Specific is universal

As I was ambling along beside the road into Ross-on-Wye a while back, I found myself idly singing a verse from Joni Mitchell’s song Amelia (from the Hejira album):

“I pulled into the Cactus tree motel
To wash away the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust.”


But I was wrong. That’s not how the song goes. The second line of that verse is “to shower off the dust”, not “to wash away the dust”.

That may seem like a trivial distinction — one hardly worth bothering about. After all, Steven Wilson changes “the chords he plays with less than grace” on the live version of Luminol to “he strums the chords with less than grace” on the subsequent studio version, and it makes no difference.

But Wilson is a superlative musician and only a good lyricist, whereas Mitchell is arguably one of the greatest English-language lyricists there has ever been. And I think there is an intentionality to her word-choice — even to little details like “shower off” as opposed to “wash away”. And I think it’s crucial to what makes her work so very brilliant.

What happens here is that the specificity of the image makes it cut more cleanly. When I carelessly sang “wash away” I left the action open to interpretation — I might just have washed my hands or my face, whereas “shower off” is a stronger and more precise image. It fixes in the mind more powerfully. And for that reason, it’s easier to relate the line to times when I’ve felt filthy from travelling and been desperate for a shower.

Paradoxically, by writing a more specific lyric, Joni has made it more universal. By tying her image down firmly, she’s given it wings to fly.

And you see this all the while in the lyrics of great writers. In Papa Hobo, Paul Simon writes “I’ve been sweeping up the tips I made / I’ve been living on Gatorade”. He could easily have gone for a generic term like “soda” or “soft drinks”, or of course taken the more obvious route of picking beer or something harder. But by landing on the specific and idiosyncratic image of Gatorade, he’s given us something more solid to pin our imaginings onto. And for that reason, it’s easier for us to relate that image to times in our own lives when we’ve just been struggling to get by.

Or consider Dar Williams’ song You Rise and Meet the Day, which has one of my very favourite lyrics. She imagines her children in the future, “Laughing at pictures with the old-fashioned hats / And the clothes that we’re wearing today”. It’s easy to imagine the kids laughing at our clothes in a general way, but by making it specific, tying it to hats, she makes us see it happening.

So. If I ever get around to writing a song, I’ll try to remember this: specific is universal.

Note. While I was writing this piece, I stumbled across a James Joyce quote that I’d never heard before: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” It’s nice to have confirmation from a recognised genius, but it does leave me wondering whether, instead of writing this post, I should just have posted the Joyce quote.



16 responses to “Specific is universal

  1. There’s an interview I read with a great songwriter (I *thought* it was the Randy Newman interview in Songwriters On Songwriting — a book everyone should have incidentally — but I just checked and it’s not in there. I’m 99% sure it was either Newman or Paul Simon, though) where he was talking about Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison, and saying that the line that makes the song is “behind the stadium with you”, because it’s so hard to imagine someone making up a strange detail like that that it makes you think that bit — and therefore by extension the whole song — must be true.

  2. Excellent example!

    A couple of months ago, I tasked my wife to get me _Songwriters on Songwriting_ for Christmas. My plan was then to forget that I’d asked for it, so it would be a surprise, but I guess that plan is blown now I’ve been reminded :-)

  3. Sorry about that. It’s still a great book, even though it won’t be a surprise…

  4. No problem :-)

    Also on my asked-Fiona-to-get-and-then-tried-to-forget-about it: one of the Grant Morrison complete volumes that you recommended (though happily I can’t remember which).

  5. They’re like pegs, aren’t they? The way a rock climber will drive in pegs to attach himself to the rock face. You need the big expanse of the mountain, but you also needs the pegs to attach yourself to it.

  6. It usually pays to be specific. David Mamet, the playwright, said that one of the story tellers oldest tricks was to demonstrate competence by means of explicit, detailed knowledge. His competence was usually the restaurant wholesale business, but sometimes he branched out to other areas of sales or even confidence games which rely on the same psychology as sales. Start watching for this and you’ll see it being used by songwriters, playwrights, novelists and countless others, explicit detail to establish a form of emotional story telling competence.
    P.S. The only reason I hedged this a bit is that there are story telling techniques which work best when combining tight competence in some areas with extreme vagueness in others. Alice Munro does it well.

  7. They’re like pegs, aren’t they? The way a rock climber will drive in pegs to attach himself to the rock face.

    Nicely put.

    I’ve been thinking about this post over the last couple of days, and thinking about my favorite songs and songwriters.

    I think the post is correct, but I also note that, of course, many great songs don’t have lyrics which are specific in that sense. Which just means that there’s no one way to write a great song.

    I’d also mention that there are two different ways to think about “specificity” of language. The first is referring to specific, clearly recognizable elements of the world (either physical or emotional). My personal favorite example of that is the opening verse of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”

    “It’s four in the morning, the end of December
    I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better
    New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
    There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening. ”

    Or the first verse of “The Julia Belle Swain” by John Hartford (less artful, perhaps, but equally effective at creating a mood based on physical description)

    ” Oh, the Julia Belle Swain is a mighty fine boat, got a mighty fine captain, too.
    Got a big red wheel that goes around and around and a bunch of old hippies for a crew.
    Well, I can’t stay here; well, I gotta get away; I’m Chattanooga Tennessee bound.
    Gonna get my banjo and put it on my back when the Julia Belle comes down,”

    But there are also word choices which stand out as language choices, not necessarily because they have an immediately obviously referent, but just because they’re a surprising word, or because of the way it fits into the sound and meter of the line. For example, I think of the verse in “Bastards of Young” by the Replacements

    “The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
    And visit their graves on holidays at best
    The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
    If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them”

    The word “consolation” in the final line always stands out at me as an exceptional word choice. First, it’s just an unusual line in a pop song, and it forces you to notice that all he can offer is consolation. He can’t change the situation, he can just acknowledge it and hope it’s enough. Beyond that, however, it marks a change in the language of the verse. The first three lines have a clear rhythm with the internal rhymes and the fact that almost every word has only one syllable. The final line doesn’t rhyme with anything, and has the two long multi-syllable words, “consolation” and “understand,” and they stand out for that reason.

