Back when I was still playing around with what kind of blog I was looking to write, and fancying part of myself a frustrated successor to Lester Bangs, I did a pretty comprehensive review of The Verve’s Urban Hymns album, which you can read here. That of course was a clinical discussion of the music’s technical merits with little space given to personal reflection. What I didn’t get into was how that album and this song in particular clobbered me out of a fog of complacency like an electric sledgehammer in 1997.
After my mother succumbed to cancer in the early spring of 1995, leaving my sister and I orphaned teenagers, I spent months trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was going to do now. A little more on this “lost weekend” period when we get to the “O” song in a few weeks, but suffice to say it was months spent reeling, wallowing, sinking into a mire out of which I had no desire to climb, while faking a smile for the cameras and for the benefit of friends and family I did not want to see me as an inconsolable basket case. I hid away in my garret of an apartment and wrote screenplays. They were formless, profanity-heavy treatises of obvious anger and guilt, the only way I knew how to process the turmoil in my brain and the rift in my heart. From the comfortable perch of twenty years’ distance I can laugh at them as examples of Graham’s Emo Period, to be sequestered forever in the Vault of Bad Ideas, but back then they were my lifeline, as was the non-Internet capable computer I was writing them on. If nothing else, they helped me become a much faster typist, as my fingers had to learn to keep up with the gushing wellspring of angst.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as Verve fans know, is layered on a sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” I heard it for the first time while visiting my sister up at her university one weekend. Having only a few soundtrack CD’s in my collection at the time, relying too much on a shoebox full of old mixtapes and being somewhat phobic of the radio, I wasn’t hearing much that was new, or, at least, non-orchestral. But like so many others I was arrested instantly by the bold, melancholy string motif that introduces the song in a gentle crescendo, building to the moment Richard Ashcroft opens his mouth and lets the words pour out in a soulful torrent. His first message isn’t terribly enlightened, or optimistic for that matter: “Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die.” Indeed, I’ve read more than one review that has dismissed the lyrics as trite. But as the strings continue to bow, the drums pound and the song evolves toward its multi-tracked vocal coda, something clicks. As does the now-infamous music video, featuring the sullen Ashcroft walking a London street, so single-minded of purpose and destination he bumps into everyone he passes and ignores the young woman he flattens.
Being “a million different people from one day to the next” is rather what is expected of us in what can often be a bittersweet life, isn’t it. Be the husband, the father, the best friend, the professional, the stranger, the lover, the fighter, the poet, the misanthrope, the shoulder, the cold shoulder. Somewhere in that mass of contradictions, the cacophonous throng of a million different people, we find the truth of who we are, and it shifts like sand beneath our feet blown by the west wind. In 1997, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was proclaimed an anthem, and for me, it still is. I could recognize that although the place I was in was dark, it was not eternal, and that at some point the skies would lighten and the dawn would break, because there is that next day, and the opportunity to be another of the million different people – a better one.
Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel. The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea. Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.
I get it. It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia. Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it. There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience. It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.
In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback. I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips: “So, what did you think?” I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.” I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings. But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right. And his most germane suggestion, while wounding toanyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction. Paraphrased, it was simply this:
“Cut the pop culture references.”
Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before. And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum. Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer. Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:
1. It dates you
And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either. Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks. Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves. I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming. Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad. (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.) You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.
2. It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it
In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway). A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it. If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)
3. It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative
Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own. Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting: you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote. And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating. If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards? You should never abdicate the chance to be creative. If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show? I’ll get you started: every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot. “FADE IN: INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right. CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’” Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.
4. It’s giving away free advertising
I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention. And we writers are serious bear huggers. We don’t want to let you go. We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate. We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase. Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns? Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need. Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond. Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would. (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love. I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.” Spew.) If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”? Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.
5. And it will probably cost you
So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work. Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours? And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song. If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition. It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song. The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction. Here’s a much better thought: Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics. Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).
