Darrell Vickers: What Are Words Worth?

Darrell VickersThe Self-Serving Preamble:

I have spent my entire adult life splashing ludicrous amounts of ink onto 8½” by 11” sheets of paper in the fanciful hope that some semblance of remuneration would be forthcoming.  While the financial reciprocation for my humorous lucubrations has not always found me drinking Montrachet Grand Cru from the footwear of a Hollywood starlet, it has at least kept the bailiff from my door.

But the written word has not only been the meat on my table.   It has guided me, like a helpful usher, to the comfy seat of sanity in a crowded theatre of fools and also provided a sturdy shovel with which to dig through the defecatory deposits that life plops upon one daily.

The Seamless Segue:

cole porterWhich brings me to lyrics.  There is no shortage of calcified twits out there assiduously mourning the extinction of the poet’s nimble pen in modern song.  They Johnny_Mercer,snootily point back in time to the intoxicating couplets of Porter, Mercer and Hart as they blithely toss hefty self-righteous logs upon their DIY funeral pyre for our mother tongue.  Yes, by all means, these three rodgers&hartgentlemen are linguistic lighthouses on the dark and stormy seas of inarticulate sophistry, but make no mistake; they are the exception to the rule and not the standard.  That is why the same few eloquent alchemists pop up ad nauseum when anyone discusses the paradisiacal era of the bygone bard.

The Back Story:

Seven long years ago, Steve B. and I foolishly decided to join Sisyphus on his hill by attempting to compile every song that has ever graced the Billboard (or equivalent) pop charts since the beginning of recorded time. (1878)  As of 2011 (the last complete year), the tally has risen to approximately 40,000 large collection of 45'ssongs and as of this hour we are missing a mere 300 of these 2 ½ minute slices of finger-snappin’ ear candy.  Not only have we amassed this ludicrously large collection of psychotically indexed 45’s, we have had to listen to each and every one to ensure its auditory accreditation.  So now, after having sampled every hit single that ever was, I feel quite comfortable in asserting that the era of Mercer, Porter & Hart had just as many monosyllabic drivel machines as we do today.   

elvis costelloFor every Mercer, there is a Dylan.  For every Porter, there is a Randy Newman.  For every Hart, there is a Tom Waits.

And of course, the deliciously snarky Elvis Costello:

“She said that she was working for the ABC News.

It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.

And yes, yes, yes, many times yes, there are vast libraries full of absolute banal blather set to tunes that barely qualify as music in today’s pop charts.  But it was ever thus, folks.  And even the premier paters of the popular song were capable of giving birth to the occasional turd.

The Revelatory Example:

irving-berlin-02To further elucidate my point, let’s all take a gander at an undisputed classic from the much ballyhooed days of yore.

Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies – No one would argue that this is a magnificent song but…is it a great lyric?

“I was blue, just as blue as I could be
Ev’ry day was a cloudy day for me
Then good luck came a-knocking at my door
Skies were gray but they’re not gray anymore”

Really?  This is the depth and breadth and height that his soul could reach?  Irving is attempting to express sadness here but I’ve read more heart-rending poetry on the inside of bathroom cubicle doors.  You couldn’t move anyone to tears with this dour little refrain unless you shot their dog while you were singing it.

Let’s face it, when John Prine laments “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes,” in Sam Stone, it’s sadder than a Toronto Maple Leafs fan during the playoffs.  I need to take a Xanax the size of a bowler hat just to get me through the second verse.

trent_reznorWhen Trent Reznor ruefully opines:

“I wear this crown of shit
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here”


This is so down, you want to cut your ears off and give them to someone else until the song is over.  Trent would need to smoke crack with David Crosby while being blown by Heidi Klum just to be half as happy as Irving in his most depressed state.

The Closing Argument:

With the opening verse of Blue Skies in mind, I have harvested some lyrical gems from our own much maligned and supposedly dull-tongued times.  Let’s get suitably comfortable and give them a good listen.

john cooper clarkeJohn Cooper Clarke –  Beasley Street – Simply, the finest rap song ever written.  There’s a building gloom that coats you like Vesuvian ash as the song proceeds down this loathsome lane where “the rats have all got rickets and spit through broken teeth”.  The horrifyingly vivid portrait of low-rent accommodation painted by Mr. Clarke’s unflinching pen makes Old Man River sound like a theme park ride at Raging Waters.

