Columns > Published on January 3rd, 2013

10 Songs About Writing

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?

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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