In My Secret Life, Leonard Cohen, and Songwriting

In My Secret Life by Leonard Cohen.

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

I saw you this mornin’
You were movin’ so fast
Cant seem to loosen my grip
On the past

And I miss you so much
Theres no one in sight
And were still makin’ love

In my secret life
In my secret life

I smile when Im angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by

But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And Id die for the truth

In my secret life
In my secret life

Hold on, hold on, my brother
My sister, hold on tight
I finally got my orders
Ill be marching through the mornin’
Marchin’ through the night
Movin ‘cross the borders of my secret life

Looked through the paper
Makes you want to cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinkin’
That its either black or white
Thank God its not that simple
In my secret life

I bite my lip
I buy what Im told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old

But Im always alone
And my heart is like ice
And its crowded and cold

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

This song has always meant a great deal to me.  The lyrics as usual, for Leonard Cohen, are masterful.  If you take a line or a couplet out of the song, there are a couple good ones, but they are fairly simple.  However, the way he builds imagery throughout the track means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Also those last verse lines leave the song with a sense that the narrator hasn’t resolved any his conflicts, other than to possibly live with his contradictions:

But I’m always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it’s crowded and cold

In my secret life

One will notice that a lot of great songwriters leave one with a sense of mystery, they leave things unresolved.  This allows a song to keep going, even once you are done listening.  It starts the imaginative process, but doesn’t fill in every blank, making the song yours as much as theirs.  It becomes something you can take out into your life with you.  Now there is a difference between performing that trick, and just being vague to the point of meaningless.  The best writers know how to give you enough to pull you in, but leave enough space for the imagination of the listener so that a song will register on a personal level.

Valentine’s Day by Bruce Springsteen

I’m driving a big lazy car rushin’ up the highway in the dark
I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand’s tremblin’ over my heart
It’s pounding baby like it’s gonna bust right on through
And it ain’t gonna stop till I’m alone again with you

A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light
Of the skies and the rivers the timberwolf in the pines
And that great jukebox out on Route 39
They say he travels fastest who travels alone
But tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home

Is it the sound of the leaves
Left blown by the wayside
That’s got me out here on this spooky old highway tonight
Is it the cry of the river
With the moonlight shining through
That ain’t what scares me baby
What scares me is loosin’ you

They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God’s light came shinin’ on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin’ and born anew
It wasn’t the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn’t the bitterness of a dream that didn’t come true
It wasn’t the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you’re forever mine
And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine

Valentine’s Day by Bruce Springsteen.  From the album Tunnel of Love.  Tunnel of Love is one of the best albums ever in terms of dealing with adult relationships.

Meat is Murder Turns 30

On the day that your mentality
Decides to try to catch up with your biology

Come ’round ’cause I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over, all over my face

On the day that your mentality
Catches up with your biology

I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over, all over my face

A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor
A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor

And I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over my face

A tough kid who sometimes swallows nails
Raised on prisoner’s aid
He killed a policeman when he was thirteen
And somehow that really impressed me
But it’s written all over my face

Oh, these are the riches of the poor
These are the riches of the poor

I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s written all over my face

On the day that your mentality
Catches up with your biology

And if you ever need self-validation
Just meet me in the alley by the railway station
It’s all over my face

The Smith’s album Meat is Murder came out 30 years ago this year.  It is a front to back classic record, that still sounds unique both in pop music and in The Smith’s discography.  It is more muscular than their debut, but not as varied as their following albums.  I don’t know if I could say that Mean is Murder is my favorite Smith’s album, but it has been at times.  Morrissey’s wit, intelligence, and humor are in full effect on this record.  There are so many quotes on this album that are fantastic in and of themselves, that you can take out of context and still sound brilliant:

A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor

I chose I Want the One I Can’t Have, but I could have chosen any song off the record really.  Their take on the brutality Manchester education system on The Headmaster Ritual, or the darkly hilarious carnival portrait of Rusholme Ruffians, were both close to being posted.

If you are a guitar player or a musician in general this album is a must.  Johnny Marr’s guitar playing during this period sounds like nothing else in recorded history.  Sure, there are bits and pieces from all over the place, but the way he puts everything thing together is truly unique.  Even he has trouble playing anything this original now.  (My brother and I have tried to figure out things Johnny Marr has played and they are just bizarre.  Not only can they be at complicated at times, but they just aren’t things someone would normally play.  As well as being naturally talented, I think some of this comes from being young and not knowing exactly what he was doing.  Even when his parts are less complex, he often layers them in a way that is totally unique. I think also the fact that he wrote the music and that Morrissey wrote lyrics and melodies over top of his lyrics helped create The Smiths sound.  One would not come up with these parts if they were trying to think of a vocal melody at the same time.  I have also read countless times about the fact that even when someone writes something musically traditional, Morrissey will sing in places over music that a more trained songwriter would not do.  He’ll write a chorus over what would be perceived as a verse and vice versa.)

