Spotlight: Paul Muldoon
Interview by John Deming
I interviewed Paul Muldoon at The Wheeltapper Pub in midtown Manhattan in January, 2013. We discussed his new book, The Word on the Street: Rock Lyrics, out today from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Paul’s book is a book of song lyrics that were written, for the most part, before they had music to accompany them. Many of them are performed by Wayside Shrines. Paul plays guitar in the band, which is streaming thirteen of the songs here, and which is playing Wednesday night at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. In this interview, we discuss stadium rock, the roots of song, the importance of the words. We also discuss certain intricacies and distinctions with regard to writing poems and writing songs. Also Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, Coldplay, Bob Dylan and more. You can order the book here, among other venues.
JD: I have read that you began writing poems in high school. When did you begin playing music and writing songs?
PM: Well, you know, I’m not really a musician. I have always been interested in music, of course. As a kid, I was sent out to learn the piano, and unfortunately, I talked my parents out of continuing to do that, which was a mistake. I’d really like to be able to play an instrument well. I mean, I can strike a couple of rudimentary chords on guitar, but that’s it. I don’t really know much about music in a formal way. But in an amateur way, I’ve been exposed to a lot of music, and I’ve made a kind of informal study of songwriting.
What are the first songs that you listened to?
You know, I was growing up in the 1950′s and 60′s. So I remember virtually everything that made the UK charts in those decades. Funnily enough, I was just thinking the other day among the first songs I remember singing was a song called “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” And there were was also the Irish song tradition, in which I was reasonably well rounded. We listened to a lot of songs on the radio.
So it’s always been in your blood a little bit.
Yes. But my main interest is in attempting to write lyrics.
Yes, I always thought about maybe trying to write a song for Christy Moore or someone like that, and I was always very struck by the fact that Patrick Kavanagh, the poet, is almost best known for “On Raglan Road.” And James Joyce was a fabulous singer, and of course, one of the most famous pictures of Joyce is of him with a guitar. I like to think about what Joyce would’ve been like had he been around in the 1960’s. Joyce was very interested in popular culture. That’s one of the things he is famous for, I suppose. Ulysses is a book in which the whole world of advertising is very much to the fore. A lot of the plot has to do with putting advertisements in a paper. And bits and pieces of everyday life are very much to the fore–anyway, to answer your question, I was always a big writer of fan letters. I wrote a fan letter to Warren Zevon, a singer-songwriter, and eventually heard back from him. He suggested we might try to write a song. So that was really when I started , and I’ve done it a bit for about the last ten years. I met him about ten years ago, I suppose. [Hear Zevon’s “My Ride’s Here,” written with Paul Muldoon, here.]
What’s the songwriting process for Wayside Shrines? I know you write lyrics, but do you come up with chord progressions too?
Mostly the lyrics are written first, and then there are various teams of writers within the band that will work on them. Which is one of the things I like about this band: no two songs sound the same. You know, I bought a record a couple of days ago. I listened to the first song, and it was really very good. But then the second one was almost exactly the same as the first one, the third one almost exactly the same as the second, and I thought, this is completely crazy: what’s the point of that? We have recorded about 25 songs so far and I’m proud to say that they’re wonderfully various.
Writing words intended to stand alone as opposed to writing words that are intended to have music written for them strike me as different phenomena. For example, the rhythm of the song might not work with prosodic elements of a line, and there certainly have been songwriters who try to shoehorn words into rhythms in a way that is forced and awkward. At the same time, when done intentionally, this method can have a kind of ironic effect, like I see in “Feet of Clay”: the lyrics are “I met Joan in Peace Studies. / We soon became best buddies.” In the song, the word “peace” gets as little stress as “best,” though in speech you might expect “peace” to carry a stress that is heavier than or at least equal to the first syllable of “studies.” In this case, there is a kind of ironic spoken word effect in the song, a sense of intention. Do these kinds of considerations factor into the song construction process?
I’m sure it is. Probably some of them are more successful than others. We like to think that the ones that we put out are the most successful. A song like “Feet of Clay” has a structure of A-A-B, and then A-A-B. Somebody who was particularly good with that, and sometimes goes beyond that with a kind of A-A-A-B, A-A-A-B, is Ian Dury, who is one of our one of many heroes. Do you know Ian Dury?
Oh, I think you’d like him. There is a film made about him. Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Very, very funny. So it’s a particular strain; it’s almost like music hall or something, just kind of the sort of thing one hears also in popular songs of a slightly different era.
It almost makes me think of certain things that are done by the Gershwins.
Yes, they’re the writers, among others, that I’m interested in. Somebody said, inaccurately I’m sure, they thought that the songs that I wrote were a bit like Cole Porter or something. If it were true, I would love that. But you know what–I was just listening to this Beatles song here [“Here Comes the Sun” playing in the bar], which is very different from what Cole Porter does. It’s sort of moving towards one idea rather than a couple of ideas a line. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, everything can be said for it. I’m interested in doing different kinds of things with one idea. We sometimes write very basic blues songs, songs that are very basic in their structure and in their ideas.
You have a song called “Badass Blues,” where each verse focuses on a different “badass”–Arnold Rothstein, T.S. Eliot, Charlton Heston, Albert Einstein–and ends with some version of the phrase “They’ve got them badass blues.”
Yes, in fact, I suppose most of our songs have got but one idea; no matter what might be going on, the title is one kind of simple idea that’s often beaten to death in different ways. But I often think one idea is about as much as we can do in a song, or indeed in a poem, or indeed in life.
I’m wondering how your composition process is different when making something that is supposed to be read–as opposed to being part of a song, as opposed to being read aloud.
Sometimes I do read them out loud. I mean, they are slightly different experiences, as you say, but they’re written–insofar as one is capable of doing this–with the sense that something is missing from them. They need something else. I like to think that they sort of stand by themselves, but in a strange way, to be really effective song lyrics, they shouldn’t quite stand by themselves, you know.
Sometimes the sounds, chord progressions, or other context can alter the effect of the words–for example, to sing a line over a major chord versus a minor chord might make the words themselves more ominous. Is there ever a concern that the music will not be tonally appropriate to the lyrics?
You know, one of the things I find fascinating with many songs is the multifaceted aspect of them. There is a CD that comes to mind immediately, a CD of Leonard Cohen songs called Tower of Song, where a bunch of his songs are sung by various artistes. For example, Bono does “Hallelujah” and Willie Nelson does “Bird on the Wire.” But it’s really only when one discovers Willie Nelson singing “Bird on the Wire” that you think, maybe that’s a country song–and then, maybe that’s him, you know. So I think it’s true to say with slightly different musical colorations, different songs emerge. I might be wrong, but what I’m going to suggest is that that happens when the thing itself is such a well-built, robust thing that you could almost do anything to it. It’s like Macbeth, you know, you could do Macbeth upside down, back and front, and it would still be okay.
So you have faith in the people you work with.
Absolutely. And also, the lyric itself has a beginning, a middle, and end; it’s constructed in such a way that it’s got to be able to withstand all sorts of stuff.
Have you ever tried to do it the other way? Write lyrics once the music already exists? I often begin by drawing words out of sounds.
A couple of times. I think most people do that, most bands do that. One understands the theory that if the music doesn’t work, it doesn’t really matter if the words work, so that’s a very good position to hold. On the other hand, if you’re sort of desperately trying to fit words to the music, you know, that’s when you get involved in something else. I think of the Beatles, who we were listening to earlier, and how “scrambled eggs” was the dummy lyric for “Yesterday.” [Paul McCartney plays on this bit of trivia with Jimmy Fallon here.]
Interesting, I didn’t know that.
Yes, “scrambled eggs.” Then “yesterday” I guess was a reasonable lyric, but it was “scrambled eggs” for a long time. And some of them just don’t get beyond the scrambled eggs.
That’s a good way to put it. Do you think there is ever a certain pleasure in leaving the scrambled eggs? A throwing up of the hands?
Yeah, I can imagine that. Absolutely. You know, in some ways, you can’t think of a better lyric than [sings “Hey Jude”] “naaa, na na, nana, na na.”
Yes, voices as instruments.
Right, and having said that, I suppose I like to think that there’s room in rock ‘n roll–and you know it’s kind of the broader spectrum of rock ‘n roll, the various manifestations; it might not be exactly rock ‘n roll, but you know, funk, or rap, or reggae, or country rock–that that there is room for interesting lyrics. In fact, good country rock is an indication of that, where the lyrics are often quite clever, you know, funny, smart, and of course that’s often the case with rap. Whereas sometimes, rock ‘n roll lyrics are not particularly good, and I know people say they don’t have to be particularly good, and maybe that’s why they’re not particularly good.
And their percussive qualities.
Absolutely, and rhyming, and witty kind of smart rhymes, things like that.
In your poem “Sleeve Notes” [from Hay, 1999], you write about Leonard Cohen that “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.” I’m wondering if this is true of other songwriters.
It’s true of some. I think Leonard is a particularly good songwriter–in a particular way of thinking about songwriting. I mean, I wouldn’t want to say that “nana, na na, hey Jude” is better or worse than than “Bird on the Wire.” They’re doing different things, but there’s that particular thing that Leonard does, he’s really very good at it, writing lyrics that are evocative, provocative, haunting, moving, just really sort of revelatory in a way that one usually associates with poetry. I would have loved to have written “There is a crack in everything /
That’s how the light gets in” [from “Anthem”]. It doesn’t matter who wrote those, if Milton had written them, or Wordsworth had written them, or Yeats had written them. Leonard Cohen wrote them, for what it’s worth. But they’re pretty good no matter who wrote them. And to be able to write a line like that–there is quite a bit of it in various traditions. I even think that comes as much from the blues tradition as anything else.
You seem like someone who has seen a lot of live music. What are some of the best shows you’ve been to?
I go to a lot of concerts. I can barely hear in general because I’ve been to so many concerts. In a two-week period going up to Christmas, I went to a bunch of concerts. I went to see Bob Dylan. Absolutely fabulous –
Yes, his late career material has been as good as anything.
He was really great. He was playing with Mark Knopfler, who I think helped up his game.
Where was the show?
[Coldplay’s “Yellow” comes on in the bar.] This is quite a band here, Coldplay. I think I saw [Dylan] in Philadelphia. In that same two-week period, I went to see The Who, who still play extraordinarily energetically. I went to see the Stones.
How was that?
That was that really good. I mean you sort of think that there’s got to be an ambulance standing by, but the fact is that Mick Jagger runs around like a youngster, and they put on a great show. They go to some effort. So do these guys here, Coldplay. You know they actually put on an effort. U2 is great.
This song here, “Yellow,” which is the first big hit–if you were going to try to make a popular record, is this is how you would go about it? I don’t think so. I mean they’re now slightly more derivative of U2 now than they were then. Having said that, there is a particular kind of music that works in the stadium setting.
Does music give you something poetry cannot, and vice versa?
There are several aspects of music that have a very specific physical impact on you that’s got nothing to do with your mind. It’s got nothing to do with what you think, it’s got nothing to do with your intellect–it’s got to do with how you feel, and your emotions, and it’s capable of bypassing the brain and going straight for the solar plexus. And that’s very powerful, and that could be anything, could be these minor chords anything that you’re talking about.
A certain harmony or rhythm has a literal physical effect on the body.
Yes, and we’re talking here about the chemistry of it. And you know, a poem can do this too. Emily Dickinson has this wonderful description of a successful poem being able to take the top of your head off. There is a theory that singing and playing music isn’t necessarily about skill, it’s about emotion and feeling.
And there are literal physiological effects. Oliver Sacks writes a lot about them. I saw something on CNN recently about “Lil JaXe,” a teenager with Tourette’s Syndrome who can’t speak a sentence unless he’s rapping. The stream of rhythm and rhyme allows him to communicate.
The physiological effects of music seem profound. And we’re learning more and more about this. A couple of books of come out in the last two or three years about just physically how it works in you, you know?
What do you get from the experience of performing?
As I say, I’m not really a musician, but I do get a charge from being with the musicians in Wayside Shrines. What we’re doing at the moment includes a little bit more spoken word in the midst of shows. Most of the shows are made up of songs, of course.
Spoken word of the songs in The Word on the Street?
Yes, sometimes with music under or over or whatever, or other things too.
There is an interview with you in The Paris Review where you are talking about writing poems and you say you write one line at a time. Is it the same when you are writing songs?
Yes, but for that reason, it’s actually more difficult, I think, to write songs than to write poems–more or less, it’s not absolute–because when you have a pattern you have to stick to it, more or less; it’s a mathematical thing. It’s about numbers. Of course metrics are associated with poetry, too, but poetry is not quite as strict as it used to be, as you know, so it’s not such a big issue. I mean most poets aren’t interested in that, or actually know nothing about that. I really don’t suppose that there’s a need for them to, in that sense. So in that way, it’s somewhat more difficult to write a song. But any of these activities–just looking right here, I mean, if you look behind you here at this pillar, and this one here, and this one, and this thing here: same thing.
You mean in terms of structure?
Yes, you got one here, then you got one here, and then you got one there, and in between, you got a little variation on it. Repetition. Making structures, making shapes in the world. Building things.
The repetition can make the songs seem playful at a glance, in a sort of classically “rock n’ roll” sense–but actually, there is a lot of history in here, and quite a lot of contemporary social politics. For example, the financial collapse. Also, you have a song called “Julius Caesar was a People Person.”
In a strange way, that’s one of the things I’m interested in with songwriting. It’s not that I get up in the morning and intellectualize these things. I barely get up in the morning at all. But the first song in there, I think, is “Azerbaijan.” I suppose I would never quite write a poem like that. It’s definitely not a poem, or at least not the kind of poem that would ordinarily get written through me. It’s very direct. It’s not that I have not engaged with political issues, you know, social issues in my poetry. Some people think about them–to the extent that they think about my poems at all–as being terrifically difficult. You can’t read them, nobody knows what the hell they are about. The same is probably not true of this book.
That was something I was going to ask: do you think this work is more obviously accessible?
Well, that’s a thought, but I never set out when I’m writing a poem to write something that nobody’s going to understand. The idea is that you’re definitely setting up to try to understand something yourself; the hope is that other people will come along. But I’m sure that part of what informs it is the fact that you might hope that people will come back and hear these things again. There’s really only one chance; you really, for the most part, you got to get them and keep them.
There’s no real punctuation in your lyrics, and one of the first things I noticed when I picked it up and read it was that it reminded me of the experience of being younger and buying a new album and reading the lyrics.
That’s what I was brought up on. In fact, when I write them, usually I write them in capital letters, which used to be a feature of many of these lyrics you would get on a record. And in fact, these were all sent to the publisher in caps. But not everyone likes the look of caps.
I heard that Dylan typed his Chronicles Vol. 1 all in caps.
I love that book. It’s a great book.
Reading lyrics from an album sleeve is a different kind of experience; it is not the full form of the art on some level, but can also be exciting if you are excited about the new record, and sometimes you might read while listening, and so forth. Is there an album that you remember having this kind of experience with?
I think there were particular writers and bands. For example, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The lyrics were there on the back of it, and one of the reasons why they were there is that they were actually worth reading. You didn’t necessarily have to read them to get to know them, to make sense of them, but you could actually enjoy them up to a point, to the point at which they actually need something else. So that’s the point we’re talking about. I’m a big fan of Paul Simon, as well as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles. The other Beatles lyrics were on the backs of their albums.
Yes, I believe Sgt. Pepper was the first album with printed lyrics.
And those lyrics are interesting. And the White Album–Buffalo Bill. Great stuff. So that, and then of course there’s Van Morrison. The best of his writing is quite good, I think.
When you read these at public readings, do you feel the need to have music, or do you feel that you can do a delivery without it?
I can do a certain delivery of them. They work; I like them with music, and they sort of need music, but you can sort of do both. You don’t really have to choose. There are occasions where if I’m reading by myself, I will read a bunch of poems, but also intersperse lyrics, for fun, you know, because people respond to them. They get them, which is always nice.
There are mechanisms in here that remind me of your poetry, but in many ways, it’s also a different sort of thing reading song lyrics. Do you have any expectations as far as how it will be received?
I think we are sort of out of the way of reading song lyrics. I mean, not if we’re dealing with Shakespeare or something, you know, the way there are songs in Shakespeare plays.
Was it fun to write? There seems to be a real energy to them. It is sometimes said that song predates poetry, or that there is perhaps a common ancestry certainly predating our ability to write it down.
I’m sure it does. I’d say it does. They’re sort of indistinguishable. Absolutely. I mean, in most or all cultures, there are songs.
Well, there’s sort of there’s a lovely description by Don Paterson of a poem being “a little machine for remembering itself,” which is really interesting. He is a very good poet, Don Paterson. So, who knows. I mean, people may not care for my lyrics at all. Obviously, I’d like it if people like them, but what can you do? You can only do the thing and hope for the best. In so many cases, the pop stars are desperate to write poetry, and poets are desperate to write rock lyrics. Like film directors acting. Everybody wants to do something else. And a lot of people look on that as being problematic and a kind of weakness. But there are many worlds. I like the idea that one can try various things. Who says you can’t? All of these activities are part of the same activity. When I was a teenager, in fact, what I really wanted to be was a painter, insofar as I wanted to be anything. And I would still love to be a painter. And I still make little bits of visual art.
What is your medium?
I don’t know what the word would be…little three dimensional things, sometimes. I do them because I enjoy doing them, because I get ideas. Does it mean I think I’m Picasso? No, it doesn’t. What it means is, this is another way of being in the world. It is very easy to be down on people. There’s nothing that can’t be criticized. So I enjoy having a bit of fun. It’s basically why I do it. It’s not necessarily easy to do, but there’s always the chance there’s going to be some fun, and I think that’s why I do it.