    Or, another thought, in “Oliver’s Army” the line

    “With the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne ”

    References three rivers, but it never feels specific in the sense of asking the listener to picture the rivers, or to consider them as a group in some way (perhaps it does and there’s a cultural reference that I’m missing), but what catches the ear is, again, the rhythm, with the tongue-twister cadence and the repeated “from the” / “and the” / “and the”

  8. Thanks for these examples, NickS. For me, the Leonard Cohen one is particularly interesting. The mention of New York achieves almost nothing, because even from the other side of the Atlantic it’s obvious that New York is a million wildly different cultures, from Staten Island, via 5th Avenue, to Flatbush. Yet as soon as he mentions Clinton Street, the song feels much more grounded and real — even though I have no idea where Clinton Street is, or what it signifies culturally. Bizarrely, it seems that the mere fact of its being specific somehow has power, even when I don’t know what it specifically connotes.

  9. Yet as soon as he mentions Clinton Street, the song feels much more grounded and real — even though I have no idea where Clinton Street is, or what it signifies culturally.

    I agree completely, and I also have no idea where in New York Clinton Street is located, or what that part of the city is like.

    But, I would add, that it’s the entire phrase, “music on Clinton Street late in the evening” that helps ground the verse, not just “Clinton Street.”

    (incidentally, I’m leaving that mis-quote in, because it’s another good example of how the original phrase has more punch to it than the phrase that I used (which might or might not have floated in from the Paul Simon song),)

    For one thing you can fill in details — I immediately picture Leonard Cohen in some neighborhood with small Jazz clubs. Secondly, it emotionally changes the verse. The first three lines have all implied solitude: 4 AM, middle of winter, he writing to somebody somewhere else, NYC implies a small space, possibly in an older building.

    Also, I had never thought of this until now, “late in December” doesn’t just mean winter, it also means “Christmas.” He’s thinking of an absent friend at the holiday.

    But then, the last line — music, all though the evening implies sociability, good cheer, happiness, and that he’s writing at 4 AM because he was staying out having fun, not because he’s isolated.

  10. Andrew Hickey

    I’m not sure the addressee of Famous Blue Raincoat counts as an absent *friend* as such ;)
    And of course the end of December, much like 4AM, is a sort of liminal space — and a lot of the song’s about that kind of ambiguity. In particular, Christmas probably has a slightly more complicated set of associations for someone like Cohen — a Jewish Buddhist — than it would for most people in New York.

  11. Andrew Hickey

    (And just to make those associations even more confusing, the song is obviously written *to* a Scientologist…)

  12. I’m not sure the addressee of Famous Blue Raincoat counts as an absent *friend* as such ;)

    True, I was mostly working through the way in which the first verse accumulates images, without getting into the rest of the song.

    (You do make me realize that, while it’s one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, and one that I’ve listened to many times, I’ve never tried to figure out the precise relationships between the people mentioned. )

    And of course the end of December, much like 4AM, is a sort of liminal space . . .

    Also an excellent point, and quite right.

  13. Thanks to all who have commented on this — it’s helping me both to realise again what superb songwriters these people are (Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon of course) but also why they’re so good.

    It’a a long way from “And it’s true that it really only goes to show that I know that I-I-I-I should never, never, never be blue”, isn’t it?

  14. Ah, but that song is fantastic *musically*, and “I can’t believe this has happened to me/I can’t conceive of any more misery” is a fairly witty line in context.

    As Randy Newman *does* say in that Songwriters On Songwriting interview: “It is *not* a medium where literacy and content of lyric is of equal importance as [sic] the music. It is a strange thing. I don’t want to work toward Help Me Rhonda. But I *love* Help Me Rhonda.”

  15. . . . but also why they’re so good.

    To add to what Andrew said, they represent one style of good songwriting. I think of both Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell as being poets, and writing in a poetic style, for lack of a better term. But it’s also possible to have great songwriting in which the word choices are much simpler.

    For example, I occasionally marvel at the economy of writing in some of the songs that Lefty Frizzell sings, both in terms of word choices and sentence structure. Consider Gone gone gone (lyrics). I think the lines, “She warned me she’d leave and she left me / Before my first tear hit the ground.” are brilliant songwriting. Perfectly crafted without being showy at all.

    Or, heck, “Satisfied Mind” (which wikipedia reports was constructed out of phrases that Joe Hayes heard his mother say)..

    Part of why I mention that is that I grew up hearing folk music long before I had any interest in pop music. So, for example, I remember my parents singing Rivers of Texas as a lullaby or Benjamin Bowmaneer on trips and they are catchy and memorable songs but in a very different way than pop songs are “catchy.”

  16. Pingback: Desert island albums #1: Joni Mitchell — Hejira (1976) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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