables should push along the beat, not fight it.

The third and most valuable lesson is that the in-house lyricist is not writing to express himself or herself. You’re writing for a character as if you were a playwright. That invented person has to be enough like yourself that your own emotions can be translated into that role—and enough like the lead singer that he or she can feel comfortable singing those words. When it’s clicking as it should, the character is neither the lyricist nor the singer nor the melodicist but, instead, a kind of avatar, a lens through which they can all project their lives.

Thanks to Don McLeese for the story idea.

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