10 Songs About Writing

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Songwriters spend a great deal of time and energy composing songs about love and loss and regret and d-i-v-o-r-c-e and what prompted Billy Joe McAllister to jump off the Tallahatchee Bridge. All well and good. But how many songs are devoted to writing? Professions generally don't serve as the subject of music. ("Convoy" (trucking), "Casey Jones" (locomotive operation), and "Good Lovin'" (internal medicine) are the exceptions that prove the rule.) Still, I came up with more titles than I imagined I would. With one exception: I've steered clear of songs about songwriting. Maybe I just couldn't bring myself to include Barry Manilow's execrable "I Write the Songs". The songs I've chosen are ones that speak to us as writers; they're about the process of laying down words and the words' effect on the folks who read them.


 1. “The Letter,” the Box Tops.

What? You’ve never heard of this song or this band? Sure you have:  "Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane! I ain't got time to take a fast train! Lonely days are gone – I'm a-goin' home – 'cause my baby just wrote me a letter." The Box Tops weren’t exactly a one-hit wonder – their “Cry Like a Baby” is almost as familiar as “The Letter” – but they achieved their greatest success on the pop charts with this demonstrably sing-in-the-showerable tune. (Try it. You’ll thank me.) It’s about the invincible power of writing, the majesty and authority of the written word. It tells of a love that’s proven only by setting it into words – putting into written language the passion, the life-changing thrust of the heart. It’s what we do.

 

2. “Paperback Writer,” the Beatles.

Like every Beatles song, this one’s sheer familiarity may lull you into taking it for granted. Ho hum, another classic. Yeah, the Fab Four. Geniuses. Whatever. But take a fresh listen: Who writes songs about aspiring novelists? And the novel is actually good – trashy perhaps, but certainly marketable and really not all that bad in terms of storyline. If only I had the knack: “It's a dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn't understand….” So far, so Lolita. Then: “It's a thousand pages, give or take a few - I'll be writing more in a week or two….” Hearing this as someone who actually had the nerve to turn in a 1,000-page-plus manuscript (yeah, yeah, they cut it down to a manageable size in the end, they were right, blah blah blah), my only gripe is this: the author is a fool for offering to settle for an initial paperback deal. Everybody knows there’s more buck for the bang in hardback sales. At least there used to be. And “E-book Writer” doesn’t have the same je ne sais quoi.

 

3. “The Wrote and the Writ,” Johnny Flynn.

An English folk-rocker, Flynn offers a painful rebuke to those of us who find it more comfortable to put our emotions at one remove by inscribing them on paper. Flynn’s song haunts me, because I know he’s got a damn good point: “If you're born with a love for the wrote and the writ, people of letters your warning stands clear: pay heed to your heart and not to your wit; don't say in a letter what you can't in my ear.” I feel guilty already.  

 

4. “Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen.

I was indifferent to Springsteen before this song was released in 1984 on the Born in the USA album. I thought – erroneously, I now acknowledge – that he was an overblown, undertalented Dylan with more photogenic biceps and a grotesquely symphonic band meant to distract us all from the mediocrity of the singer and his songs. But then I heard this one and realized not only that it was a wicked good song but that Springsteen was singing to me directly and with acute empathy: this song is specifically about the frustration and pent-up rage of one particular young freelance writer in 1984. No, seriously. The Boss obviously wrote the song for me, Ed Sikov, as I vainly and ingloriously punched the keys in a dark, cramped room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, knowing that I was better than the fate I seemed stuck with, ferociously itching to spark a match and set the world on fire: “I'm dying for some action! I'm sick of sitting 'round here trying to write this book….” What’s that, you say? You feel the same burning urge? No, you’re wrong. The song’s about me. Ask Springsteen. He’ll tell you. Really.

 

5. “I Be Bound to Write to You,” Muddy Waters.

This 1942 song is the purest of blues – the words are all but meaningless, if you confine the word meaning to the routine level of signifying anything other than tone, pitch, and vibration. Waters’ lyrics mean those indefinable, purely aural things. Ironically, though, the only recognizable words are write to you. To me, this song both affirms and damns meaning, a contradiction I face every working day. But my morbid musings are like dust compared to Muddy’s, well, mud. His shit sticks to your shoes. It’s wet and filthy and appealing. It’s blue.

 

6. “Party for the Fight to Write,” Atmosphere.