Having said all that, let’s make it about me again. Does any of this apply to my novel? Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh! Desperate Housewives reference!) That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home. I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them. I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles. Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive. So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order. But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.
The moral? Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans. It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.
This is a bit of old news, but I felt it worth discussing for two reasons – one, I just found it, and two, it involves one of my favorite writers. The gist of the matter is that Aaron Sorkin, in delivering the commencement address to Syracuse University several weeks ago, (horrors!) re-used some familiar material. Namely, he cribbed from an address he’d given to the same school fifteen years earlier, and threw in a few lines from The West Wing for good measure. This isn’t the first time he’s been singled out for recycling his best lines; astute fans of his work can recognize singular phrases lifted almost verbatim one from the other, or even a particular rhythm to chunks of dialogue. (As you know, I’ve had a little fun here mimicking it.) Occasionally, and unfairly, it’s been used by critics to undermine his arguments, as in the case of his acid-tongued rebuttal to Sarah Palin following an episode of her reality show in which she shot a moose on camera – detractors fixated on the fact that the phrase “bringing the right together with the far right” was a lift from the fourth season West Wing episode “Game On,” and missed Sorkin’s overall point. In a way, it’s somewhat symbolic of how ideas get lost in a sea of nitpicking over minutiae; in the same way that some feel a person’s past mistakes, no matter how trivial, can utterly disqualify them from ever holding higher office.
No one can dispute that Aaron Sorkin’s is a unique voice. He has been able to tap into the power of words to create stories and characters that have inspired millions of people. In an environment where posting a video of yourself throwing up on YouTube can lead to a reality show and a book deal, Sorkin is that rarest of creatures – a man who has achieved fame not for his looks or indeed anything particular about his personality, but for how he strings words together. The ranks of true celebrity writers are thin (that is, celebrities who weren’t famous for something else before their book), and apart from Stephen King there are few whose celebrity endures. Most aren’t comfortable with the spotlight, and those out there who are writing solely because they want to end up on magazine covers soon discover they’d have better luck getting there with the aforementioned YouTube projectile vomiting. Sorkin’s fame comes entirely from the quality of his body of work, and his conscious choice throughout his career to raise the bar instead of lowering it for cheap ratings and quick cash. People respond to that.
Guilty pleasures aside, there is indeed a substantial element of the population that enjoys being challenged, being asked to think about things differently, to question their assumptions and debate issues without descending into name-calling. The West Wing ran for seven years in the toxic political climate of the second Bush era, and was a lasting tribute to the virtue of public service in a time when cynicism about government’s ability to do anything was spiking (and sadly, continues to rise long after the show has ended). People latched on to the words coming out of Sorkin’s characters’ mouths; they wanted to speak with the kind of conviction and intelligence found in idealized creations like Sam Seaborn and Josiah Bartlet, and with the well-informed smartassery of Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman. In person, Aaron Sorkin probably isn’t as quick and sharp-witted as he is with the benefit of a keyboard and a delete key. But what comes out of that keyboard is as much his personality as the walking-and-talking version of the man. It’s his style. It’s what people expect of him, and what every single person in that audience at Syracuse who knew who Aaron Sorkin was was expecting to hear.
The expectations in seeing a star like Aaron Sorkin speak – and he is a star, make no mistake – are no different than going to your favorite band’s latest concert tour. You know they’re going to devote the lion’s share of the setlist to the new album they’re trying to promote, but you’ll be damn well disappointed if you don’t hear a couple of their biggest hits. Richard Ashcroft continues to close every one of his concerts with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” even though The Verve have been broken up now for several years. You’d feel cheated if you went to see Paul McCartney and didn’t hear a single Beatles song. Hell, you’d probably feel cheated if you paid to see Justin Bieber and didn’t hear “Baby.” Why shouldn’t Aaron Sorkin play to his audience in the same way? Indeed, a few of the familiar lines in the commencement speech are clearly sentiments he believes in very strongly – decisions are made by those who show up, and never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. These are good and important things to remind graduates about to step into a world that claims to value hard work and responsibility but instead lauds instant fame, achievement without effort, the fleeting, the hollow, the apathetic and the utterly vapid.
