I don’t think lyrics and poetry are the same thing. Anyone who really knows me knows I think that. I ascribe to Wallace Stevens’ notion of poetry as a vivid attempt to define something vague or unknown, the linguistic equivalent to painting or sculpting. Plato had this notion that the artist is constantly trying to get a glimpse of Beauty’s pure form. Well, to me poets are just word artists trying to do the same thing, and so I’ve always considered poetry to be something divine. I regard poetry the same way people regard religion – a quest for truth and a way to understand God. Song lyrics don’t do this for me. For me, song lyrics capture surface emotions – I’m sad…I’m made…I’m lonely…I’m happy…I’m in love. I’m not saying they’re silly, or insignificant when compared to poetry. On the contrary, I think they’re vital and serve a necessary purpose. People relate to lyrics more than they relate to poetry, and this is important. When a person connects to a song it makes them feel less lonely, like there’s someone else out there that understands them, that their problems aren’t a new thing. Having this kind of common ground helps people trudge forward through their daily lives, and that’s why lyrics are so important. I don’t think they’re less important than poetry. I just think they do something different.
All that aside, I do think a songwriter can employ a level of poetic technique in his or her songs. Bob Dylan did this a lot. He used alliteration, slant rhyme, and varied meter in many of his songs. People often mistake these songs as poetry, and I think as far as lyrics go they come the closest, but I really think it’s just good songwriting rather than good poetry. Another songwriter who utilized effective poetics in his craft was Leonard Cohen. Cohen was one of the only songwriters to have success as a poet before he had success as a songwriter. In some cases, Cohen’s songs employ the same kind of mechanical poetic technique as Dylan’s (though I think Dylan was stronger at it), but where Cohen was strongest was in his imagery and use of metaphor. One need only listen to his song “Take This Waltz,” “Hallelujah,” or “Suzanne” to understand what I mean. I’m not going to talk about any of those songs today, however, because they don’t serve my purpose as well as the one I’m going to feature. The whole point of my series is to feature my favorite songs from a songwriting standpoint, not what I consider the best songs. I think the best songwriters are the ones that deliver a line that resonates with the listener on a personal level, something that connects with those surface emotions I walked about earlier. A lot of Cohen’s songs do this, but only one does it the best.
“Chelsea Hotel #2” is a Fuck You Song. I love Fuck You Songs, and you will probably come to realize this as the series goes along. They are the ultimate punishment, especially if you get famous. If someone has wronged you in some way, and broken your heart, what better way to get the back than immortalizing the pain they caused you in a song? I have tried to do this a few times in my own songwriting, but not nearly as effective as this song. It starts off with the speaker recollecting about getting a blow job at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. Then in the second verse, the speaker recalls something this woman says, and Cohen delivers what I think the line of the song is. His lover says she usually does this with “handsome men,” but is making an exception in his case then says, “We are ugly, but we have the music.” This is the line that resonates with me because this best defines what an artist is. For the most part, artists are not pretty people. They have scars, both physically and mentally. It’s through this ugliness that they are able to create something beautiful. The song ends with the speaker addressing his old lover again, and telling her that he didn’t love her the best and doesn’t even think of her that much, as if her blow job has blended into the rich tapestry of blow jobs he has received, a splendid “Fuck You” to end the song.