I hit my teens and became interested in music in 1967. That was the year that progressive rock – prog rock to most of us now – really began. Music changed. Pop became Art. As well as groups making music more complex (until it would eventually disappear up its own arse), there came the advent of the singer-songwriters.
And with it, to my young ears, the realisation that song lyrics could be poetry. Of course, I didn’t know then that Leonard Cohen had already enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet and novelist, for instance. But that first album of his hit me – an aspiring musician and writer – as a revelation. Then add in some others, the Joni Mitchells, the Nick Drakes, who seemed to distil experience and feeling into lines and verses in the manner of the best poets. It says a great deal that even now I’m more likely to quote a lyric than a poem or a line of Shakespeare.
That’s not to say poetry couldn’t be pop. The Liverpool Poets showed that, Pete Brown crossed between one world and the other as lyricist for Cream, and the A.A. Alvarez Anthology of New Poetry was as vital as the newest Beatles album. I groped my way into culture as I grew.
Of course, not all attempts at poetic lyrics worked. Pete Sinfield’s work with King Crimson was often nothing short of embarrassing, while Yes was twee and post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd was 6th form solipsism masquerading as profundity. But when things worked, and it always seemed to be the singer-songwriters who made it work, it could be beautiful.
Not that pop couldn’t use words well, as popular song had for decades. But there it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. A marriage of words and music that was generally less effective when taken apart. While it could very powerfully pinpoint a time, a place, a mood, a romance or a breakup, it wasn’t the same.
It wasn’t poetry.
That was what I truly believed back then. I tried to make the songs that I wrote into poetic gems. I polished my poems. I was a pretentious little git.
These days I know better. I can still appreciate old Leonard as a rare talent, and Joni’s Blue stands as a near-perfect record even after all these years. But I’ve hopefully grown out of my leanings towards Art. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve come to understand that what’s important is that it moves me, whether it’s “Suzanne,” “Anarchy In The UK” or Bobby Bland singing “Two Steps From The Blues.” It was always that way, of course. I simply chose to be too blind to see it.