The rhythm section is also fantastic.  Andy Rourke, like Marr, has a totally unique melodic sense.  Mike Joyce plays rather traditionally and simply compared to both of them, but his solid foundation allows the other two musicians to branch out.  He is the offensive line to their quarterback and receiver.

Because of the intelligence of The Smiths, and Morrissey’s knack for paying tribute to films, books, and poetry, The Smiths are sometimes perceived as a university band.  However, in reality they were working class through and through.  If Morrissey’s portraits of working class life seem detailed, as on the aforementioned Rusholme Ruffians, it is because that is the culture they grew up in.

30 years on this recording still holds all of its mysterious power.  There has been nothing quite like it since it came out.  Truly original stuff.

Fallen Angels by Buffy Sainte-Marie

Fallen Angels
Fallen Angels

I got a man in the business line
He power hungry, he’s a money mine
Smooth as satin he’s a big time shark
Fallen Angel
I got a brother, ooh he mean as sin
He got a brother who’s just like him
Livin’ over in Moscow, 2 of a kind.
How come the great power got the junkie mind

Fallen Angels
They never get enough
Fallen Angels oo oo
They got the addictions
Fallen Angels
They litter the skies
Fallen Angels
Don’t you wanna turn ’em around
Turn ’em around

I got a man in the USA
He runnin’ guns with the CIA
He’s the best that being bad can be
Who’d think he do it all for me
What’s it matter if you’re green or red
The Yankee dollar or the commie threat
When the real power in the real world
Gonna deny it all anyway

Fallen Angels
They never get enough
Fallen Angels oo oo
They got the addictions
Fallen Angels
They litter the skies
Fallen Angels
Don’t you wanna turn ’em around
Turn ’em around

You believe in the system from the top on down
Potential is a beautiful thing
It’s hard to keep believing in the big time
Now you’re sinking in the wind
Star light, star bright
Somebody going down tonight
Told the truth when it was time to lie
Got it right

Fallen Angels
They never gel enough
Fallen Angels hoo hoo
They got the addictions
Fallen Angels
They litter the skies
Fallen Angels
Don’t you wanna turn ’em around
Turn ’em around

Fallen Angels
They never gel enough
Fallen Angels hoo hoo
They got the addictions
Fallen Angels

One might  be lulled into believing this song is nothing more than a piece of pop with its lush strings and beautiful melody.  But it is not, by a mile.

Save Me From Life

Lifeguard – save me from life
Save me from life
Save me from life
Save me from the ails and the ills, and from other things – Morrissey

I know from personal experience that there are musicians that will try to turn every defeat into a victory, but that’s just not me.  Tonight’s show was one of those nights where it was a coin toss between suicide and slipping someone’s throat, watching them bleed out slow down the sewer drain.

There were some amazing moments.  Some of the people that came out to support me were truly exceptional.  Friends that I hadn’t seen in awhile, new faces that were a pleasure to spend time with.  One couple came out for their second show ever and gave me The Clash’s Sandinista on CD, along with two CD’s of rare track.  That is the kind of kindness that one can never forget.

But then there was a sound man that didn’t even know the set times and was rushing me the entire night.  I was supposed to play for an hour, but I only got 40 minutes.  I thought about sacrificing him to Beelzebub.  I would go to jail, and definitely hell, but I might live on eternally in local lore, creating the kind of darkly humorous story that would keep others alive in trying times.  A sound man sacrificed like a goat in front of horrified patrons.  Some of the other staff members were quite nice, so I decided not to create a local ghost story.  (Perhaps it will be a deeply held regret on my own deathbed.)

There were also certain patrons that looked like they had withered their lives away at the same barstool.  Indifferent to anything I played.  Indifferent to the songs booming out of the PA between sets, whether it was the Dead Kennedy’s or Iron Maiden.  They sat there like weather beaten wooden Indians.  These are the kind of people that, when they outnumber the living, can make a bar feel like a tomb.

Time has a funny way of healing all wounds rather quickly.  (Or as Nick Lowe sang, “Time wounds all heels.”)  I’m sure after a good nights sleep I will be ready for the next dash into the ring.  I actually played fairly well and there were some incredibly amazing souls in the room.  Usually nothing gets to me on stage.  I’ve played more shows than I could ever count and some are excellent, some are bad, and most are good.  That is the way of the world.  But something tonight left me feeling rather rotten and slightly evil.

