Generally, when I first listen to a song, I don’t pay much attention to lyrics. If I dig the melody and beat – as the boppers used to say on Bandstand – I’ll start paying closer attention to the words, and if the diction is clever or thought-provoking, all the better.
After all, it’s really rare to encounter lyrics that possess the compression and structural integrity of poetry, i.e., to find songs with words that can stand alone on a page and engage sans musical accompaniment.
My friend George Fox’s latest song – so new that it’s still untitled – comes close to accomplishing this rare feat. The song, which consists of three verses followed by a chorus, distills a lifetime in four-and-a-half minutes and does so employing diction, imagery, and structure that reinforce and embody the song’s central theme, what Andrew Marvell famously dubbed “time’s wingèd chariot.” George wrestles with the metaphysics of time, the illusive nature of past, present, and future, and how a lifetime passes [cliché alert] in the blink of an eye.
The song begins with a callous youth speeding through life in rural Orangeburg County, South Carolina:
Just eighteen, driving an old pickup truck,
Joint in the ashtray and a bed full of luck.
Running nowhere as fast as I can
Down an Orangeburg County washboard road
Not enough sense to take it slow.
Rolling Stones singing “Street Fighting Man.”
Here, the theme of speed is introduced, and we have our first bit of compression in the allusion to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which melds the attitude of the the speaker in the Stones’ song with George’s narrator, both young men fueled by the fire of youthful exuberance.
What’s a poor boy to do but “run nowhere as fast as [he] can?”
The chorus shifts to the present, and again, we have speed, the idea of chasing “the dying light,” or as Marvell puts it in “To His Coy Mistress,” although “we cannot make our sun /Stand still, yet we will make him run.” Yet, in the last line, the speaker comes to the realization it’s always now, that the past and future only exist in the present and meaning lies in perspective, depending on where “you’re standing.”
Right outside of your window, just outside your door,
Everything is waiting for you
To fall into the night and chase the dying light.
There’s no need to be gentle.
Sometimes it’s heaven, sometimes it’s hell.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
All depends on where you’re standing.
I stand before you now, and I see it written in in the clouds,
All that was and is and could be is now.
In the video below you can check out the first verse and chorus from a live performance at Chico Feo’s Monday Night Singer/Songwriter Soapbox, which George emcees. The song is a work-in-progress, and for me, it’s thrilling to see it evolve on stage, as George experiments with phrasing and gestures.
In the second verse, the middle verse, the narrator finds himself suddenly middle aged, “thirty-three/With two little boys sitting on my knee” and has come to know “how love is made,” but swoosh, suddenly, with the days having flown by “like a midnight train,” he looks down to see, not his sons, but his granddaughter Eliza Jade.
Turned around and I was thirty-three
With two little boys sitting on my knee,
And I realized how love is made.
The days flew by like a midnight train.
The years fell on me like the pouring rain.
Now I look down and see Eliza Jade.
The last stanza arrives like a melancholy last act, with “second guesses, another last chance, and one more shot.” Once again, the radio is playing, not “Street Fighting Man,” but “a brand new song” saying “the same old thing” but “still get[ting] it wrong.”
Second guesses are all I’ve got,
Another last chance and one more shot.
And how I got here I don’t even know.
The radio plays a brand new song.
It says the same old thing they still get wrong
Oh man, and so it goes.
And so it goes – a lifetime distilled into a handful of words.
I could go on about structure, how the number three is central to the architectonics – three six-line stanzas, three nine-line choruses, the narrator citing at one point his age is thirty-three, but you’d think I was overdoing it, and you’d be wrong. If it’s there, it’s there, whether the artist planned it or not. Making art is like dreaming, it comes from below, often surprising the artist him or herself.
By the way, George’s band Big Stoner Creek has a new album out. You can check it out HERE.
PS. Here’s an earlier rendition of stanza three and the concluding chorus: