When Lyrics are Literature

In 2016, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan. I’m not about to comment on Dylan’s merits (or lack thereof) for what is arguably the world’s most prestigious literary award.  Instead, I’m going to use this odd turn of events as a launching point to consider lyrics as literature by example of a great Canadian lyricist.

Fans of Canadian popular music might expect me to turn to Leonard Cohen (given his recent death and frequently-discussed connection to poetry), Joni Mitchell or even The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie.  In Break Blow Burn, Camille Paglia puts her case forward on behalf of Mitchell’s Woodstock as an influential literary effort.  But I’m not going to stick with safe and expected Canadian content (Can Con) brands – I’m going to bring up someone a bit more obscure. Someone who I think deserves a share of attention for work completed quite a long time ago.

Pye Dubois is a little-recognized writer who spun out odd and mysterious lyrics for Max Webster and Rush. Whether either of these bands is precisely one’s cup of tea should be set aside for the moment.  The point here is not to critique the aesthetics of Canadian, heavy-edged progressive rock.  Instead, this is an exploration of a lyrical style which complemented music that strove to be progressive and difficult to pin down.

First let’s take the most obvious literary cut, Rush’s Tom Sawyer from the album, Moving Pictures.  The lyrics for this song are jointly credited to Dubois and Neil Peart (Rush’s drummer and primary lyricist).  A bit of research on the net will yield a study of which lines are credited to which individual. Whether those claims are  correct or not, the lyrics are an extremely interesting re-interpretation of Mark Twain’s hero.

A modern-day warrior
Mean mean stride
Today’s Tom Sawyer
Mean mean pride

Though his mind is not for rent
Don’t put him down as arrogant
His reserve, a quiet defense
Riding out the day’s events –
The river

What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
-Catch the mist – Catch the myth
-Catch the mystery – Catch the drift

The world is the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his skies are wide

Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the space he invades
He gets by on you

No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government.
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent –
But change is

What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
-Catch the witness – Catch the wit
-Catch the spirit – Catch the spit

The world is the world is
Love and life are deep
Maybe as his eyes are wide

Exit the warrior
Today’s Tom Sawyer
He gets high on you
And the energy you trade
He gets right on to
The friction of the day

My own sense of the song has always been that the refrain, What you say about his company is what you say about society, is among the most iconic phrases of rock music.  It is an intelligent phrase that provides room for contemplation. Can we compare the figure of a Tom Sawyer of the 1870’s with that of the 1970’s?   Twain’s  Tom Sawyer – and yes, Huckleberry Finn – aren’t much discussed in 2016.  Rush’s layering-on of some new dimension to the spirit of Tom Sawyer is just drug-infested enough to convey the spirit of buzzed disorientation which followed the 60’s generation.  Dubois and Neil Peart expected people to understand who Tom Sawyer was and how their twist on Twain’s theme worked.  Will it even be possible to reference Tom Sawyer in the 2070’s? To contemplate what that century’s Tom Sawyer will be?

Unlike Dylan, Leonard Cohen (or hundreds of other singer/songwriters who may also be cited as literary figures) Dubois isn’t a performer – he is  a writer.  Here is a rare audio clip of Dubois reading one of his efforts: A Lake Between Sun and Moon.  What I like about hearing Dubois read is that he doesn’t pretend to be a performer; he demonstrates humility, a trait not much valued in this age which treats, as Umberto Eco notes, conspicuousness as a value.  This is an unexpected modesty – a creative individual who creates for over-the-top showmanship but does not attempt that showmanship himself.  I appreciate people who make things happen without drawing attention to themselves – it is extremely contrary to the ethos the social media age – this tooling-up of millions of people who have nothing to actually say.  (Teetering on my own perch at the moment).

Moving away from Rush, I want to consider  two Dubois lyrics which have a bit of literary meat to on them – Gravity and A Million Vacations .  These are songs from Max Webster (Kim Mitchell’s band before he launched his eponymous effort).  Gravity could readily be an anthem for uncertainty, for being overwhelmed by the most mundane realities and for the possible peace of a pre-reasoning state.

Gravity

what do i know?/ I sat under a cloud / I looked up ‘fraid to look down
I knew i’d cry if I didn’t clear / I knew i’d die if I didn’t hear you say
forget that fear of gravity
you take that dream away from me / I’ll have trouble getting through the day
get a little savagery in your life
I’ll have trouble tying my shoes
forget that fear of gravity
I’ll laugh when it rains and dampens my hair
get a little savagery in your life
in my cloud / I walk close never fearing the edge
never waiting at the bend / never two-faced at a crossroads
never wanting the edge of my cloud / tender is the night
forget that fear of gravity gravity gravity
forget that fear of gravity
and I’ll sit in the window without a cigarette
get a little savagery in your life

It is valuable to read the lyrics without the music. That is not in any way a disparagement of the music.  But this is a literary investigation.  Who ever had a fear of gravity?  Such a thing is perhaps the most unreasonable and impossible of fears.  It is a fear of normalcy, certainty and stability itself.  A fear of gravity – a dread of certainty – is indeed a call to investing your day with savagery.  Bravo, Dubois.

A Million Vacations, on the other hand, is a celebration of possibilities – of meaningless relaxation and of the million other things that we could be doing. A Million Vacations is indeed the sentiment of Friday, of summer and of escapism.

A Millions Vacations

Friday, Friday is a good time to shine
Night sea journey’s, journey’s to unwind
Losin’ all survival signs
Rerun movies takin’ all your time

And a million vacations is what you’ve got in mind

Throwing out all kinds of fishing line
Friday, Friday is a good time to shine
Rant and rave leave this town behind
And start over with a new dream to climb

And a million vacations is what you’ve got in mind
(I can’t wait to get away)
And a million vacations is what you’ve got in mind

Everyone needs a town a tune a dream to survive on
One to dance to, one to scream to survive on
You need a high a face a space a chance to rely on

‘Cause you can only drive down Main street so many times
‘Cause you can only drive down Main street so many times

Everyone needs a town a tune a dream to survive on
One to dance to, one to scream to survive on
You need a high a face a space a chance to rely on

‘Cause you can only drive down Main street so many times
‘Cause you can only drive down Main street so many times
And a million vacations is what you’ve got in mind

Comparing the two (and also Tom Sawyer) – there is a thread of desperation – the possibility of lost survival and of savagery lurking at the edge of modern life – of society.

I’ll take a few songs by writers like Dubois all day long rather than suffering through the  “oh baby baby” pablum that will always dominate popular music.  Though savagery lurks, it is a thinking person’s savagery.

See Also

References and Citations

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_content
  2. http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/rush-tom-sawyer-lyrics-who-wrote-what.245686/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn1IvLPU5UM

Article History

All content on www.ericadriaans.com, the Erickipedia, is updated and revised based on new information, further consideration, reader feedback and whim. To recommend updates, provide feedback or comment please use the contact and feedback form.

  1. Original draft: December 4, 2016
  2. Updates October 21, 2018
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