Sam Seaborn once quipped, “good writers borrow, great writers steal outright.” I suppose if you do have to steal from someone, that someone might as well be you – you’re less likely to get sued for it.
As I suspect it was for most, my first exposure to The Verve was through the heavily-rotated music video for “Bittersweet Symphony” in the summer of 1997 – the weirdly compelling sight of this skinny, morose guy resembling an anime rendering of Mick Jagger, shambling down the streets of London’s East End and bumping into people, while wailing a surprisingly lush existential rock lament. “Bittersweet Symphony,” as audiophiles know, is built from a sample of an old orchestral cover of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time.” Due to the peculiar ins-and-outs of sampling rights, and the greed of the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein, The Verve were forced to relinquish all royalties from their biggest hit, and forfeit writing credits to Jagger and Richards. But “Bittersweet” got people to buy the album – and enough people bought Urban Hymns to compensate The Verve for the bitter pill forced upon them by Klein. Just as well too – listening to the entirety of the album, if you just picked it up on the strength of the lead track, is like finding an unexpected caramel centre inside your piece of chocolate. You would expect that the remainder of the tracks couldn’t possibly live up to the heights reached by “Bittersweet” – that they do is one of the most enduring surprises in store.
A lot of great art has arisen from unhappiness and The Verve are no exception. The English quartet (Richard Ashcroft, Nick McCabe, Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury) best known for their long psychedelic jams had already broken up once following the release of their previous album A Northern Soul. In fact, most of the tracks on what would become Urban Hymns were written by singer Ashcroft for a potential solo album. But the gang were persuaded to put their differences aside and give it one more go. Lead guitarist McCabe’s unique, trippy style elevates some of Ashcroft’s more pedestrian lyrical inclinations to create songs that are deeply emotional but dreamy at the same time. The album finds a decent balance between introspection and all-out rock: songs like “Sonnet,” “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “One Day” lean toward the tender, while “The Rolling People” and “Come On” let loose with primal fury; the latter even features a wild Ashcroft screaming a cathartic release of profanity as the album draws to a close. Those who grew up with the long-haired shoegazing iteration of The Verve will hear a tribute to their roots on the sole track bearing McCabe’s name in the writing credits, the aptly-titled wandering vibes of “Neon Wilderness.” And the album’s middle section features a powerhouse trifecta that is as good as anything the Stones themselves ever cranked out: “Space and Time,” “Weeping Willow” and “Lucky Man,” the latter of which no less a rock statesman than Bono once listed as one of the six songs from the last twenty years he wished he’d written. It is by no means a perfect album; Ashcroft veers toward the treacle, some of his couplets are quite awkward, and he can occasionally come off like Captain Obvious in his emotional pronouncements. But where he stumbles, McCabe and the others are there to pick up the slack, and the whole thing still manages to cook.
Ultimately, Urban Hymns contains enough treasure to be spread across three great albums, let alone this one solid, shining achievement – we listeners are lucky men ourselves that The Verve held together long enough to pull it off. Nick McCabe walked away in the middle of their subsequent tour, and it would not be until 2007 when tempers cooled enough between Ashcroft and the other three to try being The Verve again. The resulting effort, Forth, was a passable work, but only a glimmer of former greatness – whatever eclectic mix of ego and talent that had crystallized on the previous album wasn’t quite there this time, nor did it seem to be for the band, which promptly broke up again. In latter years The Verve have been written off as a one-hit wonder. But one would not dare set “Bittersweet Symphony” alongside the likes of “Disco Duck” or “Convoy” – The Verve have earned enough credibility with their signature song alone to merit a lasting berth in the echelons of rock. Fifteen years and a few regrettable commercial uses later (Nike and Vauxhall ads and the closing credits of Cruel Intentions), “Bittersweet” remains poignant, moving and powerful, a radio staple, and if nothing else, a beautiful song – one far more sweet than bitter.