Songwriter U: The Art Of Revision

Leonard Cohen on Pico 2, photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

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All serious songwriters learn at some point that songwriting isn’t only about writing. It’s about rewriting. It’s about not only getting it out, it’s about getting it right. And that usually requires some revision, the ability to cull and distill the best work out of what emerges from your songwriting soul.

The late great Leonard Cohen was one of the kings of revision. Maybe a mad king, in that his revisions would go for years, and fill many volumes, literally. He didn’t subscribe to the notion of songs simply arriving all at once, with the songwriter catching them like fireflies in a jar. For Leonard it was about work – about being “fully employed” as he said. He was willing to spend years, when necessary, to get a song right. “Hallelujah,” he said, took ten years. And then admitted it might have been more. 

“Some songs can take a decade to write,” he said, “After a while, if you stick with a song long enough it will yield. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable estimation of what you think long enough may be. In fact, long enough is way beyond. It’s abandoning, it’s abandoning that idea of what you think long enough may be.”

During my 1992 interview with him, conducted at his Tower of Song right here in  Los Angeles, after discussing the years of revision he’d devote to each song, he added, “If you are interested, I can take you upstairs and show you my notebooks.”

If I was interested? 

I was. And it was staggering to behold. There on his bookshelves were many volumes of his songs in process in big notebooks. He opened them and read me examples in that rich, resonant voice. Countless gems he’d polished for a long time, these carefully crafted, fully realized, rhymed verses, all which were ultimately cut out. Verses that most songwriters would be proud of forever. 

For example, this one from his epic “Democracy” from The Future:

First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues
This gutter people always in the news
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man’s back
when he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

[Discarded verse from “Democracy” by Leonard Cohen.]

Asked why he would write something at that level only to  cut it out, he answered in a way that was so essentially Leonard; his reasons were as eloquently expressed as his lyrics, and so deeply considered:

“I didn’t want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality,” he said. “I didn’t want it to get too punchy. I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”

A revelation in the heart. That’s a whole song there.

He then shared another of his discarded gems, also from “Democracy.”

From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified
Like the fingers on your hand
Like the hourglass of sand
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid
And the dollar’s cruel display
From the law behind the law
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

[Discarded verse from “Democracy” by Leonard Cohen.]

I expressed my awe that he’d write a verse like that and discard it. 

“The thing is,” he said, “that before I can discard the verse, I have to write it. Even if it’s bad. Even the bad ones took as long to write as the good ones. As someone once observed, it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as a good novel. It’s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse.”

“I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.” Even his explanations were as beautiful as his songs. 

And also true:It takes a whole lot of work to write anything, and then more work to determine if that writing is worth keeping or editing. Because unless you work on your song until each and every aspect of it is not only good, but as close to your ideal as possible, you are not bringing everything you can to this work.

As Sammy Cahn, who wrote lyrics to more Sinatra songs than anyone ever, said, the key to a strong song is architecture. If you build a song around a solid core, it can stand up to the test of time. Which is the aim. It holds up to repeated performances for decades because it is built that way. As Van Dyke Parks said, “A song should not fall apart on the street like a cheap watch.”

But how do you know, when a song is right and requires revision and when it does not?

Listen to the song. Be sensitive to what it needs, and what it doesn’t. My experience of this, and many have said they feel it in a similar way, is that it feels like a judgment which is made for me. In that every time I play the song, or listen to a recording of it,  certain aspects simply seem irksome. These are often lyrical lines, but sometimes it’s the melody, or a chord, that simply feels wrong. Especially compared to everything else, that feels right. That’s the experience of the song telling me what is wrong. Often it’s as if I have a sense of the ultimate, finished version of the song, and any lines that jive with that vision stick out. And as time has passed, I have learned to trust and honor this determination.

Many songwriters have told me they have this same feeling, as have other artists, most famously Michelangelo. Of carving figures out of blocks of marble, he explained that he didn’t invent the figure, but that it was in the stone, and all he had to do was cut away all the excess marble around it. Often songwriters sense the ultimate song, and have to remove anything that obscures it. 

Paul Simon saw it similarly. He said that, in both the writing of the song and the production, that he will remove anything that detracts: 

“I remove the irritant,” Simon explained. “If anything sounds irritating in any way, I remove it.”

What that requires, however, is a keen assessment of the song, which means being removed from the easy triumph of song completion to climb instead to the next level.

A good example is Simon’s now-classic “The Boxer,” recorded by Simon & Garfunkel on Bridge Over Troubled Water. His original working draft of the song is reprinted in his first big songbook. In that handwritten draft, there are the famous lyrics which possess that brilliant Simon spark of colloquial and poetic language merged, such as “I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises …”

But there’s also many lines that he jotted down, but cut out. There’s are lines about being on a train, and in the train bathroom wondering “how many men have crapped here before me.” It’s a line he cut out of the song, of course. It’s an extreme example, sure. But it shows what is necessary. The songwriter needs to open the creative gates, and allow the current of creativity to flow unimpeded by judgment or fear. That he wrote down that line shows he embraces the same dynamic of which Leonard Cohen spoke, the need to polish the gem first before you can tell if it shines.

Randy Newman shared this understanding, and spoke about how vital it is for songwriters – when in the first stages of writing a new song, and connecting with the flow of language that will become a lyric –  to not get in the way:

“Do not let the critic become bigger than the creator,” he said. Don’t question or criticiize it while it is being born. Write it down, as did Simon. Allow the words and ideas to flow without hindrance. “And then,” as Randy said, “you can go back and futz with it.” 

Levels of necessary revision are different for every songwriter. While many still believe old-fashioned and traditional song craft – such as perfect rhyming, perfect meter, syllabic stress and more – are always necessary, other modern songwriters do not subscribe to craft issues as much, and feel expression matters more.

That determination is up to you. Jackson Browne told me he used to feel perfect rhymes mattered more, and would not even rhyme a singular with a plural – such as “fog” and “dogs.” But, perhaps influenced by his good friend Warren Zevon’s ingenious use of false rhymes, Jackson revised this idea.

“I don’t think it’s important to rhyme perfectly,” he said. “I used to be pretty obsessed with it … So it would be perfect. I would go to great lengths to change the line … But I’d say that most great music is fine without that kind of obsessive detail … You can only rhyme ‘world’ and ‘unfurled’ so many times …”

Which means every songwriter must make this determination individually. But regardless of where one sets that bar, the truth remains: A song is a fusion of both craft and art. Both inform and inspire the other. Rarely is a perfect song written without some level of revision, and it’s at that juncture of work and creative flow that greatness is achieved.

As Jackson Browne concluded, “That is the most powerful combination, when the craft contains so much commitment that it becomes art. When those two things come together – craft and art – that’s where the magic comes from.”

Leonard Cohen, “Democracy.”
Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer.” From The Concert in Central Park.
Randy Newman, “Marie.”

Jackson Browne with J.D. Souther, “Fountain of Sorrow.”

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