Archive for December, 2010

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

December 30, 2010

VVVVIRA

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

Ira Gershwin, a City College dropout, was a great lover of words.  The lyricist who is best-remembered for penning songs such as Embraceable You, I got Rhythm, and Someone to Watch Over Me with his prodigiously talented younger brother George displays much wit and erudition in Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959), which is part memoir, part songbook (minus the music), part dissertation on his craft, and part meditation on language.

Gershwin discusses various philological topics which range in complexity from the correct pronunciation of the word “Caribbean” and the use of “like” as a conjunction (77), to Sidney Lanier on the “laws governing music and verse” (301) and “erudite Isaac D’Isreali (father of brilliant ‘Dizzy’)” on the origins of rhyme (321-322).

Gershwin demonstrates his impressive breadth of knowledge in both poetry and linguistics describing how he makes what might seem to be a rather mundane word choice:

In “Crush on You” I used “sweetie pie,” which I felt wasn’t too diabetic a term. And I have gone for “sweet” as a noun of endearment several times. But the parent of the last two, “sweetheart” (which goes back about eight centuries to “swete heorte”), I have somehow always given a wide berth (95).

Other times Gershwin’s explanations for his word choices are more prosaic. Here is how he came up with a particular rhyme in the preamble for Looking for a Boy (‘Bout five foot six or seven):

…about the only rhymes I could use for “Heaven” were “seven” and “eleven”; hence her preoccupation with height. (“Devon” was geographically out-of-bounds; Laborite E. Bevins was probably already married; and what could one do with “replevin”?) (9).

Words enter a writer’s brain from various directions, and then via some mysterious alchemy, words come out. I will offer an example from my own writing simply because I’m the writer I know the best (and I’m not presuming in any way that anything I have written is on a par with Mr. Gershwin’s work.) When I read the complete works of Wilfred Owen a few years back I thought, “Wow, this slant rhyme is pretty cool!” I naturally assumed that after a brief interval my brain would begin to sprout forth slanty rhymes. Still waiting.

And when the words do come, sometimes a writer has to drop everything and tend to inspiration which might not return:

Working incommunicado, trying to solve the riddle of a lyric for a tune, I sometimes didn’t get to bed until after sunrise. Even then the tune could be so persistent that it could keep running on through sleep, and was still with me at breakfast. And later in the day when I was about to tackle some other problem, it was capable of capricious intrusion with the threat of “Write me up! Work on me now or you’ll never get through!” However, after some years of tussling with any number of tunes, I found that the newer ones gradually became less tenacious and more tractable (136).

Two Brief Funny Stories

When I was on jury service in New York many years ago there was a case found for the defendant. Afterwards, in the corridor, I saw the lawyer for the plaintiff approaching and thought I was going to be lectured. But no. Greetings over, all he wanted to know was whether the words or the music came first (41).

And on how Gershwin made use of the phrase Nice work if you can get it, which he came across in a book of cartoons rejected by British humor magazines:


One, submitted to Punch, I think, was–I’m pretty sure–by George Belcher, whose crayon specialized in delineating London’s lowly. In this one, two char-women are discussing the daughter of a third, and the first says she’s heard that the disscussee ‘as become a ‘ore. Whereat the second observes it’s nice work if you can get it
(97).

Morality and Popular Music

In comparison to today’s popular music, it’s hard to imagine people who would find Ira Gershwin’s lyrics offensive, although “Stairway to Paradise” pokes fun at people who are too pious for dancing and “Fascinating Rhythm” is obviously about a couple whose amorous activity is too loud for the neighbors. In Gershwin’s time, however, one musicologist referred to Gershwin Brothers hit Do, Do, Do as “smart smut,” (261) and in Philadelphia “one of the town’s top critics” objected to an “obscene phrase” in the song “‘Swonderful”:

I don’t know what he would think about these Freedom-of-Four-Letter-Speech days, but at the time he felt that “feeling amorous” was something better scrawled in chalk than sung from a stage (253).

In the Winter, 1955 edition of ETC., noted semanticist and future California United States Senator S.I. Hayakawa proffered the absurd notion that Ira Gershwin and his colleagues were causing an epidemic of helplessly lovelorn youth. He labeled the phenomenon it “IFD disease (Idealization; Frustration; Demoralization).” Mr. Gershwin’s hilarious response is on page 113.


The Most Interesting Thing I Learned from Reading Lyrics on Several Occasions

Ira Gershwin continued to work with several composers for decades after his brother’s unfortunate and untimely passing. He wrote The Man that Got Away with Harold Arlen, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954. This portion of the haunting song contains two classic two-syllable Ira Gershwin rhymes.

