My Top Ten Favorite Lyrics (Or, What’s Left Behind To Shoulder Grows Weightless)
In what has become a presumably tiresome refrain amongst my musician friends, I’ve said more than once of late that I’m not sure I’ll ever release another album.
Sure, I’m releasing my Live From Rockwood Music Hall LP on November 19th.
And yeah, I have plans for a big live recording of my “greatest hits” on/around my 40th birthday (still three solid years off).
And of course there’s the full-on box set and tribute album that I’ve asked Abbi to organize upon my death (Imagine: Casey Shea singing “Hollywood Arms,” Chris Abad singing “The Rest Of Your Life,” Jamie Leonhart singing “Carmelize.” Awesome.)
But that’s just what Morrissey characterizes as “Repackage, reissue, repurpose.”
No, what I mean is that — these days, anyway — I’m figurin’ it’s unlikely that I’ll ever crank out another recording of ten or twelve new songs.
See, my guitars are in the closet. ProTools is in a box of patch chords, cables and mics under my bed. And worse, I’m really quite happy which is great for me, but bad for songwriting; nothing inspires like depression.
For a period there between maybe 1999-2005, I was tossing off songs like afterthoughts. The really solid run began with Summer’s Gone and ended with “The Last Time.” I count 53 officially-released songs over six CDs, to say nothing of my two b-side collections (Besides Volumes I & II), or dozens of demos made available on this site.
As I listen back to these albums while heading southbound towards home on Amtrak #153, I hear a pretty decent body of work. And frankly, I kinda’ wonder why I didn’t blow up more than I did. (Though, like I told a kid after my CMJ panel the other day, whatever you do forty hours a week is probably what you’re gonna’ end up being.)
There’s some good stuff here, melodies, vocal performances, and turns of phrase that surprise even me.
Musically, a ton of credit goes to Kevin Anthony for recording two of my best LPs, “Almost Home” and “Love & Other Indoor Games,” not to mention for teaching me how to use ProTools — a gift that has enabled a far longer, far more productive creative arch.
And a ton of credit has to go to some key collaborators, especially Tony Maceli, Chris Abad, Jason Walsmith and Mike Butterworth, all of whom have contributed inspiration, ideas, advice, support, and time.
Anyway, I’m not dying or winning an award, I’m just riding on a train listening to some songs. Here, then — if you’ll indulge me — are my top ten favorite lyrics, why I’m proud of ’em, and what they mean to me.
“You run because there’s no place to go” (from “Intent On St. Paul” from Almost Home) – I’m not sure what I meant by the line, even within the context of the song (something, I imagine, about an ambivalent, daydreaming waitress’ big city desires). Since every author is his characters (just as every dreamer is his dreams), though, I always think of it in the context of my actual running loops and loops and loops around Manhattan, but not actually going anywhere. Plus, it reminds me of all the times I ran away from a relationship because it was doomed, or, well, I was ambivalent (which is pretty much what the protagonist of the song is doing).
“I shiver to keep myself warm / I shiver to keep myself strong” (from “Shiver” on Almost Home) – I wrote this song in about fifteen minutes one gray, foggy Nantucket morning. I was just rhyming, and singing about the nature of suffering (ie: “That which does not kills me makes me stronger”). Fact is, shivering is one’s body’s attempt to stay warm. So it was penny ante poetry and strict truth all in one. Cool.
“Give away all your love for nothing / Find a place where milk and honey flow / And only we know” (from “Milk & Honey” on Heartland) – I struggled with finding a decent rhyme for “milk and honey,” and while “love for nothing” isn’t perfect, it’s dead on in terms of sentiment. That journey — finding in one’s self the ability to love unconditionally — is the narrative arc of the album. I find the song unflaggingly romantic, and think it was the beginning of the mindset that led to being ready to meet, fall in love, and marry Abbi.
“The air grows heavy with light.” (from “Angels In The Atmosphere” on The Desert Star EP) – This is one of five songs written over a long weekend in Palm Springs. This little passage pretty cool play on words that, if you surrender the meaning of “air,” “heavy,” and “light” to their various synonyms and antonyms, actually makes some sense.
“Halfway between the moon and me / Gravity gives up the sky” (from “How To Be Alone” on The Invention Of Everything Else) – For years, the lyrics on the demo were “Halfway benween the stars and me / Angels and kings collide.” Didn’t make sense, didn’t mean much, and borrowed from a previously-released chorus(“Christmas, 1980”). The creative conceit of the song is “Major Tom, Part III.” That is, I was imagining homecoming as a metaphor through the lens of a depressed astronaut, a guy whose career pinacle had passed. He’s utterly without mooring, or gravity. So when, after weeks of puzzling, the chorus came to me, I knew I had it.
“I don’t wanna’ live forever, I just wanna’ know / That there is something better than a rock ‘n roll show” (from “Live Forever” on Love & Other Indoor Games) – In a way, “Live Forever” is a big, dumb rock song. But it’s also perhaps the simplest, deepest, and clearest articulation of my most basic struggle. Who am I? What am I here for? It’s all in this line.
“I’m writing it down to begin to get you from under my skin / Yes I’m writing it down line by line, to love you or leave you behind” (from “Out Of Time” on The Invention Of Everything Else) – The rhythmic, repetitve phrasing thing going on in this song just came to me. To me, it’s kind of an Elvis move, though I didn’t intend anything, it just happened. The song is sort of like “Summer’s Gone, Part II” where our protagonist is trying to show someone just how much he means what he’s saying. I love the adolescent idea that, somehow, spray-painted graffiti on an overpass is the penultimate expression of that love.
“Hold your breath and you begin to breath / Close you eyes and start to see” (from “Giving Up The Ghost” on The Invention Of Everything Else) – This song may not have seen the light of day without this phrase. I had the music, chorus and concept long before the verses, and though I’m not nuts about the first half of the verses, I love this phrase. To me, the two lines capture the paradox of letting go. Great things can happen when you surrender to their eventuality.
“The New York City skyline is a thousand shattered diamonds / All scattered but still shining / In the early light of day” (from “New York” on Almost Home) – This is a powerful image for me, one informed by dozens of sunrise rides from JFK, and peppered with the dichotomous nature of the city: rich and poor, beautifully filthy, populous but isolating.
“What’s left behind to shoulder grows weightless; you get used to it” (from “Dear Elizabeth” on Crash Site) – This is my favorite. And, like all of the above, it came to me out of nowhere with no idea what it meant. Like many of my songs, “Dear Elizabeth” wrestles with letting go the burden of one’s past. This, to me, remains a poetic turn of phrase to that end. One that serves me still.
The first drafts of most of the songs sit in a box of letters, journals and notebooks somewhere. The ink is faded. The pages are frayed.
And while I used to imagine those pages in a display at The Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame” or my own, private Graceland, these days, I imagine my kids or grandkids flipping though everything, having a listen on whatever sort of device they listen to in the future (wifi chip implants?), and piecing together my life one clue — and one roll of the eyes — at a time.
What about you? Have a favorite Benjamin Wagner lyric? Do tell.