The Complicatist : Loving the Songs of the Vulgar Boatmen

Good lyric writing can be a thing of wonder

by Gordon Campbell

Back in the 1930s, as trained voices first began to be supplanted by crooners reliant on a microphone, the kneejerk reaction – that guy can’t sing !– was pretty understandable. Ditto in the 1960s. Most members of the boomer generation can remember the first time they played a Bob Dylan track to their parents. That guy can’t sing ! Which was (a) wrong and (b) entirely the point. Dylan sounded like he could sing about as well as we could, and so we might as well give it a shot. A decade or so later, punk issued the same democratic invitation.

The relatable voice is one thing. In addition, the best song lyrics have an easy, conversational quality – yet when heard over and over again, they readily sound like an incantation. Given the right inflection, simplicity can suddenly seem profound. Years ago, the US film theorist Robert Ray made an obvious and related point about song lyrics – that they need to be evaluated as sung, and not as poetry. Even superb song lyrics, Ray argued, are almost always bad poetry on the page. If Chuck Berry was the master of pop lyric writing, Sting struck Ray at the time as being the worst offender :

He wants to make it poetry and it’s simply not poetry, so what comes out are middlebrow ideas and phrases trotted across the page. I do like songs like “Every Breath You Take” where you can’t quite tell what’s at stake, you don’t really know whether this is a love song or an angry song, and so on. Where this mode of indeterminacy is really prominent, and I never realized it until I had children, is in children’s books. A lot of great children’s books are really open-ended and shaggy, probably to accommodate children’s needs to read these things over and over again.

Until I read that, I’d never linked the repetitions and rhythms of children’s books with the craving to hear certain pop songs over and again. But he’s right. The example of a great song lyric that Robert Ray (left) cited was Chuck Berry’s “ Let It Rock.” Such a good call. The more you listen to this track, the more elusive it becomes. Here’s the lyric of “Let It Rock” in its three verse entirety :

In the heat of the day down in Mobile Alabama
Working on the railroad with the steel driving hammer
I gotta get some money to buy some brand new shoes
Tryin’ to find somebody to take away these blues
“She don’t love me” hear them singing in the sun
Payday’s coming and my work is all done

Well, in the evening when the sun is sinking low
All day I been waiting for the whistle to blow
Sitting in a tee-pee built right on the tracks
Rolling them bones until the foreman comes back
Pick up your belongings boys and scatter about
We’ve got an off-schedule train comin’ two miles out

Everybody’s scrambling, running around
Picking up their money, tearing the tee-pee down
Foreman wants to panic, ’bout to go insane
Trying to get the workers out the way of the train
Engineer blows the whistle loud and long
Can’t stop the train, have to let it roll on….

That off -schedule train comin’ two miles out disrupts every plan and diversion. Everyone is sitting slap bang in the path of an unpredictable fate that’s coming for you, ready or not : ‘Engineer blows the whistle loud and long, can’t stop the train, have to let it roll on…” Not bad for a song that sounds like it was – and probably really was – tossed off in twenty minutes.

Robert Ray knew about this stuff, first hand. A tenured professor in film studies at the Gainesville campus of the University of Florida, he was also a key member of the Vulgar Boatmen, a beloved 1990s indie band that almost became famous but didn’t – largely because of record company politicking that’s explained in detail in the group’s very wonderful Drive Somewhere DVD. Basically, their record company got taken over by a new CEO who loved hip hop and hated indie rock. So much so that she purged 13 indie bands from the company roster on her first day on the job. Good for Busta Rhymes, terminally bad for the Boatmen.

The Vulgar Boatmen were actually two bands. There was a Gainesville band headed by Ray and his wife Helen Kirklin, and a touring unit led by Dale Lawrence, and based in Indianapolis. Lawrence and Ray co-wrote songs by mail and from time to time, both bands converged to make the three albums that comprise their entire oeuvre, give or take a few so/so live tracks from 1992 on Youtube. The VBs drew equally on 50s and 60s soul music and pop – one critic said they wrote songs Buddy Holly would have been proud to own – and they married a few of them to the Velvet Underground’s trademark drone. Lawrence had been in a punk band, and he’d grown tired of guitars and shouted vocals as signifiers of intensity. During his time in the Boatmen, rhythm and lyrical/melodic incantations became the chosen means.

In ways that I still can’t grasp, Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence took simple, modest and very specific lyric observations and turned them into things of mystery. As in :

Laura’s got friends, Laura’s got sense /
Johnny’s going back to New York /
I know, its OK to wait /
But I don’t know what they’re waiting for
Don’t think out loud, don’t concentrate
That’s not working so far
Its after dark, radio’s on/
She’s sitting in the back of the car…”

The songs were like dropping into lives that existed before the song, and went on afterwards. I’ve heard this couplet for instance, from “There’s a Family” a few hundred times, yet it still conveys just how mysterious the lives of other people really are :

Misunderstanding makes you feel better /
When they crossed the street, she took him by the arm…

On ‘Margaret Says” – which is a very pretty song about indecision and alienation – the opening scene is just as tersely painted : “Margaret’s friends come in, Margaret’s friends sit down / I say hello in French / They think I’ve been around…” Ultimately, Margaret whispers things “that are very contrived, and very sincere” into the singer’s ear, and he flees into the comforting babble of Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa“ song to delay the moment of decision : “I’m supposed to be thinking about the rest of my life /I’m supposed to be thinking about the rest of her life…” Pictures of my family, he realises, that’s what Margaret says to me. And is that such a good thing?

The Vulgar Boatmen’s three albums – You and Your Sister, Please Panic and Opposite Sex – are all worth your time, the first two in particular. I’ve chosen one song from each album. They’re all examples of the conversational, incantatory quality I’ve been describing. The endlessly circular “Drive Somewhere” – which was the closest thing they ever had to a hit – is where their debt to the Velvet Underground seems most apparent.

And finally a personal favourite, “In A Station” Once again, marries the workaday mundane with the utterly mysterious. At 7.30, I’m going to turn off the lights. Shut my business, let it go for the night. Make a hard decision, look you right in the face…Yep, it’s another VB song about firm resolve, undermined almost immediately by indecision. Ultimately :

I’m going to dress up early ! Put a shine on my shoes
I can come over / in an hour or two
You’re in a railway station / I’m on th’ line
All the things we’ve said /lets pretend they were mine
Lets pretend they were mine…

In its final verse, “Wide Awake” completes the circle right back to Chuck Berry…From a position somewhere in the middle of Indiana in the dead of night, Dale Lawrence sings about how the car radio is playing “Maybellene” on Chicago radio station XRT. “Turn it up’’ he says. We can drive until morning, and try to remember what it was we forgot to say.