When Neil Young was examining the art of songwriting, one piece of advice that he prised from his study was that you shouldn’t “chase the rabbit.” In other words, you let the songs come to you. However, we all inherently have our own personal predilections and songwriters are no different. Thus, when they let a track come to them, a weird trait from the depths of their psyche rushes out to meet it halfway.
Now we must stress that we’re not talking about traits here in the Adele songbook of Missed Connections sense or lad bands writing about drinking, that much is patently obvious. Instead, we’re shining a light on some of the more obscure recurring references that crop up in an artist’s back catalogue most likely even unbeknownst to themselves.
In my musical journey through various golden anthologies over the years, I have collated these oddities and presented a handful of them below. From the bird watching Nick Cave to the brain obsession of Joey Ramone, these are the weirdest traits that some of our most beloved songwriters exhibit.
The weird traits of great songwriters:
Nick Cave’s strange obsession with ornithology
Nick Cave’s brilliant work is littered with recurring touchstones: he repeatedly mentions hair, the bible, meta literary remarks, Phillip Larkin poems, and perhaps most prominently of all, birds! Ornithology is everywhere in his work and whilst our feathered friends are not an uncommon allegorical tool in the arts, the sheer flock that features in his back catalogue elevates their fluttering presence to a noteworthy level.
In fact, even in his novel The Death of Bunny Monroe, he dedicates a swathe of the introduction to a diatribe on dastardly Seagulls and how much he (Bunny) hates them. When it comes to his songbook, the references are everywhere, take, for instance, this one from ‘Babe, You Turn Me On’ – “The butcher bird makes its noise and asks you to agree, With its brutal nesting habits and its pointless savagery.”
Elsewhere, you have ‘Blue Bird’, ‘Crow Jane’ and verses such as, “In the nest was a bird, The bird had a wing, The wing had a feather, Spin the feather and sing the wind,” in the track ‘The Spinning Song’. There are myriad more spanning his entire career and it would seem they mainly glide through unnoticed owing to the beauty of the poetry they soar upon, but clearly, they represent something that his muse is tethered to like some God with a falcon as a kite.
Marc Bolan and the constant use of Beltane
With the debut album under the abbreviated name of T. Rex, Bolan finally made his unfathomably queer obsession with the word Beltane clear with the eponymous ‘Beltane Walk’. For those who don’t know, which is pretty much everybody outside of the scrabble world championships, Beltane is an ancient Gaelic May Day festival, and at an absolute push, it can perhaps be used to describe a sort of spiritual spring.
It has long since slipped out of usage, anywhere other than Bolan’s back catalogue where it is undoubtedly a defining feature in the tapestry of his style. Throughout his work, little obsessions pop up time and time again. For fanatics, this only adds to the mystique of man himself and offers a deeply personalised touch to his art. In other words, Beltane was one of many melting clocks in his works and rarely was it as lyrically stirring as this example. The archaic springtime vibe even seems befitting of the flowery music he was espousing.
Aside from ‘Beltane Walk’, he also happily churns out “Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane,” in the track ‘Ride a White Swan’, and there are few other murmurings of this long-forgotten festival in his lyric book.
Alex Turner’s love of stormy weather
Within Turner’s songwriting, there is any number of references to things like storms, leather, moody weather in general, glasses, boots, studded headlocks and more moody weather. All of which conjures a dark and brooding sense of rock imagery. When opening your mouth forces performance, then what comes out of it may as well uphold some rock iconography if you want to be a frontman.
However, it soon dawns on you that aside from the work of Jim Morrison storms aren’t actually part of the fabric of rock ‘n’ roll at all, and Turner has merely slid them in through the back door to became part of his greased-up artistic gestalt. The very first words on Suck It and See exclaim “She’s thunderstorms,” likewise the first single from Humbug heard him crooning “Crying lightning and how you like to aggravate the ice cream man on rainy afternoons.” Elsewhere you have rather more perfunctory references in titles such as ‘It’s hard to get around the wind’ and ‘Brianstorm’.
Sheffield isn’t renowned for its Costa Del Yorkshire rays so perhaps the rain simply floods out of his psyche subconsciously, because there are a million more references I could’ve chosen for young Al.