The great Minneapolis alt hip hop band, led by the amusingly named Slug, turned out this danceable tune in 2001, the chorus of which goes: “And he said some got pencils and some got guns, some know how to stand and some of them run; we don't get along, but we sing the same song – party for the fight to write, and write on.” Slug gets it. It’s a fight, alright – the fight to write. We lick each slight, and some editors bite, but the fight is right. We fight and write on.

 

7. “The Book of Love,” the Monotones.

This classic doo-wop hit from 1957 has a charming upbeat quality, but it’s actually about a disastrous affair. “Chapter one, says the lover, you love her with all your heart; chapter two you tell her you never, never, never, never, ever want to part.” That's your first mistake, bud. “In chapter three remember the meaning of romance. In chapter four you break up” – as far as I’m concerned, this should have been the end of it – “but you give her just one more chance….” That's your second mistake, and it's a drastic one. At this point all you can do is blame the author responsible for the horror show known as fierce attraction: “I wonder wonder who – buh do! – who wrote the book of love?” My guess is somebody even more misanthropic than I am.

 

8. “When I Write the Book,” Nick Lowe.

From the guy who penned the immortal “Marie Prevost” (“she was a winner, but she became a doggie’s dinner – she never meant that much to me”) comes this simple but catchy tune about the urge to turn middle aged regret into a bestseller. It’s oddly optimistic coming from Nick Lowe. Delusional may be more to the point: “And when I write the book about my love, it’ll be a heartbreaking story about love and luck. When I get down on the pages all I felt, it will make the hardest-hearted of critics hearts melt.” Sure, Nick. Yeah, right. Hate to break it to you, man, but you’ll probably just become another doggie’s dinner.

 

9. “Everyday I Write the Book,” Elvis Costello.

Would that we could all turn our most wretched relationships into such pithy, punch-to-the-gut basics: “Chapter 1 - we didn't really get along; Chapter 2 - I think I fell in love with you. You said you'd stand by me in the middle of Chapter 3, but you were up to your old tricks in Chapters 4, 5, and 6….” What makes Costello’s song so bruisingly poignant to writers is that it not only describes (fill in name of ex-boyfriend/girlfriend here – the song’s story is essentially essential – in another word, universal), but it distils, seemingly effortlessly, a good, absorbing fiction about a rotten romance. Costello’s plot is simple and brilliant: he provides incontrovertible evidence of the sad, inevitable denouement in the first chapter, does an about-face by hinting that it’s screwball love in the second (how many ‘30s and ‘40s film comedies are about bickering couples who can’t live without each other?), and then socks it to the reader with a protracted elaboration of why the narrator was right in the first place. But Elvis! Who writes every day?

 

10. “Rewrite,” Paul Simon.

His book just isn’t working for the broken Vietnam vet who serves as Simon’s narrator in this disturbing song from 2011. Our guy is slaving away at a carwash, but he’s got dreams of a literary future. And he knows what all too few writers know: God is in the rewrite: “I'll eliminate the pages where the father has a breakdown, and he has to leave the family, but he really meant no harm. Gonna substitute a car chase and a race across the rooftops when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.” I see a movie deal. On the first day of principal photography he’ll get his first big payout and that stinkin’ carwash will be history.

Oh. I guess we’re meant to see this as a demented dream. Now I’m bummed.


A few extras that, for whatever reason, failed to make the list are Kenny Chesney's "Hemingway's Whiskey" and Stereophonics' "Mr. Writer," both of which are more about writers than writing; Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words"; and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Love Letter." Which of your favorites have I left out?

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Comments

Yossarian22's picture
Yossarian22 from Belfast, Ireland is reading Geek Love January 3, 2013 - 1:01pm

Nick Cave - We Call Upon The Author To Explain - is my favorite

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus January 3, 2013 - 1:09pm

Great pick, Yossarian22!

"He said everything is messed up around here, everything is banal and jejune
There is a planetary conspiracy against the likes of you and me in this idiot constituency of the moon
Well, he knew exactly who to blame
And we call upon the author to explain."

--Ed

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill January 3, 2013 - 1:14pm

Great column.

There's a really cheesy song by The Bangles that I used to love when I was little because of the lyrics: "I wanna write a novel, freeze all your expressions into words, come back later and read about what I should've heard."

And Soul Coughing's "Screenwriter's Blues" is still one of my favorite songs: "I am going to Los Angeles to build a screenplay about lovers who murder each other. I am going to Los Angeles to see my own name on a screen, five feet long and luminous."

