drugs and rock and roll making the creative connections
between pop and poetry
Bowie in the same breath as Evelyn Waugh? Bob Dylan perusing
a well-worn copy of Les Fleurs du Mal? Just as artistic
movements have fired the imaginations of some of our greatest
writers across the centuries, so a more recent cultural
phenomenon rock music has fertilised, and
itself been inspired by, literature. Senior teaching fellow
in popular and world musics Simon Warner is looking at
what happens when two worlds collide.
Bob Dylan to Nirvana, the Beatles to U2, rock artists
over the last forty years have had literary connections.
Literature has influenced the style and content of their
songs, song writers have used similar writing techniques
as poets and novelists, or even written their own original
works of literature. This influence hasn't all been one-way:
since the 1960s a number of literary figures have been
interested in the world of music, using it as a source
of inspiration, and getting involved in album recordings,
concerts and the concepts behind them.
unwilling to place both forms on the same level, Simon
Warner (pictured left) believes you can’t
discount the cross-fertilisation that has taken place:
"There is a tendency to consider literature as a
high cultural form, and rock music as a low cultural form.
Where they meet, however, there are elements of literature,
and poetry in particular, which enters the music lyric,
and elements of popular culture which have infiltrated
the literary world. Developments in music through the
50s, 60s and beyond have parallels in the worlds of poetry,
prose and visual art, proving that the chasm between popular
music and 'higher' forms of culture is not so deep as
is sometimes supposed."
the 1960s, some rock stars stopped writing the sentimental
cliches, and the clever but contrived lyrics which had
characterised the popular song in the 1950s, and began
to take on political, social and personal issues. With
artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Jim Morrison,
pop lyrics began to show similar characteristics to poetry
in their content, style and form.
Warner said: "This change in popular music was a
reflection of what had been taking place in poetry
itself, during the 1940s and 50s. Poetic style had become
more informal, as the Beat writers in particular took
language and exploded it."
Beat writers and the rock musicians had another thing
in common drugs which were an integral
part of the changes taking place in literature and music
at the time. Yet taking substances to change the mind’s
vision and inspire writing is not new to literature: in
the 19th century the Romantic poets used opium for much
the same ends.
music is not the only strand of popular music to have
a literary connection. There is also a strong tradition
in Black culture from the 1940s onwards, with the growth
of jazz. A pioneer in this crossover was Slim Gaillard,
who, in the 1940s and 50s, used verbal dexterity set to
music to present improvised poetry.
the 60s, 70s and 80s, poetry inspired and influenced Black
music, with writer-musicians, such as Gil Scott Heron,
setting their words to music. Poetry and reggae, with
artists such as Lynton Kwesi Johnson, also have a strong
music is now being dubbed the 'street poetry' of the 1990s.
In the US, there are events called poetry ‘slams’,
where poets recite their work, often in rap, like performers
in a comedy or folk club.
last decade has seen the emergence of so-called cult fiction
the work of novelists like Irvine Welsh, Douglas
Rushkoff and Jeff Noon which has drawn heavily
on experiences of club culture and the dance music which
drives it, providing a literary mirror to a mass youth
Warner finds examples of connections between musicians
and literature, not through literary analysis, but in
biographical information about the musicians themselves,
other writings, and interviews:
his 'nonsense songs', such as I Am the Walrus and Lucy
in the Sky with Diamonds, John Lennon admits he was directly
influenced by poetry of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll's
Alice in Wonderland. Bob Dylan cites various people as
shaping his writing, especially the Beat writers of the
1950s, such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and the 19th
century French symbolist poets, Rimbaud and Baudelaire.
albums by David Bowie, Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane,
were directly inspired by novels. In the first, Bowie
wanted to make a soundtrack of the world Orwell had created
in 1984; in the second he was inspired by
Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Bowie even used a writing
technique, called cut-up, devised by the writer William
Burroughs. Burroughs would take a text he’d written,
cut it up and then reassemble the words in another order
and Bowie used this technique to create lyrics during
Burroughs was also one of a number of writers whose interest
in popular music led them to collaborate with a string
of major rock stars, including Laurie Anderson, U2 and
Kurt Cobain. Poets Jim Carroll, Michael McLure and Adrian
Henri, novelists Kathy Acker and Salman Rushdie, have
also worked closely with the rock fraternity.
writers who themselves became published authors include
Bob Dylan who wrote a stream of consciousness novel
Tarantula and John Lennon who wrote two
volumes of poetry, In his own Write and Spaniard in the
Works. Two other artists, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith,
tried to make their way as poets before entering the music
Warner believes that the commercial success which the
music world can offer is one of the reasons for such crossovers:
"This is a direct example of the mix of 'low' and
'high' culture, as artists start out as poets, then use
music to put their work in a new context. The financial
benefits are important, but these artists also choose
to use music to give their work wider appeal. Poetry still
commands a fairly élite and limited audience, whereas
rock music is heard by millions."