What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Neil Young

In previous posts in this series, I looked at Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. This week, it’s the turn of Neil Young. And if Springsteen and Dylan are the masters of the vivid striking image, and Cohen is the master of wit and erudition, then Neil Young is the master of simplicity. If any writer wants to eschew purple prose and – like Hemingway – chop away the dead wood and just deliver crisp, sparse lines, then they should look at Neil Young.

Young’s lyrics are so deceptively simple that sometimes it takes a second reading just to see how powerful they are. Take, for instance, these lines from “Long May You Run”:

“Well, it was back in Blind River in 1962
When I last saw you alive
But we missed that shift on the long decline
Long may you run

Long may you run, long may you run
Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run

Maybe The Beach Boys have got you now
With those waves singing “Caroline No”
Rollin’ down that empty ocean road
Gettin’ to the surf on time”

There is so much memory and loss and longing contained in these very simple lines. The interesting thing about this song is that it was actually written about a car. Yes, a car. And not just any car, but Neil Young’s first car, which was a hearse. However, just as the lyrics themselves are deceptively simple, so is the story behind it. Because while it is ostensibly about the car, he was driving this car at a time when he had just joined his first band, Buffalo Springfield, with Stephen Stills. So the memories are not just of a car but of everything that the car and that time in Young’s life embodied.

These lyrics also bring up a question that I haven’t dealt with in this series yet: how much of the lyrics are tied to the voice and the music? The answer is, of course they are. The music that underpins the lyrics and the voice that carries them across add so much to the emotion. This is certainly true of Neil Young. Perhaps, these lyrics aren’t as moving on the page without the beautiful steel guitar underneath them and Young’s high-pitched, plaintive voice that almost makes it into a lament.

But, if that’s the case, then there’s a lesson there for writers too – the importance of the writer’s voice. Anyone can write the line, “Rollin’ down that empty ocean road/ Gettin’ to the surf on time”, but it takes Neil Young’s voice to infuse it with such emotion. In much the same way, any writer can write a particular exchange of dialogue or a particular scene – for instance, one character speaking about how they feel about another character – but it takes a writer’s distinctive voice to put it across in a way that hasn’t been done before and that speaks to the reader.


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What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Bob Dylan

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question, “What can the great songwriter’s lyrics teach us about writing?” and I used Bruce Springsteen as an example. This week I want to look at one of the greatest songwriters of all time: Bob Dylan.

There are, of course, as many sides to Dylan as there are albums. There’s the traditional “rhyming couplet Dylan”, from the bizarre and almost child-like imagery of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

“Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles”

to the deep symbolism of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (both songs taken from the same album):

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred”

But there’s also the “expansive song lyric Dylan”, in songs that oftentimes come across more as short stories than actual songs. One of the most famous examples of this is the song “Hurricane” about the boxer Rubin Carter who was imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit:

“Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out ‘My God they killed them all’”

Another example is the song “Tangled up in Blue”:

“She was working in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept looking at her side of her face
In the spotlight so clear”

Both of these songs read less like the brief snatches of imagery that we get in normal song lyrics and more like a fully-fledged story, filled with characterisation, plot, and attention to detail. Dylan has touched on this in interviews:

“What I do that a lot of other writers don’t do is take a concept and line I really want to get into a song and if I can’t figure out for the life of me how to simplify it, I’ll just take it all, lock, stock and barrel, and figure out how to sing it so it fits the rhyming scheme. I would prefer to do that rather than bust it down or lose it because I can’t rhyme it.”

Writers who want to write tight and concise short stories, where every word matters, could do a lot worse than read the lyrics to these two songs, amongst others.

The most striking thing about Dylan is the way he never gives you the next line you think he will. No matter what you think is coming next, it never is. It’s in this way that Dylan can teach a writer a lot about the use of similes and metaphor. Dylan is never one to go for the easy metaphor. If a writer was to try to think of a metaphor for crying (as in “crying like a …”), what might they use? Here’s the metaphor Dylan uses in “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

“Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun”

Or how to describe someone who has been beaten down and is at the end of their tether? Here’s how Dylan does it in “Shelter from the Storm”:

“I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.”

Once again, he never goes for the obvious metaphor or image. You think you know the image he’s going to use, but he always uses something different. Finally, I’ll finish on perhaps my favourite Dylan line, one that I think shows just how extraordinary his use of imagery and metaphor is. From the song, “Visions of Johanna”, one simple line that tells us everything we need to know about the person he is describing:

“The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”

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What Can Writers Learn from Songwriters?

A lot of writers are lovers of music; many listen to music while they write. But how many are actually influenced by songs. And when I say influenced, I mean – not only take their inspiration from – but actually look at songwriting as a way to improve their own writing. As writers, we are always told to look at the great writers for tips on how to write well – look at Hemingway for economy of prose, look at Elmore Leonard for crackling dialogue – but what about the great songwriters?

To give some examples of what writers can learn from songwriters, I’m going to use one of my favourite songwriters: Bruce Springsteen. I could just as easily have used Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and on and on (and I may do in future columns) but the article would most likely end up 5,000 words long and…let’s face it…neither of us wants that!

So what can Bruce Springsteen teach a writer about writing?

Descriptions and similes

A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, for instance “faster than a speeding bullet”. However, that simile is a cliché and oftentimes writers descend into cliché when they write similes. What great songwriters can teach us is how to approach the simile from left of centre and come up with something new and original. Springsteen has always done this in his songwriting. From lines such as

“Endless juke joints in Valentino drag,

Where dancers scrape the tears up

Off a street dressed down in rags.”


“There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away,

They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets.”

I could go on quoting for hours – as I could with Dylan or Cohen – but you get the idea. The use of interesting and unusual juxtapositions of imagery to create new and striking descriptions and similes.

Writing Characters

Here are a couple of quotes by Springsteen on writing the characters in his songs:

“Slowly, the dread that I managed to keep out of [the song] ‘Rosalita’ squeezed its way into the lives of the people on [the album] Born to Run.”

“The songs [for the album Darkness on the Edge of Town] were difficult to write. I was searching for a tone between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and ‘70s cynicism. I wanted my characters to feel older but not beaten. The daily struggle in every song increased. The possibility of transcendence or personal redemption felt harder to come by. I steered away from escapism and sat my characters down in the middle of a community under siege.”

Here, there is this notion that the characters are real people, that what happens to them is out of the writer’s hands: ‘the dread … squeezed its way in’ and ‘the daily struggle in every song increased’. Throughout his career, Springsteen’s characters grew in ways that he could never have foreseen and couldn’t control. Of course, this was because he changed, and those changes were reflected in his characters. Most prose writers feel exactly the same way about their characters. Characters must not be forced; they must be allowed to find their own way, to be living, breathing people that will connect with the reader.

Show Don’t Tell

Springsteen builds the personality of the characters in his songs – especially his later songs – out of the simple mundane things that happen to them. With the exception of ‘big’ songs, like ‘Born in the USA’, there’s very little telling – it’s all about showing us what the person’s life is like. This is especially true of the songs on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad where Springsteen lets the seemingly mundane details of the character’s life coalesce into a portrait of the person. By the end of the song, it may seem like little has happened but we will usually have a clear picture of who the character is or will have witnessed some kind of transformation that they went through.

I’ll finish on one of my favourite Springsteen descriptions that encapsulates in a couple of lines the character, Mary, from the song ‘Thunder Road’. It’s not the nicest image but it’s brutally human and honest:

“So, you’re scared and you’re thinking

That maybe we ain’t that young anymore,

Well, show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,

You ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright.”


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