Poets understand concision like a sixth sense. Journalists come to it by way of training. And from what little I know of flash fiction, it seems that writers in this sub-genre have it down as well.
The same goes for lyricists. According to biographer Barry Miles, the novelist William Burroughs spent time with Paul McCartney during the period when the Beatle was penning lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby.” Among the several things that Burroughs found impressive about the younger man, Miles recalls, was “the amount of narrative Paul was able to pack into just a few lines.” And it only takes a mindful, verse-by-verse reading to conclude that Burroughs’ admiration is well placed.
While I’ve never known the privilege of hanging out with the man myself, I confess that I too have long respected McCartney’s talent in this area. It is a skill worth cultivating, and I say this from the standpoint of self-reflection. As a writer whose work tends toward lengthier prose and creative nonfiction, I find that I often lose sight of the importance, indeed the opportunity, of economy. And I believe that lyricists can be effective mentors to their longer-winded colleagues, as the best of them are able to convey—in a song, a verse, or even in a single line—narrative passages which, for many of us, would require the space of a chapter or an entire manuscript.
Referring to the verse line that opens “Eleanor Rigby,” McCartney explains to Barry Miles how he came to interpret Eleanor’s act of picking up “rice in a church where a wedding has been,” and what it signifies about her and, by extension, about society writ large:
Those words just fell out like stream-of-consciousness stuff … but they started to set the tone of it all …. It’s a strange thing to do: most people leave the rice there, unless she’s a cleaner. So there’s the possibility she’s a cleaner, in the church, or is it a little more poignant than that? She might be some lonely spinster of this parish who’s not going to get a wedding, and that’s what I chose. So this became a song about lonely people.
Before I read this quote, my impression had always been that Eleanor gathers the rice because, being poor as well as lonely, she can’t keep up in terms of purchasing food for herself. But that is the magic of concentrated, compelling lyrics: we are practically invited to imagine, to create our own stories from the clues.
At least this is my experience. McCartney’s eccentric lines appeal to me specifically because they provoke my curiosity, prompting me to speculate over raisons d’être, and to wonder how things might have unfolded going forward. What, for example, do the children in “Penny Lane” find so amusing about the banker that they snigger behind his back? And why does this man refuse to wear a “mac”—short for “Macintosh,” a British term for a rain slicker—during a downpour? I would think a person as fastidious and conservative as a banker would carry one at all times, just in case. Very strange, indeed.
It is also strange, I find, that one of the more concise beginning-to-end tales that comes to mind is written by a man not known for crafting straightforward lyrics. The opening verse of Bob Dylan’s vituperative ballad, “Idiot Wind,” which appears on his 1974 album, Blood on the Tracks, stands apart from the rest of the song, both in terms of its subject matter and its economy of words. The unnamed, first-person narrator describes in conversational tone what appears to have been a violent, but ultimately lucrative, romantic encounter. Or did it happen at all? Sometimes the least complicated stories are the most deceiving:
Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick, but when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky
Among my favorite lyrical narratives is Paul Simon’s “My Little Town,” a song released in 1975. Retrospectively told, it is the story of a precocious young man living under the shadow of his father and chafing at what he considers the dreary, limiting prospects of life in an industrial community. The inhabitants of this unidentified American town are staid, patriotic, and tradition-bound. Religion is foundational, and nobody questions the notion that “God keeps his eye” on them all. Not surprisingly, hard work is the prevailing secular ethos, and people are so consumed with everyday struggles they fail to recognize the aesthetic wonders of the world around them.
“After it rains there’s a rainbow, and all of the colors are black,” the narrator complains in the bridge between verses. Then he adds for clarification:
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same
Back in my little town
During the second verse, Simon uses narrative to set both the physical and sociological elements of scene. His descriptions underscore the town’s blue-collar character and its clear-cut notions regarding matters such as gender roles. He even points to the irony that industry, the community’s mainstay, is effectively poisoning the local environment. Conveyed as a memory, though told in the present tense, the narrator recalls “coming home after school,”
Flying my bike past the gates
Of the factories
My mom doing the laundry
Hanging our shirts
In the dirty breeze
Up to this point, Simon, through the voice of his narrator, has provided the listener with powerful, unmistakable glimpses of setting—but no recognizable story. In the final verse, however, he gets to the heart of things. The first half of the verse is narrated in past tense, and it identifies the problem at hand—the sense of significance that eludes the young man:
In my little town
I never meant nothin’
I was just my father’s son
The temporal distance and sullen tone of this passage are in perfect juxtaposition with the remaining lines of the verse, where the narrator shifts abruptly into present tense, resulting in sort of rising action sequence in which he reveals his preparations:
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun
In these last two lines, Simon’s coupling of the kinetic verb “twitching” with the firearm simile lays bare the urgency of the young man’s predicament. This is not a simple case of adolescent wanderlust, or the age-appropriate desire to take the helm from one’s elders. It is out-and-out survival. If the young man should remain in this suffocating milieu, his aspirations will never come to pass. He will continue on as before: half-made, unindividuated—little more than his father’s son. Metaphorically, his life will have ended before it has the opportunity to truly begin.
So there is little choice in the matter, and only one solution: He must cut his ties and escape, “leaving nothing but the dead and dying” behind him.
While reading Many Years from Now, Barry Miles’ 1997 biography of Paul McCartney, I especially enjoyed the former Beatle’s recollections of evenings he spent during the mid-1960s, visiting the nightclubs and gambling casinos of “Swinging” London. For him, it was more than simple recreation—though it was certainly that too. Those nights out for him became information-gathering field trips. Like most creative people, McCartney was a people watcher and a careful listener.
“I would always imagine I was a writer,” he discloses to Miles—and here he isn’t referring to “writer” as being a songsmith, but rather a writer of prose.
I’ve always felt this to be a striking and bold admission on his part. Not only that, but it brings to mind a potential challenge for those of us who work with longer-form pieces. We too can turn the tables on ourselves, so to speak, in an effort to broaden our creative abilities—pretend as an exercise that our stories or scenes are lines of lyric, and then assign ourselves the task of rendering them more concise.
Of course, we’re not looking to transform story into song as an end product. But it would be instructive and beneficial to develop the skills that practitioners of this other form have mastered. Discovering the value of concision through the study and application of songwriting techniques can only help us to craft tighter, more impactful prose.