Words, Meaning and Progressive Rock
Jerry Lucky Commentary August 2014
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2014 All Rights Reserved
If you want to stir up a good discussion among Progressive Rock aficionados throw out the topic of lyrics. There will very likely be a very vocal group who loudly voice their disdain for any lyrics and then there will be the other side arguing in favor. Then, as I pointed out in my recent radio show, there will be people like me in the third group who say, why can’t we all just get along? I guess it’s because words carry such power and meaning that they arouse such heated debate. After all is said and done though, I would like to think, we can agree to disagree and still be friends right?
Still, if you add to this equation, the general assumption that the words to Progressive Rock songs only deal with things like kingdoms, fairies, unicorns and wizards then you have a situation that is rife with misunderstanding. It’s true there are a goodly number of prog songs singing about fanciful, Tolkien-esque material, but over the years there have been more than enough lyrics penned about much more serious or thought provoking matters too. While it’s true that not every set of lyrics is as thoroughly researched as they might be and it’s doubtful there’s many Pulitzer prize winners in the bunch, I believe it’s fair to give credit for trying to say something meaningful, even when I disagree with the sentiment being expressed.
It was recently pointed out to me, just how prescient some song lyrics can be. And given the mass media’s prevailing view towards the “nonsensical” nature of prog lyrics, any serious social connection seems to stand out even more. Take for example to words written to the King Crimson song “Epitaph” off their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King. Written in or around 1969 by Pete Sinfield, the words of this song, while certainly pointed at events of the day (Vietnam et al) also seem to call out over the decades with observations that are perhaps even more relevant and true today than they were then, although I doubt Sinfield knew it at the time of writing.
When viewed through a post-modern lens in the politically correct time in which we live, where there is a growing, almost “militant” movement for everyone to share the prevailing common view regarding many if not most hot button social issues, Sinfield’s lyrics come across as almost prophetic.
The wall on which the prophets wrote…Is cracking at the seams
Upon the instruments of death…The sunlight brightly gleams
When every man is torn apart…With nightmares and with dreams,
Will no one lay the laurel wreath…As silence drowns the screams
Modern society has surely seen its fair share of change as the “foundational” walls on which “prophets” wrote have cracked and some would say even crumbled resulting in humans physically, mentally and spiritually being torn asunder. Things we took for granted, concepts we shared and beliefs we once held true are all under assault and being torn apart. With no one shouting a word of alarm, the silence drowns the screams. Historian Jacque Barzun in his excellent book From Dawn to Decadence wrote that historians describe the period in which we live as “decadent”, a period that is defined as when we see the absurd happening around us daily and yet we feel powerless to enact any change to make it better. Ours is a time where everyone attempts to shape their own reality. Neal Morse once wrote in a song – “If we don’t like the deal…we invent what’s real.” All of which coincidentally leads to…
Confusion will be my epitaph…As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh, But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying,
Yes I fear tomorrow I'll be crying…Yes I fear tomorrow I'll be crying
Interesting, confusion, broken-paths, laughing and crying? If Sinfield were describing society today in 2014, I’d say he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head. These days holding a different or contrary viewpoint on key hot button issues is viewed as heretical and requiring a deep and sincere apology for thinking so. I seem to recall the Japanese culture having an old adage that goes something like “the nail the stands up will be pounded down.” Their way of handling dissent and certainly we see a growing trend in North American to stifle debate and stick to a modern conforming orthodoxy. Sinfield closes with a second verse:
Between the iron gates of fate…The seeds of time were sown,
And watered by the deeds of those…Who know and who are known;
Knowledge is a deadly friend…If no one sets the rules
The fate of all mankind I see…Is in the hands of fools
This to my mind is the clincher: ‘knowledge is a deadly friend, if no one sets the rules.’ I guess we can always get into a debate about whose rules are to be set, but in a post-modern age where meta-narratives are shunned and everyone’s views are to be viewed as equally valuable there is the danger that we just might be placing our fate in the hands of fools, namely ourselves?
Now I’m not sure Pete Sinfield would share my interpretation of his words and yet that is the beauty of brilliant song writing. It encapsulates the thoughts of a specific time and yet allows for further interpretation, decades on. And while some will claim that Sinfield’s writing was an exception in the world of Progressive Rock, I would disagree. I believe there are many fine lyricists in this genre. Sometimes we criticise the lyrics because we don’t understand them and have flashbacks about trying to interpret poems in high-school English. Sometimes we don’t like lyrics because we disagree with what’s being said and don’t like being mentally challenged to defend what we believe. And sometimes we simply ignore the lyrics because it’s too much trouble. But the truth is, many if not all artists write lyrics because they have something to say and they print those lyrics in a booklet because they want us to read them. At the end of the day, you don’t have to go very far to find meaningful Progressive Rock lyrics…you just have open the booklet and read them.
In my view, those who think Progressive Rock doesn’t do well in the “word-smithing” department simply haven’t been looking too closely. At least that’s what I think.