The revelation that Bob Dylan enlisted the help of a poet, Robert Hunter, to write lyrics for his forthcoming album ‘Together Through Life’, has been met with surprise. Surely if there’s a songwriter who doesn’t need his creativity jump-started, it’s Dylan – a man who once said he considered himself “a poet first, a songwriter second”.
But there are strong precedents for this. Some of the most fertile songwriting duos have included one non-musical partner. There’s always been a yin-yang relationship between words and music, logic and pure emotion. Famously, Burt Bacharach’s songs benefited enormously from the graceful, clear-eyed lyrics of Hal David.
Similarly, many of Springsteen’s best-known songs were arranged, if not actually penned, by his manager Jon Landau. It was Landau who heard an early demo of ‘Thunder Road’ and told Bruce to ditch several waffly verses and open the song with the line “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves”, thereby setting up one of the most vivid, cinematic album openings ever.
More frequently, though, songwriters simply plunder existing poems for lyrical inspiration. The Verve’s best song, ‘History’, closely mirrors William Blake’s ‘London’ – although it’s a version with all the political venom sucked out: Richard Ashcroft stops short of including the bit about soldiers’ blood running down the palace walls. It probably wouldn’t have sounded good on Radio 1.
Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous was braver: his track, ‘London’, reproduced Blake’s poem verbatim.
More recently, Ra Ra Riot’s single ‘Dying Is Fine’ harnessed lines from a typically oblique EE Cummings poem, transforming the knotty, fractured phrasing of the original into a song of exquisite beauty.
Bono, meanwhile, has always been fond of the pared-down poetry of the Book Of Psalms – the song ’40’ borrows heavily from, erm, Psalm 40. Brett Anderson, hoping to borrow some of the Romantic poets’ opium-doused opulence, nicked the arresting opening line from Byron’s ‘She Walks In Beauty Like The Night’ for the Suede track ‘Heroine’.
Admittedly, this approach doesn’t always work. When it came to writing lyrics for ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, Thom Yorke originally planned to take lines directly from ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (the Shakespeare play, not the Dire Straits track), but gave up. It didn’t sound right, didn’t scan – so he just referred elliptically to events from the play instead.
All of this, of course, is preferable to the reverse scenario: when songwriters try their hand at poetry. That’s always a hideous mistake, as anyone who’s ever laboured through Billy Corgan’s ‘Blinking With Fists’, or Ryan Adams’ ‘Infinity Blues’, will testify.
Then again, perhaps there’s a danger in drawing too much of a clear distinction between music and poetry. As Dylan himself pointed out in the liner notes of ‘The Freewheelin’…, on paper there is no difference: “Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem.”