For good songs, the lyrics are where it’s at

Published 8:50 am Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Annually finishing runner-up on my list of ideas for New Year’s resolutions is learning to play the guitar. A distant second, albeit.

A plan to shed 50 pounds by my October birthday is so much simpler to give up on. I successfully relinquished that resolution again this year by mid-January. And with that, I start another guilt-free, belt-busting 11 1/2 months.

The other beautiful thing about the weight resolution is I can cut and paste from year to year, simply changing the number (40 two years ago, 50 this year, 60 next year).

Email newsletter signup

The other barrier I put up to learning the guitar is one my parents created for me. They told me if I wanted to learn to play guitar I first had to learn how to play piano. I wasn’t willing, possibly because submitting to my parents’ wishes would have interrupted my teenage certainty that I was smarter than they.

Now that I’m old enough to see their wisdom, but also to choose my own destiny, I still stop short each year of committing to learning to play guitar. And it’s only partly due to my fingers being stubbier than your average breakfast sausage. It has more to do with my fascination with the other part of music: the lyrics. The words.

There is some irony in this, as I am notorious for singing the wrong lyrics. To save myself the embarrassment, I tell my wife when we’re singing in the car that I changed the lyrics just to be cool, but the truth is I thought I was singing the right lyrics. (Good thing she doesn’t read this column. Reader, can I trust you’ll keep this between you and me?)

If I do ever learn to play guitar, I won’t strum many chords from the songs you hear on the radio. I would want to write my own songs. I would want to write songs that make a difference. Songs that matter.

Not that there’s anything wrong with love songs. Hey, my favorite song right now is a love song, one I discovered while watching a movie recently. If you haven’t heard Donovan’s 1965 song “Catch the Wind” then you haven’t heard the most beautiful, simple song of all time. And it’s about nothing more than a guy realizing his chances of success with the girl he loves are less likely than catching the wind.

Like anyone who can multi-task, I truly admire musicians who can take their poetry and attach it to guitar strums. Throw in the ability to play the harmonica among all that, and I’m truly sold. But still the one ingredient that’ll keep me coming back is a meaningful lyric. It always comes back to that. I attended an Indigo Girls concert last week. Great example of a duo writing and singing songs full of meaning. For example, from the Indigo Girls’ song “Closer To Fine”:

Now darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable

And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear

I wrap my fear around me like a blanket

I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it

I’m crawling on your shores

First, anyone who can work the word “insatiable” into a song is worthy of praise. Second, it uses great concrete imagery, such as wrapping up in a blanket and the sailing ship. Also, wonderful contrast of lightness and darkness. Lastly, this song acts as a pleasant reminder there’s no definitive recipe for how to make yourself feel good. Only you can decide what is most healthy and fine for you.

Granted, it’s not the lyrics that usually draw you into a song, but it’s the lyrics that decide whether it’s a keeper or one to throw back after a short admiration period. Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” is a passing fancy in my life, but the song currently following it on my iPod is anything but. It is titled “Society,” and is part of the “Into The Wild” movie soundtrack. Eddie Vedder sings it.

In fact, he sang every song on that CD, and wrote or co-wrote many of them, although he didn’t write “Society.” I remember being disappointed when I found out he didn’t write it, as I think highly of his work. He sings for the right reasons and is giving of his time and money.

“Society” has a couple lyrical gems. Here’s one:

It’s a mystery to me

We have a greed,

With which we have agreed.

Pay close attention. Notice the space between the A and the G in the second line. Beautiful. Coupled with Vedder’s chilling baritone voice it may be as powerful a lyric as I’m familiar. Another great line a bit later in the same song:

There’s those thinking, more or less, less is more,

But if less is more, how you’re keeping score?

That’s a simple but powerful reminder of the ills of competition. I am a sports coach, so I value competition, but I also see its misguidings, including the hero worship we create for professional athletes. As I write this column I look around at all the junk in my room. Why do I have so many things? Is it for scorekeeping purposes?

There’s a musician I know in Albert Lea who lives the closest thing I know to a simple life, one with few possessions and seemingly without a material possessions scorecard. Not only that, but he’s a talented musician.

His name is Jeshua Erickson, although I think these days writing songs is milling around somewhere deep in the nether regions of his brain. He’s got a baby and a job and a disc golf hobby and a chess hobby and is a great distance-running mentor to high school runners each spring and fall. But he has made great music in the past. You can check it out at

My favorite lyric from his CD, from a song about waiting at a bus stop and the passage of time:

We wait for days, they come like weeks

And the weeks they come like years

And everything that passes is like seconds on my watch

What we have, who we are, is here and then it’s gone

We tell it in our stories and we sing it in our songs

And the chorus:

We talk about life in Zimbabwe, what was a buck ain’t worth a dime

Well, there is no turning back, my friend, from the eventuals of time

Yes, sir, the eventuals of time. That reminds me, I need to stick to New Year’s resolution No. 1 so I can live long enough to reach that runner-up. Maybe Jeshua can teach me a thing or two about strumming the guitar, and maybe just to honor my parents’ long-ago wishes, I’ll ask him to explain a few bars on the piano, too.

Albert Lea resident Riley Worth is a teacher at Albert Lea High School. He can be reached at