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Try Writing Obscure Lyrics - On Purpose!

3:15 pm Songwriting

Do you remember the poem Jabberwocky, from “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”? The first verse goes like this:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Upon hearing the poem Alice declares, “Somehow it fills my head with ideas – only I don’t know exactly what they are!”

When I was in high school, I noticed that the student poems that won the prizes were not the ones about houses and trees and cars. The winning poems all had titles like “Purple Tangents” and lines about “the feral, livid hues of the banners of the blind” or some such imponderable image. I could never figure out what any of them meant, but I knew that they were Significant.

The Head Of the Mule

In later years, I came to enjoy the music of Bob Dylan and particularly his electric, enigmatic “Blonde On Blonde” album. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that some of the songs on that album, notably “Visions Of Johanna,” seemed to be kind of obscure and difficult to understand, in the old “Purple Tangents” manner. Here is one of the verses of “Johanna”:

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

Talk about filling your head with ideas but not knowing exactly what they are! Now, I’m not certain whether these are great lyrics or just a lot of images and ideas that it’s up to you to put together. But either way, wouldn’t it be kind of fun to put yourself into “Dylan mode” and just kind of free-associate a set of lyrics? You wouldn’t have to worry about whether they actually mean anything concrete, relying instead on the “infusion method,” whereby meaning is “infused” into vague but evocative lyrics during later analysis.

Somebody Told Me

I know this process can work, because I already tried it! Inspired by such Significant Dylan songs as “Visions Of Johanna” and “Desolation Row,” I came up with “Nobody Told Me” by throwing caution to the winds and writing down weird, off-the-wall stuff the way I imagined Dylan might do. Here’s the first verse:

Did you take your time to find out
What you really know?
Well you can write it down and someone might think to read it
But you never know
Leave it to the old man
Leave it to the cruel
Leave it to the acrobat
Not to play the fool
He knows he’s cool

A cool acrobat? I have no idea where that came from. I have to admit, I didn’t think all that much of my “Dylan” song until I played it for the smartest guy I know, a PhD-philosopher-academic fellow with hippie hair and a scraggly beard. He insisted on seeing the lyric sheet, and went on to marvel at the depth and subtlety of the images and ideas (while I’m going, “Uh, yeah, I guess…” a lot). We ended up dissecting the lyric in detail and we talked about it for several hours. By then, he had me convinced that it was a good song!

I realize that the depth of my friend’s reaction probably says more about him than the song, but maybe some deep people will hear your obscure song too! The point is that lyrics of the “fill your head with ideas” type are jolly fun to write and will appeal strongly to a certain kind of listener. Maybe yours! Why not give it a try? And don’t say nobody told you.

(As always, please enable popups for this site if the mp3 player does not appear, or just click the mp3 link to listen.)

Nobody Told Me (Bendig) (mp3, chords, lyrics)
Mark Bendig - all parts
(Recorded in March 1982)

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2 Responses
  1. Ash :

    Date: November 8, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

    Hey this is cool website. My lyrics aren’t overly obscure, but they have a controversial touch. Would love your opinion on them. See them at my above website. Cheers.

  2. Pondrin :

    Date: July 18, 2012 @ 2:20 am

    Interesting tips. Have never thought of writing this on purpose. Will give it a try!

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