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus January 3, 2013 - 1:16pm

Good ones, Kimber - though I must say that the phrase "cheesy song by the Bangles" is redundant.

--Ed

Steve Weddle's picture
Steve Weddle January 3, 2013 - 1:22pm

Lloyd Cole's 'Writers Retreat" -- even with the Rod Stewart riff and the missing apostrophe 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqV2seWTavk

 

When you get back from the writers retreat
I won't be waiting
When you head out to the shack in the woods
I won't be there
I won't be lying beside your pool
I won't be watching the world turn blue because
I'm already gone

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus January 3, 2013 - 1:24pm

Gee, Steve - That Lloyd Cole is a barrel of laughs.

--Ed

Aleksandra Basińska's picture
Aleksandra Basińska January 3, 2013 - 3:30pm

Cemetery Gates by the Smiths!

Ghostword's picture
Ghostword from Cornwall is reading The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2013 edited by Paula Guran January 3, 2013 - 3:34pm

"There she Goes, My Beautful World' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

 

Paul D. Brazill's picture
Paul D. Brazill from Hartlepool, England. is reading The Posthumous Man by Jake Hinkson. January 3, 2013 - 3:42pm

I'm going to shoehorn in one from my old mate Richard Sanderson. This is Quill.

http://richardsanderson.bandcamp.com/track/quill

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus January 3, 2013 - 4:59pm

Great picks all!

 

--Ed

Lou's picture
Lou from AMERIKUH is reading Trainspotting January 3, 2013 - 5:11pm

I'm glad that Paul Simon got on here. Actually, Cecilia and Keep the Customer Satisfied by Simon and Garfunkel are both about writing too, and I'm sure there are more...

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading Down and Out in Paris and London January 3, 2013 - 6:50pm

I love this list. I've never heard some of these songs and realize I've been missing out.

"One Song Glory" from RENT is about having writer's block and the inability to find the right words for a song. Not exactly about novels, but I think the sentiment expressed can be applied to writing a story as well. I used to call my writer's block "Roger's Block", because of that song :)

I also like Belle & Sebastian's "Wrapped up in Books". Super cute song as a whole, but my favorite lyrics from the song are: "I wish I had two paths I could follow, I’d write the ending without any sorrow. I will say a prayer just while you are sitting there and I will wrap my hands around you 'cause I know it will be fine. We've got a fantasy affair, we didn’t get wet, we didn’t dare. Our aspirations wrapped up in books, our inclinations are hidden in looks".

Not sure if either of these fit very well, but I love them.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie January 3, 2013 - 7:16pm

"I Typed for miles," by Jets to Brazil

"Leave me here to my devices/ I need a word to change my life."

David Kanoy's picture
David Kanoy January 3, 2013 - 10:01pm

"Song for Whomever" by Welcome to the Beautiful South.

writercrossing's picture
writercrossing January 3, 2013 - 10:59pm

The Decemberists: Engine Driver
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HG1FlsgLQQY

"And I am a writer, writer of fiction,
I am the heart that you call home.
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones."

One of my favorite songs!

And I know this is a pop song, but it is about writing... well, writer's block and the future - even if it a metaphor for life.

Natasha Bedingfield: Unwritten
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7k0a5hYnSI

"I'm just beginning, the pen's in my hand, ending unplanned.
Staring at the blank page before you,
Open up the dirty window,
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find."

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus January 4, 2013 - 1:48am

Well, the penis is in my hand, ending very well planned.

Meanwhile: somebody help me out: "Cecilia" is about writing? I evidently missed the point.

--Ed

writercrossing's picture
writercrossing January 4, 2013 - 2:44am

The what is in your hand? Ahem. Yes. Writing is a very... private... activity. As for "Cecilia," the lyrics don't seem to be about writing - but now I get to go youtube it.

writercrossing's picture
writercrossing January 4, 2013 - 2:46am

Youtube explained it! Cecilia might stand for St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music - and it might be about the uncertainty of songwriting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5_QV97eYqM

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading LOCAL SOULS by Allan Gurganus January 4, 2013 - 3:36am

St. Cecilia, eh? Well, as Charlie Brown once said of the cloud patterns Linus saw great significance in, "I was going to say a duckie and a horsie but I changed my mind."

--Ed

Keith Kennedy's picture
Keith Kennedy April 7, 2014 - 2:09am

Love #6. The theme of "writers never die" sparked the intro and outro of what I believe to be a top-10 worthy writing song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkG1Z5YuUxE -Write Away by Outsighters