On most any given weekend afternoon from about 1985 until 1989 you could often find me camped out on my bedroom floor in front of my stereo. It was a KMart special I got for my thirteenth birthday. It had a record player and a tape deck, and was the reason I bought most of my music on vinyl (which I never called vinyl, but records) until 1989. Though I often got tapes for gifts (which was my main source of music-getting), when I was ponying up the cash it was for the records. Did I recently tell you this? I have a feeling I’m repeating myself.
All that changed when I got a car with a tapedeck and some semblance of a life (and by life I mean going to the $1 movies every weekend with Jodi Hanson and then to Ember’s next to the Northtown Mall to eat French fries). This has no bearing on what I’m going to say next, but it’s what happened.
Now, I don’t know if all musicgeeks are lyrics obsessed or if it’s just the certain portion of the venn diagram that also overlaps the booknerd circle. I was of the lyrics obsessed persuasion, which is why you could find me most weekends on the floor in front of the stereo with a notebook in my lap obsessively playing fifteen seconds of a song, pausing it, and then scribbling as fast as my hand and short-term memory could go whatever the singer had sung. Often I would overestimate my brain’s capacity for lyric-memorization. So the process often went something like this:
Play 30 seconds of song
Scribble, scribble, scribb. . . take a wild guess at what the next line is
Decide you are entirely too compulsive to live with a guess and rewind a bit
Discover you rewound to much, sigh dramatically because this was going to take forever
Double check your work until the new, unwritten lyrics come on
Scribble, scribble, scribble.
Repeat until supper time.
It was a lot of work. Back in the those days, it seemed, not a lot of records/tapes came with the lyrics printed inside. Plus, since a majority of every 80s teen’s music collection were random songs taped off the radio, the self-inscribed lyrics were a must. I had college-ruled, spiral-bound notebooks filled with song lyrics. I remember Journey and Debbie Gibson being particular early favorites, before I moved on to the likes of R.E.M. and Simon & Garfunkel.
I mostly dropped the lyrics writing habit after high school, though it flared up briefly in 1990-1991 when I discovered you could check out The Beatles’ albums from the Chippewa Falls Library and record them to tape before returning them. I logged some serious notebook/floor time for The Beatles back then.
And while it wasn’t quite the same, I did take to a text file and an itchy pause finger back when Paul Westerberg released 49:00. Like Peter Cetera might have said, if he were writing this post, it’s a hard habit to break.
Now, of course, you need not do such archaic things as write down lyrics in a notebook. Now, most songs are a Google search away. Thank you, Al Gore. If I had a dime for every time I looked up a lyric either from a song stuck in my head, to make an accurate joke, or just to check my memory/hearing/interpretation, I would be the owner of all the dimes.
Looking up lyrics is totally handy and I love it. Lately, I’ve taken up the pen and paper again. I don’t obsessively transcribe entire songs anymore. Who has time for that shit? But I do write down phrases, lines that catch my attention throughout the day. Most of the times it happens on days, like today, where the writing isn’t going so well, when everything is stuck and yucky. I like to call it research because some day soon I’m going to have to pretend like I know how to write a song. And I’m going to call all that obsessive lyric transcription, prep work.