It’s a funny thing to be a songwriter. Lyrics spring to mind often fully formed, or they come in dreams, of sometimes they just sing themselves — all of which is a great delight. Words can be limiting as well, though. I love singing, and I like to work with primal tones rather than words in my “vocal meditations” at home. When I’m really lucky, sometimes lyrics just form themselves from the tones.
Sometimes I feel words are so inadequate… but other times I realize that they have great power. Ideas written in books can spark genius across generations. Wars have happened over mere words. Songs of love or vision can inspire.
So when it comes to selecting “cover” songs, I sometimes run into some challenges with lyrics.
I love to sing great tunes, and I sing male-penned lyrics all the time. You’ve heard me do tons of Zeppelin! Most of the time I just leave lyrics as originally written, and other times I’ll substitute a word or two just to make it fit a bit better. And even though I gravitate towards more artsy/mystical lyrics, I’m happy to sing Mississippi Queen, too, because it’s a fun tune to sing. It has great energy! But sometimes…
Say we’re putting together a set for a show and somebody suggests, as has happened, for example, “Billie Jean” because of its infectious dance groove. Great song. But (besides the fact that I physically couldn’t get a girl pregnant on accident) I have an issue with a guy who may have gotten a woman pregnant and denies it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s just a story. I’ll jam on it with you. But I wouldn’t feel great singing it on stage. It feels a little sad to me. Back before paternity tests, generations of women got humped and dumped, and then given the Scarlet Letter treatment if they wound up pregnant and alone. So I don’t really want to perform it on stage.
There’s some eye rolling by some of the guys.
Somebody else suggests “Rock you like a hurricane.” Love the music – you guys have all heard me sing Scorpions – I love Klauss Mein’s vocals and I love to sing these tunes. But, come on, “the bitch is hungry…so feed her well” Really? Are all women bitches, or just this particular one? Isn’t there enough hostility and violence towards women out there without my adding to it? And yes, I know there’s far worse anti-woman lyrics out there, but still… you see where I’m going with this. I’ve sung it, but it kinda bugs me, and I’d rather choose a different Scorpion tune.
Somebody suggests a Skynard tune, Sweet Home Alabama. Oh, no. Sorry, I don’t want to celebrate a band that uses the flag of the confederacy in their promotion. Countless African Americans were enslaved, beaten, raped and lynched under that flag. I don’t want to be a part of amplifiying that. (APRIL 2013 UPDATE:Even though the Skynard line in that Brad Paisley song, “Accidental Racist” is unintentionally hilarious!)
By now everybody in the room thinks I’m an annoyingly picky person. And I’m thinking, “WTF, does anybody listen to lyrics?”
So then somebody suggests “Don’t Fear The Reaper”. There’s a momentary pause, and I feel everybody waiting for me to shoot it down. Suicide? For some reason that doesn’t bother me as much as oppressing women and minorities. Suicide isn’t about bullying others. Yeah, OK, I’m fine with voluntarily choosing suicide. It’s personal freedom, after all. “Let’s do it!”
“Paris”? Meaningless and silly lyrics, great groove, fun to sing. Cool!
“Whole Lotta Love” by Zeppelin? Yay! Singing about fabulous fun sex? Everybody should be so lucky. Oh Yeah!
Zepplin’s “Rock n Roll”? Love it.
“A Change is Gonna Come”? Certainly, I love the message, and it also reminds me of the great moments of the 60’s civil rights movement – I’m so in!
How about a jam/medly on “Season of the Witch”? Yay, psychedelia fun. Always game for that.
See, it isn’t so hard after all.
…Just leave “Lick it Up” to the garage bands.