Sunday, October 14, 2007

By the Time I Get to Phoenx

Lyrics in Songwriting Example:
"By the Time I Get to Phoenix" music and lyrics by Jimmy Webb
Book Excerpt: Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting by Jimmy Webb

To continue with my accolades on Jimmy Webb's book about songwriting, here are some excerpts. Again, I would highly recommend this book to songwriters, new and old, far and wide...

EXCERPTs from Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting - by Jimmy Webb, Chapter 3, pgs 37-42

We must accomplish our aims and tell our entire story in a time frame of about three minutes (plus or minus). Every word, every note must count.

Usually there is only room for one or two characters in our little radio plays and perhaps fifty seconds for each act. We have to get while the getting’s good. What this means is that we have been challenged with accomplishing an almost impossible task exquisitely. We are the Swiss watchmakers of music and literature. It is our complete understanding of what constitutes a song “idea” that enables us to do this at all.

Let’s always ask the questions or establish the ambiguities first whether in a song like:

Why does the sun keep on shining?
Why do the waves rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s The End of the World
‘Cause you don’t love me anymore…
- Sylvia Dee & Arthur Kent,“The End of the World”


When I come home feeling tired and beat,
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet…
- G. Goffin & C. King “Up On the Roof”

Where is she going? There is an implied mystery. We are all curious about where we’re going – but we really don’t want to know until we get there. It spoils the fun. Let’s pursue this for a moment:

By the Time I Get to Phoenix she’ll be rising…
- Jimmy Webb “By the Time I Get to Phoenix"

The first line of the song. We don’t know who is speaking and we don’t know about whom he’s speaking, but we do know that he’s on his way to Phoenix, presumably in the early hours of the morning since by the time he arrives there another person – a woman – will have awakened and will be leaving her bed. It is a situation that is meant to pique our curiosity. Who is the man? Who is the woman? Why is he on his way to Phoenix? This is the songwriter’s counterpart of the first lines of a three-act play in miniature. Eventually during the course of this three-minute song in three verses after passing through Albuquerque and discovering that our ultimate destination is Oklahoma, we come finally to these lines:

...and she will cry to think that I would really leave her,
Though time and time again I’ve tried to tell her so…
She just didn’t know that I would really go…
- Jimmy Webb “By the Time I Get to Phoenix"

What if we had started the song with the last line? There would have been no story to tell. In the early stages of a song ambiguity is essential as in:

Oh I can’t forget this evening
Or your face as you were leaving…
- Peter Ham & Tom Evans ”Without You”

Don’t we want to know more about this man and the person to whom he is singing? And don’t we explode emotionally with the writer and the singer when they admit finally:

I can’t live if livin’ is Without You
- Peter Ham & Tom Evans ”Without You”

It would have been a waste if the first line of the song had been “I can’t live, if livin’ is without you.” So the placement of the title/idea is of great importance and consequently we usually find it at the end of a verse or in the first strong expository lines of the chorus, or perhaps as a conclusive statement at the last line of the chorus. Sometimes, particularly in the case of two-verse forms, we will only hear it once at the very end of the song.

A great song idea usually utilizes an interesting hook line or title and incorporates it into a fully realized scenario that reveals in careful, logical stages the true goal or intent of the writer. This is the “developmental” component of a verse. For instance, in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” it is composed of the lines after the “teaser”:

By the Time I Get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note that I left hanging on her door
And she will laugh to read the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl too many times before
- Jimmy Webb “By the Time I Get to Phoenix"

Well, if this isn’t a soap opera in the making then I’ve never heard one! We find out some interesting things very quickly: that he’s left a note on her door, that it’s a farewell note that will cause her some amusement and that as a note-leaver our hero is perhaps a repeat offender. Now this is the way we build up the story, the meat and muscle of the inner lines of verses…the strong tissue that connects the sometimes deceptively nondescript opening line with the “hammer,” or at Motown in the old days, the “message,” the hook, line and sinker, what have you. In the case of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the hammer doesn’t land until the very end of the last verse when we find out that as smug as she may be, the one who has been left behind is in for a rude surprise, “And she will cry to think that I would really leave her…” This time he means it. This is the O’Henry-esque twist or surprise ending that is common to the true ballad and is probably descended from the storyteller by the hearthside.

Try working backward. If my authority is not sufficient on the subject then listen to Stephen Sondheim: “I find it useful to write backwards, and I think most lyric writers probably do too when they have a climax, a twist, a punch, a joke.”

Look at that big chorus line like “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” and ask yourself where that story begins. You could find yourself beginning a verse as brilliantly as this:

You never close your eyes anymore
When I kiss your lips…
- Mann, Weil & Spector “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’”

In this instance there is obvious evidence of the writers’ extremely well-honed observational techniques. The fact that she no longer closes her eyes is a small thing but the protagonist has noticed it and it has immediately put us (the listeners) on extremely intimate footing with both the singer and the object of his desire. It is also interesting to note that we are eavesdroppers on this conversation, which we could assume is taking place in a hotel room, on a beach or in the backseat of an automobile. This will be the songwriters’ primary communicatory device: they are going to let us overhear one side of a conversation that under normal circumstances we would not even consider auditing.

All of the above is from the book, in Jimmy Webb's own words.

Now, for everyone's reference, here are the complete lyrics to "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

By The Time I Get To Phoenix
By Jimmy Webb (music and lyrics)

By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be risin'.
She'll find the note I left hangin' on her door.
She'll laugh when she reads the part that says I'm leavin',
'Cause I've left that girl so many times before.

By the time I make Albuquerque she'll be workin'.
She'll prob'ly stop at lunch and give me a call.
But she'll just hear that phone keep on ringin',
off the wall, that's all.

By the time I make Oklahoma she'll be sleepin',
She'll turn softly and call my name out low.
And she'll cry just to think I'd really leave her,
'Tho' time and time I've tried to tell her so.
She just didn't know I would really go.

An amazing book and an amazing CD, in my humble opinion!

TuneSmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting

Ten Easy Pieces

Jimmy Webb Links:
Jimmy Webb: TuneSmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting
Jimmy Webb: Ten Easy Pieces
Jimmy Webb Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Annemarie,

    My first thought on Jimmy Webb's "By the time I get to Phoenix"... is that he has an ego. He's leaving and he's thinking of himself in relation to her.

    The same thought applies to "Wild World" by Cat Stevens.

    Us guys have a hard time checking ego's in with the hat-check girl it seems... (implying sexism here)

    Everyone that you quoted has had time check their penmanship. Tried and true, each of your quoted writers. And yes, telling us a story where you want to know more is like Marc Bolans 'I get hooked everytime the writer talks to me like a friend"...

    Curtis Mayfield