Oh! Romeo Soul. I must admit surprise over how little I’ve thought about this song over the years. Much like most of my earlier songs, it retained the air of an experiment in my memory. Fragmented images and sounds: the dark blue wavelengths of Audacity and my voice daring to express.
I was working off strong influences and refining my style. Of course it’s easier to doubt yourself in hindsight: the strange set of decisions leading to your present circumstance always subject to suspicious analysis: But a rebuttal, from the evidence: What do I hear?
Back in high school
To some rapper
Rhyme his way to fame
Now you hear that song
And sadly shake your head
These are interesting lines for me to inspect. When I was starting out, my rewriting process barely existed: I basically went with wherever emotion took me. Rode that and filled in the words. There are two people here. One person is growing and able to assess his life realistically: the other person can’t move forward without tearing down an aspect of his personality that has become outmoded. It’s possible that these two people were inside of me. There’s a moment where you can hold onto your old self or completely let go. But when you trash something you used to love, are you trashing that thing, or trashing yourself? And if you are truly secure, is there ever a need to testify to the perfection of your taste? These questions have obvious answers, but the reason for their existence has everything to do with insecurity. That’s one level of considering insecurity, as an expression of hypocrisy… of course that method lacks empathy. But the mainstream world of boys and men always lends credence to the coldness. Things usually are portrayed as black and white. You’ve become this person, so now you are that. You’ve made that decision, now you are this. And if you don’t believe these lies about yourself, you find yourself caught, chilled skin, between worlds. A man without a country, and therein lies the appeal of hating who you used to be.
You loved that girl
And she broke your heart
It was years ago
You wrote her letters
You old school kinda guy
And she never replied
That’s fucking painful
Now, here’s a part I really love. It excites me. Why? Because you don’t see these lines coming, especially, “you wrote her letters you old school kinda guy…” I was writing from a purely folk approach at this time. The originality of the lines was most important to me. The expression of what I was feeling. Melody was secondary. Instrumentation? Don’t make me laugh! I could barely get through these songs at the start. No, I had to get down what I was feeling.
So what’s the suspect aspect of writing with melody as the basis? It seems so solid, right? So professional! But here’s what happens: the expression of your sentiment must conform to a preexisting structure. The victory of great songwriting is working within the melody to say exactly what you want to say. That’s truly difficult. Because you can lie to yourself and say you got it down, but what you got down does not really belong to you: it belongs to the grand castle of lyrical cliché: an exigent scroll bailing songwriters out of the lie of their own melodies: a melody is hypothetical, it is formless, without the proper words. Period. Which is why I have no regard for la la la’s or handclaps or any other lyrical copout people come up with to carry their song along. But back to these particular lines: I am working with a loose melody here. Was I conscious of this? No. I was only conscious of having an idea for this song called ‘Romeo Soul’ where I’d challenge the hypocrisy of my own opinions and the convenience of a broken heart. But I was going to make the song be whatever it needed to be from moment to moment: if I needed to talk through lines, I’d talk through. If I found a temporary melody in a rhyme scheme, I would use it. I was basically hustling my way through a song, like a back-alley magician swiping your timepiece. I wrote many terrible songs using this method. These songs will not be featured in City-Flower. But occasionally the approach worked. Sometimes it would only work for a verse in a particular song. Sometimes it would all fall into place, which was exceedingly rare. But why does it work so damn well when it does work? Because the form is allowing me to be me! I’m not trying to deliver on the terms of a melody. I’m trying to deliver on the terms of getting myself across. You old school kinda guy! Man, I haven’t written lines that fun in years. I’ll probably never consistently go back to this folkier way of writing. But the results here are definitely worth contemplating. Its eschewing art for a personal expression: the difference between dreaming up dialogue for a novel and transcribing an interview for a journalistic purpose. The truth has no regard for the reaction of an audience. It simply is.
Folk has a lot of crossover with journalism. Consider Phil Ochs, just for one. Putting the truth before beauty, as it were, is an unspoken tenant of folk. And as an inexperienced player and songwriter, it fit me perfectly. There are examples of the half-talking/half-melodic/half-truth/half-bullshit/half-contemplative/half-surface level style of songwriting everywhere! Of course I was significantly influenced by Dylan, and probably listening to this song constantly back in 2010, the original, grittier version of ‘Brownsville Girl.’ None of the lines in this song are predictable. They are all original. No stock rhyming whatsoever. Not coincidentally: it has a loose, nearly nonexistent melody. You’ll notice upon the verse ‘Way out under the stars’ Dylan decides to start singing. Right there. It’s all up for grabs. Singing, not singing, rhyming, not rhyming, employing melody, not employing melody… the chorus is always important in songs like this: because you usually need to maintain your grip on the listener with (at least) a chorus that is melodic. Sounds like a song.
Anyway, I’m not a complete champion of this approach. Without a melody, the train can sail off the tracks with staggering ease.
We were kids once, remember?
And you ran ahead of the group
Now you follow a broken heart
And cater to a misled mind
Buddy, you’re delirious
What the hell is that? I don’t know. It is original… and also inescapably bad. And by inescapable, I mean: what can you do with those lines? How can you make them sound like they belong together? My recourse in this performance was to slow them down. Even though songs may describe alienation, they are actually usually never alienated themselves: lyrics rhyme, or seem to fall into place through the singer’s vocal delivery, and/or are melodic (Notice Dylan with the Corpus Christie Tribune line in Danville Girl. Its only his musical vocal delivery that keeps those lines together) These lines here basically are alienated: because they don’t rhyme, have no melody, and also can’t really be song with any alliterative punch. A great example of true musical alienation would be the work of the punk band Suicide. Those songs are jarring to the ear. Probably because they sound truly ‘realistic,’ reflecting our fractured experience. Even songs purporting to be realistic, and which are meaningful, are not actually based in reality. Reality is only occasionally musical. When a musician flops down stomach first on a stage and weeps into a microphone instead of performing, that’s realism! Nobody goes to a concert or listens to an album for a true taste of reality, same for the musicians. We all know the agreement here.
Where does Romeo Soul fit in? It’s a happy accident. There was a place for me as a performer during this time period created by thousands of musicians before me. I could not thank them except to write these songs. But I did have a feeling there was justification for what I was doing, somewhere in the universe, often under my nose, based on my musical interests. Let’s not forget Hip-Hop either. Perhaps no other genre allows a performer to get his or her straight truth across with such conversational flair, and it was all I listened to “back in High School.”
Thank you for reading City-Flower #2: Romeo Soul. Hope you check out the song too.