Thursday, 25 August 2011

So, farewell then, Jerry Leiber - the greatest rock lyricist of them all

There are more lyrics penned by Jerry Leiber knocking around inside my bonce than those of any other 20th Century songwriter. He was – without the shadow of a doubt – the greatest lyric writer in the history of Rock. Chuck Berry comes close – but he was writing for his own voice and in one style: Leiber was writing for dozens of performers in a whole variety of musical genres.

Dylan had his moments, certainly – but, come on, did he ever reach the creative heights represented by “Take out the papers and the trash/ Or you don’t get no spending cash” (“Yakety Yak”)? Or “The drummer boy from Illinois went Crash! Boom! Bang!/The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang” (“Jailhouse Rock”)? Or “Drink, you fink? Oh fiddleydedink!/ I can dance with a drink in my hand”?(“Bossa Nova Baby”)? Or “You’re gonna need an ocean/Of calamine lotion” (“Poison Ivy”). Or:
She did a triple somersault and when she hit the ground.
She winked at the audience and then she turned around.
She had a picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine,
Saying Phoenix, Arizona, nineteen forty-nine.?
(“Little Egypt”)
No matter where she's a hiding
She's gonna hear me a comin'
Gonna walk right down that street
Like Bulldog Drummond
I think not.

No Rock Era writer has ever been wittier or cleverer or more instantly arresting.

And, of course, Leiber also did epic, spine-tingling romance like no one else. I mean, for goodness sake! – the man actually wrote the words to “Stand By Me”:
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No, I won't be afraid
Oh, I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.

And there was Ben E. King’s “On the Horizon”, with it’s swooning, strangely Arabic-sounding strings:
On the horizon
Out where the ocean meets the sky
On the horizon
I saw a ship go sailing by
This was the ship that I'd often dreamed of
A ship made of gold with a gold sail above
This was the ship that I dreamed would someday bring my love

Apart from the funny ones and the romantic ones, his career (and that of his partner, Mike Stoller, who did all the great music) was bookended by gutbucket, pre Rock ‘n’ Roll R&B classics such as Wilbert Harrison’s marvellous “Kansas City”, Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and Big Joe Turner’s “Chicken and the Hawk” – and the likes of Peggy Lee’s wistful “Is That All There Is?” (one of my Mum’s favourites) and another torch songy classic,  Elkie Brooks’s “Pearl’s A Singer”, as well as Stealer’s Wheels’ “Stuck in the Middle with You”. And I haven’t even mentioned “I (Who Have Nothing)” or great Drifters’ hits like “There Goes My Baby”“On Broadway”, and the achingly lovely “Spanish Harlem” (for a complete listing of all Leiber & Stoller songs, click here ).

I could bore on for pages about Jerry Leiber’s genius, but I’ll confine myself to five brief(ish) comments:

I can’t think of any other writer subtle enough to come up with songs about impotence (“Love Potion No. 9”, in which the singer tells Madame Ruth - “you know, that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth” - that “I was a flop with chicks/I’ve been this way since 1956”) and venereal disease (in “Poison Ivy”, we’re warned “You’ll be scratchin’ like a hound/The minute you start to mess around”) that can be enjoyed without any understanding of what they’re actually about – I’ve loved both songs since I was eight!

Before Jerry Leiber, I doubt if many white writers in any medium ever managed to create black characters who were comic and real without being either stupid or cowardly or both: the janitor whose desire to own a pure herringbone suit is thwarted by a poor credit rating in The Coasters’ wonderful “Shopping for Clothes” (“I got a good job, sweepin’ up every day”) manages to engage our sympathy without inviting our contempt. (This will sound horribly pretentious, but the character in that song reminds me of Burma Jones, the New Orleans nightclub janitor in white writer John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant 1960s comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces – who’s also very funny and down at heel and very real and not in the least bit pitiful.)

Has any lyric writer ever been as obsessed with numbers? Apart from squeezing one into the title, in The Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block Number 9”Leiber goes the whole hog and actually starts with a date: “On July the second, 1953/I was serving time for armed robbery” (now, that’s a couplet designed to grab the listener’s attention.) And this from Jailhouse Rock: “No 47 said to No 3/You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see”.

That last couplet reminds me that there’s more than one reference in Leiber’s lyrics to homosexual activity. In “Love Potion Number 9” (there’s that number again, and once more in the title) the erectile dysfunction sufferer is running around priapically, until disaster strikes: “But when I kissed a cop at 34th and Vine/He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number Nine”. Sad.

Even though Leiber and Stoller hit the big time when Elvis (unknown to them) covered “Hound Dog”, Leiber hated Elvis’s version. Freddie of Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys had rewritten the lyrics and it was his version that Presley half-inched – Leiber, rightly, said the new words made “no sense”. He also thought the new version was too fast, too nervous and too comic. His openly expressed views demonstrate Leiber’s excellent taste – Big Mama Thornton’s original version knocks Elvis’s novelty number into a cocked hat (whatever that phrase means).

Many people think the Drifters’ recording of “There Goes My Baby” (which breaks a whole set of rules – it’s rhythmically and structurally weird and almost operatically overwrought, and must have sounded as if it was being broadcast from another planet when it was released) was the first genuine “Soul” record. There’s not many songwriters who could be credited with inventing a whole new popular music genre.

So long, Jerry – and my personal thanks for 50 years of enormous enjoyment. You’d no doubt want everyone to know the exact date of your death:  22nd August, 2011.

And I’m still not sure how to pronounce your surname!

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