David Bowie and the great space obsession
Naturally, if you have a character who is a spaceman then the solar system will be front and centre of your work, but it’s hardly natural to run your music through the narrative of an astronaut in the first place. And what’s more, it isn’t just Major Tom that takes on the stratosphere in Bowie’s back catalogue.
So here goes: Blackstar, ‘Starman’, Ziggy Stardust, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘Star’, ‘The Prettiest Star’, ‘Across the Universe’, ‘Somebody up There Likes Me’, ‘Fantastic Voyage’, ‘Loving the Alien’, ‘Shining Star’, ‘Hello Spaceboy’, ‘Looking for Satellites’, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship’, ‘New Killer Star’, ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon’, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, ‘Dancing out in Space’, ‘Blackstar’. And that’s before we even get into the constant lyrical references!
With Bowie, however, this obsession is an easy fixation to decipher. He was very much an artist who took music to the next level and by that, I don’t mean the stratosphere in a cheesy sense, but in a rather more encompassing view that he began to incorporate elements beyond the usual cliched realms and focused on creating his own independent oeuvre. Us Bowie fans don’t just love the music, but the whole escapist realm that he dared to create.
The Ramones cranial preoccupation
The punk poet John Cooper Clarke once said of the Ramones, “They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round,” but that didn’t stop their moronic subjects from being cerebral… quite literally! As a group, they were frankly fixated on the human brain.
In the Ramones anthology, you have the following: ‘Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment’, ‘Teenage Lobotomy’, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’, ‘Psychotherapy’, ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down’, ‘Brain Drain’ and a collection of other cranial references. When this was put to Joey Ramone himself, he merely remarked: “We’re screaming out for help! Help us please!”
When comes to the Ramones, however, the brain is just a sort of sonic touchstone to weave the band into other weird areas. For instance, ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down’ is about Ronald Reagan’s visit to a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg, Germany and the song was more of a twisted melon response than an examination of cerebral inversion. Most of their songs are touched with the sense of disenfranchised mania and what better way to reference that than name dropping the purple matter.
Leonard Cohen’s meta-universe of song
Perhaps it isn’t given enough attention when studying the work of Leonard Cohen that he was a first a published poet and only segued to the six-string once his attempts at novels proved ill-fated. It would seem that as soon as he made the switch to give his poems a sonic accompaniment, he remained a student of the art form and that slid into his songs.
Take, for instance, ‘Tower of Song’ which is an anthem to all the songwriters that have gone before him and a look back at where his own labours reside in the building. Then in his most famous work, ‘Hallelujah’, you have the line “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift.” Written in the classic gospel timing of twelve-eight time and strewn with meta-references to musical structure, the song itself sings of a pious devotion to love, which is imbued by the religious metaphors that run throughout. Even his album names continually reference the word ‘song’.
In short, this all amounts to a series of anthems that lifts love to rarefied heights and imparts music itself with a certain Godly hymnal salvation and its ability to offer a cathartic cleansing to a weary heart. He may well have been a poet first and a musician second, but his back catalogue is undoubtedly an ode to sonic deliverance; even his exultant choruses are placed, with the judicious eye of a poet, between personal hardships.
Paul Simon’s American A-Z roadmap
While Paul Simon is rightfully regarded as one of the foremost songwriters of modern music history, lauded for his lyricism and melodies, one less recognisable trait is that these folk tales never merely unfurl anywhere. His tracks are always grounded in geography.
Over the years, countless songs have referenced a city, town, place, landmark, river etc. but few individual songwriters have done it as frequently as Simon. Whether in the title (ie. ‘America’, ‘Graceland’, ‘Bleecker Street’, ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ etc.) or popping in the lyrics (ie. “Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue”) the specificity of his songwriting leaves as clear a roadmap as an A-Z.
In some ways, the beat literature that clearly inspired Simon ala Jack Kerouac also similarly grounds wistful dreamy prose in the grit of perfunctory realism. Thus, rather than making his songs more specific and less universal, it actually has the opposite effect, making them seem like they don’t just play out in Simon”s head and have a relatable real-world grounding even if you’ve never been to Graceland.