When a man who’s spent his whole musical life trapped behind a guitar steps free onto a large stage:
You can’t un-remember the shape of lines in famous songs. Try to say “I did it my way” without drifting into Frank Sinatra mode. When you find yourself pausing for a moment after “it“, you’re answering to Frank, not English punctuation. There is no comma. Your memory of the ‘right’ way, Frank’s way, shapes your mouth and your breath.
William Shatner tries, valiantly, to reshape the words of Rocket Man; to give them a conversational feel. But the memory of Elton John’s original tugs William towards it, especially once the music starts up around him. Memory shapes mind. Mind shapes the mouth:
You’re writing a song, in English, about a young woman whose life has taken all the wrong turns, most of them involving rock musicians:
Well, sometimes it seems impossible
That the game could get that rough
But the stage is set, the exit’s barred
And the make-up won’t come off
To fit the music, you need a two-beat, two-syllable name for your young, damaged woman. Something that begins with a young, clear-as-a-bell consonant, but dulls into a schwa sound. Better still if the end of her name is a thick, tongue-clogging l, so that you can drag her name down into the dirt when you sing it.
You think I make the choosing of names for songs sound mechanical or cynical? No name finds its way into a song unless its sound serves that song. Layla, Emily and Jane suit the psychology of the songs where they appear. Each name is a sound picture.
To choose your heroine’s name, you start running through the alphabet and come to B. Two syllables, the second one a schwa followed by an l. Beryl. Beryl the rock groupie. Really?
You don’t need to sing your consonants as precisely as Cécile McLorin Salvant to communicate the desperate emotional energy of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. The shape of the words, their meaning and the music are so closely woven together that the trail is easy to follow. Like breadcrumbs through the forest.
Think of this as Kate twirls in her red dress: you’ll notice she doesn’t dwell on the final t of Wuthering Heights. She rushes past, to reach the word Heathcliff. Of course. So how does Kate place the whole word ‘Heights’ clearly in your head, whether you’ve read Emily Brontë or not? Once she’s sung the H, your mind can’t go anywhere but Heights. Listen, and feel yourself filling in the blanks: