A Day In The Life
When I enrolled at Syracuse University as a freshmen in 1970, the war in Vietnam was still going strong, the lottery had replaced the draft and revolution was still in the air. To make the required freshmen English course relevant to a class whose average age was eighteen, the grad assistant, who was just a few years older, included lyrics from temporary musicians, who often functioned as some of the most widely-listened-to poets in the contemporary society of the day.
As a result, our lesson-du-jour often featured words from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen or the Beatles, along with more established writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty. One of the most memorable pieces of lyrical virtuoso put to music was A Day In The Life, whose lyrics came mostly from John Lennon, in reference to “Tara Browne”, a 21 year old Brit, who died in a tragic car crash. Interesting enough this song from the highly-acclaimed Sgt. Pepper album, also has received much scrutiny for its lyrical weight.
“In the Life” not only underscores the importance of good writing skills in popular music, but also points to the many talented writers that find commercial success with musical lyrics. Since yesterday was the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, it is a good time to pay tribute to his mastering of the English language, a task that was a very important ingredient in the success of the Beatles.
But other musicians have used a song as a showcase for their literary skills. Nowhere is this better evident that with the some of the songs by Bob Dylan. My personal favorite is “My Back Pages”, but many of his musical renditions display excellent understanding of the English language.
However, it is not unheard of for a proven writer to find out that popular music might be his (or hers) true calling. Patti Smith and Bob Dylan have both published in print after achieving success as songwriters, but what is just as interesting are published writers who resort to music as their mainstay expression.
Leonard Cohen journeyed down this route, by first publishing two novels and several books of poetry, before his musical word-poems pushed him onstage and down a path to his long career as a recording artist and popular performer. Cohen’s first published novel was titled, “The Favorite Game” (1963) and was followed by “Beautiful Losers” in 1966. Beautiful Losers is described on Wikipedia as “an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing“.
In a quick glance around the world of music, it seems that few writers have followed in Leonard’s footsteps. I doubt that this is not due from a lack of effort, but rather from the difficulty of the task.