“Now let’s go one time
Shake it baby, shake, shake it baby, shake
Woo! Shake baby, come on baby, shake it, baby, shake
Come on over, whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.” ~Jerry Lee Lewis
It happened again in university. It was only natural. As we were allowed in high school, for first year poetry class we were permitted to bring in song lyrics when we read aloud our favourite poems. And as it was in high school, most brought songs. Popular culture had kicked the Academy’s door in, cheerfully blowing the smoke away from the gun barrel.
So in place of Shelley or Wordsworth, I shared the doubtful lyricism of Noel Gallagher. Sharing the lyrics of Oasis—shorn from its music—is like an airplane stripped of its wings. Worse, it was a song from Oasis’ gruesome nadir—Be Here Now—an album conceived at the brutal intersection of their talent and their fame. One road led upwards, the other steeply down.
Coke-fuelled confidence had transformed middling 2.5 minute pop songs into thin and vulgar epics 9 minutes long, each one a cautionary tale about the effect of class-A narcotics on self-scrutiny. Even a casual listen of Be Here Now yields the image of the Gallaghers laying their tracks certain they’d written half a dozen “Hey Judes” but when the white powder settled Noel would declare that the album took a shit on the legacy of What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?
If the exhilarating insouciance of these young Mancs created at least one great record, their energy also distracted from the plagiarised gibberish of the lyrics. But Noel’s lyrical weakness could not withstand the collapse of musical inspiration, and so Be Here Now’s drug-twisted bromides and nonsense babble become painfully stark.
But hey, as my poetry teacher said to us: “Who reads poetry before going out on a Saturday night? You put on your favourite record.”
Well put. In those days that record was Be Here Now.
It’s very easy, especially at that age, to mistake the lyrics that pepper the exhilarating buzz of the music—the buzz that provides you with your pre-date confidence, say—as profundity.
So it was when I read these lyrics, from the track “Magic Pie”, to my class:
An extraordinary guy,
Can never have an ordinary day.
He might live a long goodbye,
But that is not for me to say.
I dig his friends, I dig his shoes,
He is just a child with nothing to lose.
But his mind, his mind.
Indeed Noel, indeed.
This exercise of reading song lyrics to your class probably suggests something rotten about Australian literacy, and perhaps about prevailing pedagogy too. No doubt I’ve also introduced hard suspicions about my own taste and qualifications for writing about music. And perhaps we should leap in when, in the bar of our popular imagination, Gallagher glasses Keats or Cobain nudges Whitman, but in truth these musical icons are simply the modern font of intense feeling those poets celebrated so beautifully long before Top of the Pops came along.
In truth, I couldn’t give a rat’s if the lyrics aren’t up to scratch, provided the music is scorching. The lyrics of the best rock music—work brimming with passionate expression—are tips of the iceberg, just part of the greater sum. And hey, if the lyrics are touching too, well, great. Springsteen once said that Dylan liberated our minds, but that the lyrically inferior Elvis liberated our bodies. Listen to the tortured Jerry Lee Lewis and you get the picture—the meaning isn’t in the lyrics, but the deliciously carnal melodies.
The power of rock music—of any music—is such that if you were to play me Oasis’ “Supersonic” I am reminded—in a small way, can occupy—the confusion and compromised ambition of my 17-year-old self.
Play me Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and I’ll stop what I’m doing and consider that 17-year-old kid that knew he wanted things, but wasn’t quite sure what they were. Play me “Atlantic City” and I’ll consider which ambitions were realised, which weren’t, and which ones were absurd.
In fact, I don’t need you to play me “Atlantic City” because it’s playing right now, a live version recorded in New York City in 2000. And I’m recalling that comment from my first year poetry teacher about Saturday nights when I think there are few written words that give the same ennobling gut-glow of nostalgia and hope and excitement that song so effortlessly provides.