“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.