One thing I’ve learned is, if you feel your mood darken, don’t try to prevent it. Embrace it and let it go as far as possible.  Eventually if you let it take you far enough, you will pass through the looking glass and emerge out the other side, cleansed and purified.  Laughing all the way to the…

Sleeping Like a Baby in ATX Tonight

Comedy is what happens to others
Tragedy is what happens to you
If I ever get through the gates of heaven
I’m gonna punch the first thing in view
Since the Ides of March, I’ve traveled far
Through Appalachia and Dixieland
Searching for the one who
Sees me as I am

I’m sleeping like a baby
Still chasing that dream
Never sure if what I’m wishing for
Is dignified or obscene

I went from Paris in the springtime
To Hitler in the first chill of the fall
Taking up arms against
All of nature’s laws
Maureen, oh Maureen, she was my first true love
And I often think of who will be my last
She’ll need an iron will and selective memory
If I’ve learned anything from my past

I’m sleeping like a baby
Still chasing that dream
Never sure if what I’m wishing for
is dignified or obscene

There’s snow on the pines and ice on the road
And it’s getting hard to steer 
And I’ve found myself laughing at
The things that I used to fear
The things that I used to fear…

I’m sleeping like a baby
Still chasing that dream
Never sure if what I’m wishing for
Is dignified or obscene

Sleeping Like a Baby by No Show Ponies.  This is the first song I wrote after moving to Austin, Texas.  It was on our first album we made here, The End of Feel Good Music.  The album as a whole is a mixed bag that didn’t turn out quite like we imagined.  It ended up being too alt-country in our minds, which was our fault, but we accidentally stumbled down that road.  However, this song, strangely also the most country of all the songs, was one that turned out exactly like it should have.

I’ll be performing it tonight down at Hole in the Wall in ATX.  Show begins at 10pm.

We Tried, and We Failed – Jeane Lyrics

Jeane
The low-life has lost its appeal
And I’m tired of walking these streets
To a room with a cupboard bare

Jeane
I’m not sure what happiness means
But I look in your eyes
And I know that it isn’t there

We tried, we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried

Jeane
There’s ice on the sink where we bathe
So how can you call this a home
When you know it’s a grave?

But you still hold a greedy grace
As you tidy the place
But it’ll never be clean
Jeane

We tried, we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried

Oh, cash on the nail
It’s just a fairytale
Oh, and I don’t believe in magic anymore
Jeane

But I think you know
I really think you know
Oh, I think you know the truth
Jeane, oh

No heavenly choir
Not for me and not for you
Because I think that you know
I really think you know
I think you know the truth
Oh, Jeane

That we tried, and we failed
That we tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
Oh, oh, Jeane

These are the lyrics to the song Jeane, an early Smiths composition.  Even though I’m a huge Smiths fan, I actually discovered this song through Billy Bragg.  I also really love the version by Sandie Shaw, which the Smiths played on.  (Featured above)

Morrissey, the lyricist of the song, was a fan of British kitchen-sink dramas and the work of writer Shelagh Delaney.  (Especially the must read play A Taste of Honey.)  These works were some of the first time that realistic 50’s and 60’s British working class life were displayed in drama.

These lyrics have never been far from my mind since the first time I heard this song.  I’ve never been great at writing the story song.  However, this song shows how lyrics, at least in my mind, can be so much more effective politically through the empathy that a story conveys.  The idea that life should be better for the working poor does not need to be conveyed in any obvious way.  In painting the picture that the lyrics do, one where you can’t help but notice the sad and demoralized state of its protagonists.  One can therefor empathize with the characters and be able to draw the political conclusion for themselves, which is always the more powerful way to come to an idea.

I also like how the small details of this life are interspersed with lines that could work as quotes unto themselves.  “I’m tired of walking these streets to a room with a cupboard bare”, does so much to paint a mental picture of the life the song is describing.    Yet the chorus line is so simple and Zen like that it almost seems carved from granite:  “We tried, and we failed.”  That is a line that if heard a few times, will pop up in your head again and again as life presents itself with an excuse to utter it.  It always brings one back to that song, whether consciously or subconsciously, and those characters.

Another thing to notice is that the lyrics are genderless.  Jeane could be both a boy or a girl and therefor anyone can relate to it.    This song is able to be sung by both male and female with equal conviction, without changing a line of it.

I picked the Sandie Shaw version above, as I could only find the Billy Bragg version with the faster tempo.  I’m used to the Billy Bragg version on the Reaching to the Converted album.  This song is one of the few times that I actually prefer the cover version  of a song rather than the original.  I also should note that the Sandie Shaw lyrics differentiate very very slightly from the printed lyrics above.  Again, there are at least four versions of this song recorded that I know of and I’m not sure which one the printed lyrics come from.  

I also found this version of Sandie Shaw and Johnny Marr performing the song for children on TV.  It is not the full version, so I didn’t want to put it at the top.  I like the idea of this song being sung for kids.  Teach ’em real young what’s going on out there!