Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reverse engineering

A few years ago I wrote about a song lyric whose meaning eludes many listeners: "the cross is in the ballpark." For the uninformed, this is an oft-repeated line in "The Obvious Child" by Paul Simon. It first appears here:
And in remembering a road sign
I am remembering a girl when I was young
And we said These songs are true
These days are ours
These tears are free
And hey
The cross is in the ballpark
The cross is in the ballpark
My mother had told me she'd heard in an interview that Paul Simon just liked the sound of that line. It didn't mean anything. I googled around to see if this was true, found nothing to either confirm or deny, and figured she had her facts straight. Then over the weekend, nearly three years later, an anonymous commenter contributed this quote, with a link to the original Time interview:
"It got me thinking when that first popped out," Paul Simon says " ... 'The cross is in the ball park.' "The first thing I thought of was Billy Graham, or the Pope, or evangelical gatherings. But I came to feel what that's really about is the cross that we bear. The burdens that we carry are doable, they're in the ball park."
So it does have a meaning Yay! But my mom wasn't entirely wrong. Simon didn't come up with those words to express an idea. The words came first, followed by thoughts about what the words might mean. In fact, he rejected his own first interpretation in favor of one he liked better.

Kind of like a line in "Hey Jude." Before Paul McCartney brought John Lennon in on that song, he'd written "The movement you need is on your shoulders." It didn't mean anything to McCartney—it was just a placeholder to be discarded as soon as he or Lennon thought of something better. But Lennon was having none of that. "Leave it in," he said. "I know what it means."

I wonder how often this happens to songwriters. I wonder if it happens more to certain kinds of songwriters than others.

For me, not much. My typical process involves stumbling upon an evocative way to express some idea I've been playing with. The idea comes first. But once or twice, I've been struck by phrases that stuck in my head because they sounded cool, even if I didn't know what they meant.

Back when Ron the Drummer and I were trying to figure out what to call the band, one possibility that leapt to mind was "Half Moon Halo." I don't remember how or why I thought of that. Most likely I was free associating alliterative words. Anyway, I loved the name, but couldn't bring myself to seriously consider it because it didn't mean anything. I couldn't even make up something plausible sounding, as I eventually did for "Cinder Bridge."

Four years later, I started writing a song that reflected my growing discomfort with the kind of person I was. I didn't think I was evil, but I didn't feel like I was very good either, and I wasn't sure where that left me:
There's a hell for all the sinners
There's a heaven for the saints
But there ain't no place for the people in between
A good start, but what next? Somehow "half moon halo" snuck back into my consciousness, and I found a home for it at last.
I am walking down an unpaved road
In the middle of a lonely night
Half moon halo shines down on the scene
Not quite an exact metaphor for anything, but the imagery pleased me.

Have you ever invented a phrase, then reverse-engineered the meaning? If so, what was the phrase, and how did the meaning evolve?


Jeff Shattuck said...

Cool post, cool lyric. I wish I could come up with stuff that evokes meaning rather than spells it out, but I can't. Too literal. Sigh...

DeppityBob said...

I've had the same experience, but can't remember the exact phrases. Sometimes when I am writing evocatively, a phrase will leap into my head and make it onto the screen before I even think about it. Sometimes they'll work, sometimes they won't. You remember reading the first chapter of my magnum opus. Almost the entire chapter was written as it came out of my head. I've written some things that have later astounded me. I've also written crap that has astounded me, too. :)

Hahn Furst said...

I was just googling around for the Paul Simon interview where he talked about, The cross is in the ballpark, referring to the Pope's mass in Yankee Stadium and found your blog.

I don't have a reverse engineering answer, but when a friend of mine writes a lyric that sounds great but has no meaning, instead of discarding it he just makes it the title of the song.

DeppityBob said...

I'm remembering what Dave Barry wrote about his high school days and hearing some blues guy sing a song Dave's band wanted to cover. There was one lyric they couldn't figure out..."do de no hoodenay," or something, was how it sounded. So they did the song and used the nonsense lyrics. Sometime later he got to talk to the singer and asked him what the real lyric was. The blues singer shrugged and said he couldn't figure out what it was when he'd heard it either, so he just mumbled "do de no hoodenay" and people just let it go.

Lori said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lori said...

(previous post removed because my computer took over before I was done!) Great topic. I was thinking about writing a song about the environment. Then one morning, the phrase, "crystal ball, we cry for you" came to me while I was waking up. It wasn't until afterwards that I realized that the word "cry" is in "crystal." Sometimes the subconscious works in mysterious ways.

I love the half moon halo image, kind of like your halo is on crooked.