The man that won you
Has gone off and undone you
That great beginning
Has seen the final inning.
Don’t know what happened. It’s all a crazy game!

by Richard W. Bray

Cruel Crazy World

December 24, 2010

Cruel Crazy World

I go out each day
Confronting
Hazards and constraints
I bear it all
So joyfully
Without any complaints:

Traffic jams, mudslides, maniacs, bug bites
Derelicts, hurricanes, potholes, red lights
Pranksters, liars, idiots, road crews
Bad news, salesmen, rain delays and dog doo
Frustrated road-ragers, terrorists, and tidal waves
Lunatic zombies climbing right up out their graves
Bad coffee, typhoons, forty-car pile-ups
Degenerate freaks and unrequested dial-ups
Backfires, flat tires, insolent creeps
Nattering nitwits boring me to sleep
Seedy backstreet sideshow demons
And everyone is always scheming

I come home to you
And you hug
The pain away
Ready and refreshed
I’ll face
Another blessed day

by Richard W. Bray

Status Update

December 18, 2010

Status Update

My sister met
A man online
Who showed up at her place
With choc-o-lates and roses
And my boyfriend’s face

Status update:
You’re deleted
I scrubbed my profile clean
You’re a liar and a cheater
And a lousy human being

Block all further access
Gonna find
Somebody new
A guy who ain’t too flirty
Don’t need no skeevy dog like you

I left him for
Five minutes
Alone with my best friend
He asked her for her number
And a hundred bucks to spend

Status update:
You’re deleted
I scrubbed my profile clean
You’re a liar and a cheater
And a lousy human being

Block all further Access
Gonna find
Somebody new
A guy who ain’t too flirty
Don’t need no skeevy dog like you

I hear his phones
‘Aringing when he’s
On the other line
Who are all these women
Calling all the time?

Status update:
You’re deleted
I scrubbed my profile clean
You’re a liar and a cheater
And a lousy human being

Block all further Access
Gonna find
Somebody new
A guy who ain’t too flirty
Don’t need no skeevy dog like you

I’m so sad
And lonesome
What’s a girl to do?
I just need a decent guy
Who’s rich and tall and handsome too

Status update:
You’re deleted
I scrubbed my profile clean
You’re a liar and a cheater
And a lousy human being

Block all further access
Gonna find
Somebody new
A guy who ain’t too flirty
Don’t need no skeevy dog like you

by Richard W. Bray

Whoppers

December 13, 2010

Whoppers

I’ll never tell you little lies
I’ll only tell you whoppers
Fibs are for the other guys
My lies are all chart-toppers

When I forgot to do my chores
Cleverly, I uttered:
“Typhoon Tom blew off the doors
That’s why my room is cluttered”

When I ate the birthday cake
Purchased for my sister
I blamed it on a hungry snake
I said, “Y’all just missed her”

When I took ten thousand bucks
Earmarked for the poor
I just smiled and said, “Aw, shucks
It just ran out the door”

When I didn’t turn the gas off
And blew up several houses
I blamed it on an army of
Flamethrower-toting mouses

When I didn’t want to eat my peas
It required all my smarts
To claim that peas will make you wheeze
And cause colossal farts

When I wished to meet the star
Who was an awesome dancer
I showed her agent an old scar
And faked that I had cancer

When my dog went next door
And rooted up some posies
I said, “I saw a warthog
With roseys on his nosey?”


I’ll never tell you little lies
I’ll only tell you whoppers
Fibs are for the other guys
My lies are all chart-toppers

by Richard W. Bray

Bleary Blob of Blue

December 8, 2010

Bleary Blob of Blue

Time is just a concept
And I am just a fool
And the last fourteen hours
Are just a bleary blob of blue

I think I lost my girlfriend
I think I lost my mind
I know I lost my dinner
I can’t find my behind

I think I lost employment
I know they took my car
I lost everything that matters
When I stepped inside that bar

I’m overcome with sickness
My brain’s a filthy stew
I cannot stop these tremors
And my body feels like goo

I think I lost my girlfriend
I think I lost my mind
I know I lost my dinner
I can’t find my behind

I think I lost employment
I know they took my car
I lost everything that matters
When I stepped inside that bar

This county holding pen is
Just as cold as I am dry
Right now I need to rally
Just to find the strength to die

I think I lost my girlfriend
I think I lost my mind
I know I lost my dinner
I can’t find my behind

I think I lost employment
I know they took my car
I lost everything that matters
When I stepped inside that bar

by Richard W. Bray

Parkwood to Rosewood

December 6, 2010


Parkwood to Rosewood

I met a gal from Fresno
Drivin’ down the line
Drinkin’, Dancin’, Motel Rooms
We had ourselves a time
But I got misdirected
She just walked away
An’ I been clawing my way back
Across the USA