Tim CurryTim Curry – I Do the Rock – Tim hit it out of the park with this delightful dollop of drollery.  Every time I hear it, I marvel at how well it’s constructed.  It is a tragedy on the scale of Lady Gaga’s weight gain that he hasn’t written lyrics for a Broadway show or one of those horrible animated Disney movies.

randy NewmanRandy Newman – Great Nations of Europe – I didn’t go with any of the obvious songs from his canon for this selection.  Great Nations is a brilliant and witty encapsulation of mankind’s greatest age of exploration and genocide.  If this song doesn’t make you want to go right out and spread small pox amongst an unsuspecting indigenous people, then nothing will.  Noel Coward would have been all over this like it was a Jamaican cabin boy.

tom waitsTom Waits – Ruby’s Arms – Now this is a sad fucking tune.  One of the ultimate “Goodbye” songs.  Even after innumerable spins on my old Thorens turntable, I still can’t listen to it without getting a little teary-eyed.  This is a lyric DeSylva, Henderson and Brown would have gladly eaten their spat-leather to have written.

ian duryIan Dury – There Aren’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards – Ian was criminally underrated as a wordsmith.  The use of the working man’s vernacular on such a smart song elevates this humble little ditty into a classic.  I think history will conclude that Mr. Dury was most definitely one of those clever bastards.

You see what I’m trying to convey, here?  Mr. Berlin wasn’t exactly Baudelaire when it came to a banging together a ballad.  There are modern lyricists, people who are actually alive right now, that make him look like an inarticulate farty-pants.

the iraq warMy oh-so-long-winded conjecture is this: Cherry-picking a few good songwriters from the days when men used to don cravats and sock-garters is a little like good old George W. cherry-picking evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Don’t get me wrong, saying Ira Gershwin knew his way around a sentence is not the equivalent of killing 4,500 soldiers ira gershwinand pouring a trillion dollars down a very sandy toilet.  The meat of my philosophical burger is that doing so can give you a very skewed impression of reality.

I proffer this.  The chances that some fermenting lump of varicose veins and Aspercreme popped her head in on Cole Porter while he was penning Anything Goes and bewailed, “Don’t you know any nice songs?” are pretty fucking good.

The Future:

old-hack-typing30 years down the quickly crumbling road that is our modern society, when the I-5 phone is considered as quaint and primitive as the Victrola is today, some one-foot-in-the-grave bloviating windbag will sigh at some piece of recently penned verse blaring from a teenager’s floating orb of sound and point back to a few great musical scribes that capered and frolicked in the autumn mist around the turn of our Millennium.  And they will most assuredly be those same few fellows who are the exception to the rule and not the standard.

The Epilogue:

Irving_Berlin_GraveMr. Berlin is regrettably no longer with us but if he were here, I’d like to think that we could have combined his magical talent for a tune with my gift for the written word and come up with something a little more syllabically substantial.   You know, throw a few nouns and verbs into my Yatzee tumbler of a brain, give it a couple of shakes and see what falls out.  There are any number of shapes Blue Skies could be kneaded into by the subtle hands of an adept lyrical masseur.  Below are just a few possibilities that spring immediately to mind.

I might have suggested we take the song in a slightly more whimsical direction, while still keeping the “Blue” theme, of course – shoot for a few high-class titters before we hit the catchy chorus and really set the hook in the music buying public:

“I was as blue as a baboon’s ass

Waiting for its dinner to pass”


Although Irving was not a bitter man – I am.  I could have easily nudged this song toward the spiritual fulfillment of over-arching resentment and caustic verbal retribution :

huge toilet paper“All the toilet paper in the whole world

Couldn’t wipe away my memories of you”

Yeah, take that, bitch!

And too be honest, the weather analogy has been used to death.  Perhaps I might deftly switch it around and go with a flower motif instead:

“You were my Morning Glory

You Rose before high noon

But now I call you Lily

Cause you Crocused way too soon.”

Then again, out of respect and admiration for the legendary composer, I’d probably attempt to make it more romantically reflective of something a 124 year old man might coo to a his longtime canoodle-bunny.

depends adult diapers“I’m more in love

As each decade ends

You fill up my life

Like I fill my Depends.”

Of course all songs would be credited Berlin/Vickers and not Vickers/Berlin.  It’s only fair.

Sleep well, fair tunesmith.


Darrell Vickers is now a Friday Contributor to DBAWIS

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonDarrell Vickers started out as one half of Toronto area band, Nobby Clegg.  CFNY fans may remember the cheery song “Me Dad” which still gets airplay.  From there, he valiantly ventured to L.A. and eventually became head writer for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Since then, he’s created numerous sitcoms and animation shows in Canada and the U.S.  He still writes music and has an internet band called Death of the Author Brigade (members in Croatia, Canada and the U.S.)   Mr. Vickers also had a private music mailing-list where he features new and pre-loved music.  Anyone who would like to be added to his daily mailing list, just write him at Radiovickers1@gmail.com .

One Response to “Darrell Vickers: What Are Words Worth?”

  1. Dave Beirness Says:

    I remember the day back in high school in good old Oshawa Ontario Canada when I tried to convince Darrell that the new Led Zeppelin was a worthy listen! His reply…” All music sucks except the Beatles!” He’s come a long way since then!!

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