The Curmudgeon: Lyricists Who Don’t Sing

Music Features

Despite what people say, Carole King did not write “Up on the Roof.” She wrote, “Dum-dum-dum-dee-deedle-dee-dum, dee-deedle-doo-bah, doo-bah-dum-bah-doo.” It was her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin who wrote, “When I come home feelin’ tired and beat, I go up where the air is fresh and sweet.”

There’s a tremendous yearning in King’s melody, but we don’t know what she’s yearning to get away from or get away to until Goffin supplies the words. He paints a vivid picture: The narrator is coming home from school to a big-city apartment building, and she leaves behind her classmates to race up the stairs, past the gossiping neighbors, past her own nagging family to the building’s black, tarpaper roof, where she can finally find enough silence to hear herself think.

The tension leaves her muscles; the worry leaves her head, and she can imagine the job she’s going to get and the boy she’s going to find. By the end of the song, she has invited that boy to join her in her rooftop sanctuary. Even if you never lived in an urban apartment, you probably have your own refuge in the treehouse out back or the ravine down the hill and you immediately recognize what Goffin has conjured up.

Goffin died on June 19 at age 75. Coming on the heels of Hal David’s death in 2012 and Jerry Leiber’s in 2011, Goffin’s passing highlights the near extinction of a once-common role in pop music: the non-performing lyricist. Through the late ‘60s, lyricists such as Goffin, David, Leiber, Cynthia Weil, Eddie Holland, David Porter, Willie Dixon, Doc Pomus and Tony Asher willingly handed over their words for someone else to sing. They knew what they were good at—and what they weren’t. And American music was better for it.

Today, almost all lyrics are written by the lead singer of the original recording. The given rationale is that the vocalist has to be comfortable with the words he or she is singing, so he or she should write them. Underlying this reasoning is the assumption that the talent for singing well is inherently associated with writing well. Unfortunately, a mountain of evidence proves this is not true. To cite just a few examples: Oasis, My Morning Jacket, Jack White, Wilco.

One can understand why lead singers want to further this myth: They make more money if they can collect songwriting royalties as well as performing royalties. It’s harder to comprehend why audiences buy into this falsehood. Audiences should want the best-possible vocalist singing the best-possible lyrics and the best-possible music with the best-possible musicians. Surely this goal would be better accomplished by a proper division of labor than by allowing Michael Stipe to write his own lyrics. Lead singers go out of their way to hire a really good drummer and a really good guitarist, so why don’t they make the same effort to find a really good lyricist?

The Beatles, who recorded the Goffin-King song “Chains” in 1963, were responsible for the decline of non-performing lyricists. Because John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison evolved into decent lyricists as well as superb singers, they encouraged the perception that every singer could be a lyricist. And a lot of them could, but a whole bunch were just fooling themselves. More and more people assumed that writing lyrics was like playing the tambourine: anyone could do it.

Few did it as well as Goffin. Like baseball umpires, lyricists are doing a good job when no one notices them. When the Shirelles became the first group to score a hit with a Goffin-King song in 1960, lead singer Shirley Owens inhabited the words so fully that it seemed inconceivable that she was singing anything but her own thoughts. In fact, though, the 19-year-old African-American woman was singing the words of a 21-year-old Jewish-American man, Goffin.

Somehow he captured the anxiety of every teenage girl who has ever awakened after losing her virginity to ask her partner: “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure?/ Can I believe the magic in your sighs?/ Will you still love me tomorrow?” That’s brilliant, economical songwriting, even if he wrote it only because Brill Building honcho Don Kirshner challenged Goffin and King to write a follow-up to the Shirelles’ previous single, “Tonight’s the Night.” It proved so timeless that the Four Seasons and Melanie made it a hit single again in the U.S., while Bryan Ferry and Amy Winehouse returned it to the charts in England.

Goffin released two albums—and his 1996 release Back Room Blood featured two co-writes with an admiring Bob Dylan—but his heart wasn’t in performing. He was happiest in an office cubicle scratching out lyrics on a pad and crossing out words till he had just what he wanted, because he that’s when he was at his best. He was lucky to come along in the pre-Beatles era when the non-performing lyricist was a role that the industry recognized and valued. If he had come along in this century as a gifted wordsmith with no stage charisma, where would he fit in?

Well, he might have written for dance-pop acts such as Katy Perry or Justin Bieber, but that’s a producer-driven genre, not a songwriter’s field, and the low level of verbal craft reflects that. Goffin might have headed for Nashville, where non-performing songwriters still make a good living supplying material to good-looking hunks in baseball caps. Music Row’s craftsmanship has declined in recent decades, but there’s still room for a maverick like Shane McAnally, who has provided terrific lyrics for the likes of Miranda Lambert, the Band Perry, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. Maybe McAnally is the Goffin of our time.

But what about rock ‘n’ roll? Does room exist for the non-performing lyricist there? Robert Hunter—who, like Goffin, got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a non-performing lyricist—is best known for providing words to Jerry Garcia’s music to create the Grateful Dead’s most enduring songs.

But Hunter proved there was life after the Dead by contributing lyrics to three different Dylan albums (including 2012’s Tempest) and to 11 different Jim Lauderdale albums, including this year’s delightful I’m a Song. Hunter continues to prove that there’s still a place in rock for a non-performing lyricist. If more acts would take advantage of that option, the music would be better off.

Because if the music creates the emotional landscape for a song, the words fill that landscape with specific characters and action. No one put this better than Goffin himself. In his greatest lyric, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” he wrote, “When my soul was in the lost and found,/ You came along to claim it./ I didn’t know just what was wrong with me/ Till your kiss helped me name it.”

That’s what the best lyrics do: When we don’t know what’s bothering us, the words in a song can help us name it. And once a feeling is named, we are no longer at its mercy; we are finally able to grab it and turn it around. And for such epiphanies, we have to thank backstage lyricists like Goffin. And we have to hope that today’s music world will make possible similar epiphanies from similar off-stage geniuses.

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