Parkwood to Rosewood
To Kenwood to Pine
Gotta find my baby
And see her one more time
Cedar to Maple
To Dogwood to Vine
I’ll do whatever it takes
To make that woman mine

I rumble round America
One city at a time
Truckstops, bars and diners
Someday I will find
That gal who made
My whole world sing
I got to make her mine

Parkwood to Rosewood
To Kenwood to Pine
Gotta find my baby
And see her one more time
Cedar to Maple
To Dogwood to Vine
I’ll do whatever it takes
To make that woman mine

by Richard W. Bray

The Three Types of Irony and an Amusing Teacher Story

December 4, 2010

Coincidence is NOT irony

As George Carlin and others have pointed out, sportscasters, particularly baseball announcers, have an irony problem. Many of them simply don’t understand what the word means. Usually they mistake coincidence for situational irony. For example, an announcer might say,

“It’s ironic that Stubby McGillicutty broke the single season RBI record in Anaheim where Angel great Jackie Fullcup, whose record McGillicutty broke, spent his entire career.”

No. IT’S COINCIDENTAL.

The Three Types of Irony

1) Verbal IronySaying what you DON’T mean

Definition: A speaker means something different than, often the opposite of, what she says.

Examples:

“I can’t wait to start writing these forty-seven reports.”

“My walk home was only twenty-three blocks.”

(Note: The terms sarcasm and irony are often used interchangeably, but there is a semantic difference. Sarcasm is meant to insult or cause harm. So strictly speaking, “Great, I forgot my umbrella” is ironic, whereas “You call this a cup of coffee?” is sarcastic.)

2) Situational IronyThe gods are laughing at me by giving me ten thousand spoons when I just need a knife.*

Definition: When the outcome of actions or events is different than the desired or expected result

Examples:

If Dave died because he was allergic to the antibiotics that were supposed to save him, he is not merely a victim of bad luck. There is an oddly perverse poetry in Dave’s plight. Such a phenomenon as situational irony would only occur to a species which has a concept of fairness and a tendency to automatically anthropomorphize Fate.

The Psychic Friends Network went bankrupt due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

(George Carlin’s marvelous book Brain Droppings has some wonderful examples of situational irony, particularly the one about the Kurd who survives a brutal attack by Saddam Hussein at the end of the First Gulf War and escapes over the mountains only to be crushed by an airdropped box of humanitarian aid. If you want to teach Carlin on situational irony, however, be prepared to explain about the Kurds and the first Gulf War and to tell them who Darryl Stingley was.)

3) Dramatic IronyThe reader or audience knows something fictional characters don’t

Definition: When we say something is ironic we almost never mean dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or audience has important knowledge which is withheld from a character or characters in a story, a movie, or a play.

The most obvious example of this is when the young lady in the slasher flick doesn’t realize that the guy in the hockey mask with the meat cleaver is hiding behind the hot tub—but we do.

Perhaps a more erudite example would be that the audience knows who Oedipus Rex’s parents really are.

* From the song Ironic by Alanis Morissette which can be a good teaching tool because it contains some hits and several misses. (Rain on your wedding day is simply a case of bad luck unless you are having an outdoor wedding in Southern California in June and all your bridesmaids are wearing paper dresses.) The song has been much-derided by English teachers because it contains one example of verbal irony, four examples of situational irony, six examples of bad luck, two examples of stupidity and one example of coincidence.

Evaluation

State whether the following are examples of verbal irony, situational irony, dramatic irony or not ironic in any way.

1. “Oh, great! It’s raining and I forgot my umbrella.”

2. I failed the test because I did not study.

3. Dave’s blood pressure medication gave him a heart attack.

4. Batman doesn’t know that the Joker is waiting for him, but the audience does.

5. Cal Poly Pomona and Cal Poly SLO are both located in California.

6. The box of airdropped humanitarian aid landed on the refugee and killed him.

7. I missed the job interview because I overslept.

8. “Thank you for this ticket, Officer. You just made my day.”

9. Three celebrities died in three separate plane crashes yesterday.

10. “I heard that sun block causes cancer.”

An Amusing Teacher Story (which is in no way ironic)

I made a class of college freshman read Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. At the end of the quarter we watched some videos of stories from the book which were introduced by the author. Before class a student came up to me and asked how the man in the video could be Vonnegut when it says on the book jacket that he is “our finest black-humorist.” I explained that there are people who practice dark humor and there are also African-American humorists.

Richard W. Bray