Skip to content →

Good bad songs

The taxi driver the other day was tuned to a station playing Maggie May from the Seventies. When I came home I downloaded it from iTunes and listened to it again and it kept going through my head for days. But something kept bothering me.

Most of the lyrics are really uncontrived; they read like conversation. For example, the opening words:

“Wake up Maggie I think I got something to say to you

It’s late september and I really should be back at school”

or

“The morning sun when its in your face really shows your age

But that don’t worry me none, in my eyes you’re everything”

But then, suddenly, he sings:

“I laughed at all of your jokes, my love you didn’t need to coax”

and that awkward inversion of subject and object to force the rhyme really throws you off.

I’d be tempted to give a prize to someone who makes that line more natural. Nevertheless, the song transcends the forced rhyme; it’s a *good* bad song in the sense that Orwell called Kipling a good bad poet.

This reminds of another song in that category: Nick Cave’s ‘Rock of Gibraltar.’ The tune is repetitive, almost like a hack folk song, The lyrics have predictable rhymes: alter, altar, falter, Gibraltar, Malta. By all accounts it should be a trite song, and it is a little. But somehow he infuses it with some sort of intensity that makes it work. Even when he sings about taking her on honeymoon on a “trip to Malta,” which should come across as forced and laughable, he makes Malta sound like some mythical Shangri-la — maybe it sounds that way because of Pynchon’s ‘V’ for Valetta in Malta — and hence it’s OK. It’s strange.

If you want to see amazingly unintrusive natural rhyme, look at Vikram Seth’s novel in verse, The Golden Gate, 690 consecutive sonnets (says Amazon — I didn’t count), a la Pushkin’s rhyming structure a-b-a-b-c-c-d-d-e-f-f-e-g-g, inspired by Eugene Onegin.

Here is the inside back cover of the book, with information About the Author:

The author, Vikram Seth, directed By Anne Freedgood, his editor, to draft a vita, has selected the following salient facts for her: In ’52, born in Calcutta. 8lb. 1oz. Was heard to utter first rhymes (“cat, “mat”) at age of three. A student of demography and economics, he has written ‘From Heaven Lake’, a travel book based on a journey he once took through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten at last by wanderlust and rhyme, he keeps Pacific Standard Time.

Could you tell that that’s a sonnet? It’s printed as:

The author, Vikram Seth, directed

By Anne Freedgood, his editor,

To draft a vita, has selected

The following salient facts for her:

In ’52, born in Calcutta.

8lb. 1oz. Was heard to utter

First rhymes (“cat, “mat”) at age of three.

A student of demography

and economics, he has written

‘From Heaven Lake’, a travel book

Based on a journey he once took

Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Unbitten

At last by wanderlust and rhyme,

He keeps Pacific Standard Time.

Published in blog