In one sense, no - they're incomplete without music. Lyrics are written for performance, backed by or woven into a wall of sound. On the silent page they are thin shadows, lacking the emotional force, the resonance and complexity, of the song they belong with.
But you could say the same of Shakespeare's plays. A good production brings the characters to life, and shows the big picture of the play's meaning more clearly than a thousand footnotes can. Yet we save Shakespeare's plays in books (which he never did), and savor them there. He crammed so much life and meaning into his plays that they can stand upon their words alone.
So which rock anthems stand up as poetry? Which songwriters also rate as poets? Leonard Cohen was an acclaimed poet before he ever wrote a song. Jim Morrison and Patti Smith started off writing poetry, before they thought to put music behind their words. Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson "America's greatest living poet". I have five dozen favorite lyricists, but I'd put Bob Dylan head and shoulders above the competition. If you disagree, that's fine - I hope you'll make your own case in the comments below. What song is timeless poetry to you? Please share some of its lyrics with us.
All the greatest songwriters share some of the craft of poets. They look beyond the obvious, seeking fresh visions, words and images to amaze us. They edit and shape their words carefully, for maximum meaning and impact. In the most poetic songs, not only are there no wasted words, but the lines reach beyond their surfaces: they tell a story, and they also strike our imagination, tolling echoes that ripple into our unconscious. Just as great poems do.
Here, to show how it's done, are the verses from Like a Rolling Stone:
Once upon a time you dressed so fineI said there were no wasted words in great songs, and yet, I just went through those lyrics to correct them - to add a word or two here, and subtract one there. So they would fit the song as Dylan sings it, which I link to above. Bob didn't sing them the way he wrote them on the page. He didn't improve them so much as fit them to the moment, the music, the rhythm and the flow. This is one of his great strengths as a singer - his sense of phrasing. He has a keen sense of rhythm. He also has a rich and subtle sense of emotion, and layers a lot of detail, a great deal of humanity, into his tales, as he sings them. His voice is an unconventional instrument, but it has much more tone to it than most listeners realize.
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About havin' to be scrounging your next meal . . .
You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
Nobody's ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you're gonna have to get used to it
You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say, "Would you like to make a deal?" . . .
You never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns
When they all did tricks for you
Never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal . . .
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're all drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you'd better take your diamond ring, you better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal . . .
Before he sings them, Dylan's lyrics on the page already carry a tumbling rhythm. He writes them so that it's hard even to say them without putting some music into them. They want to be sung, like many poems. Like Shakespeare, he absolutely owns the language. He has a huge vocabulary, of both words and images, and his stories always feel fresh (well, almost always - some of his deliberately folky or Christian songs seem strident now). He has a great command, not just of slang, but of voice: he usually writes from a character's viewpoint, and we recognize his characters and narrators from how they speak.
When Dylan wrote this song, he was absolutely on fire with inspiration. From 1964-66 he just grew from strength to strength. Dylan was selling records, wowing critics, and his ideas were changing the way the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Byrds and Motown wrote songs. He was, as British rock critics are fond of saying these days, in his Imperial Phase. In December of '64, the Righteous Brothers released You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'. DJs were so used to cookie-cutter three minute singles that Phil Spector listed the song's playing time as 3:05. It was actually 3:50, but Phil figured the DJs would either fade it out, or not play it, if they knew how long it was. Eight months later, Dylan brought out Like a Rolling Stone, which clocked in at more than 6 minutes. It was an audacious statement of intent: Show me every established boundary of pop, I'll overwhelm them all. Dylan and the Beatles were the first two rock bands to go on world tours. Dylan wrote the first double album in rock.
Dylan was already king for a second time. He'd been king of the folkies, and now he was king of the hipsters. But everyone wanted something from him, wanted a piece of him, and everyone expected something. People turned off his power when he went electric at Newport, and shouted "Judas" from the darkness at his concerts. And he certainly met every kind of poseur, flunky and hanger-on that travelled in the in-crowd. He was sick and tired of all the mindless bullshit he encountered, but at the same time he's a man full of fight, and being surrounded by enemies and leeches galvanized a ruthless determination in him.
For fifty years Dylan's been writing great songs, yet in these years he was exceptionally prolific, and sparkling with brilliance. This whole album is rich with rhymes and wordplay, and rolls forward like the rapids of a river. Look at just the first four lines of this song: he squeezes in time/fine/dime/prime, then call/doll/fall/all, and he rhymes didn't you with kiddin' you. He owned the language, and it danced at his command.
I never noticed, until I studied Like a Rolling Stone on the page, how tightly structured it is. Look at the verses, they each follow the same arc, the arc of the story. At the top of each verse, Miss Lonely is dressed so fine, or going to the finest school, or surrounded by servants, or thinking she's got it made. In each verse, illusions get ripped away and she's pulled down to street-level, and she hits the pavement harder each time.
If you read the lyrics to the album Highway 61 Revisited, you'll find that all nine songs, from this one which opens it, to the sweeping dirge that brings the curtain down, Desolation Row, they're all full of anger, bitterness and desolation. But when you listen to the album, it doesn't leave you lying in a bathtub with a straight-razor. There is all this darkness coursing through its veins, but it is part of a rich emotional palette with many other hues to it. And, when you listen, you hear the band having a rollicking good time, and that exuberance lifts it out of the darkness, so it doesn't get stuck.
In Like a Rolling Stone, Dylan transcends the darkness before you even get to the music - at least, it reads like that to me. There's very little hope or happiness here. But there is some bedrock of truth, some brutal faith in life itself. Miss Lonely has lost all her finery, and all her fairytales, but in the end she's shown that they were all useless, they just protected her from honest living.
When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to loseAt least she's finally reached a starting point. Perhaps, if she's forced to look at the real world, she can begin to become her own self.
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal . . .
So, back to the question we started with: Can Rock Lyrics be Poetry? What Song, or Songwriter, has lyrics that sing to you, even when you read them on the page? If you're moved to put some of your favorite lyrics in a comment below, that will certainly delight me. Or if you just want to name which artists write the best lyrics (or, alternatively, the worst), that would be peachy too.
Here are some other writers who I think touch the heavens, in their best work. There are many others I couldn't fit in the poll, like Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Kate Bush, Ian Curtis, Morrissey, Chuck D and Alex Turner. And even these brief lists give short shrift to all the great writers of the last twenty years, and to soul and rap. So, please educate me.
Finally, Happy Birthday Bob Dylan - you've changed the world, and made mine a better place.
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young