words and music
by Burt Prelutsky
I have spent my entire adult life as a professional writer. Along the way, I have been a humor columnist; a book, TV and movie critic; an advertising copywriter; a celebrity profiler; a TV writer; and, of late, an essayist. It’s sort of like being the literary equivalent of a one-man band. The variety has certainly helped prevent burn-out, but it has also made me feel at times as if I were juggling dishes while tightrope walking.
Frankly, I would never encourage anyone to pursue a writing career. Pursue is the operative word. As a matter of fact, when addressing groups of aspiring writers, I do everything in my power to discourage them. I consider it a good deed on my part. However, I’m all too aware that those afflicted with the writing virus are immune to my sage counsel. People who feel the need to get their thoughts down on paper are as driven as any other group of addicts. Why else would they continue writing when every sane person in their lives is warning them to stop before they hurt themselves?
It’s true that a few writers -- people like Rawlings, King and Grisham -- become wealthy. A somewhat larger number earn decent livings. But for all the others, writing only provides a miserable hand-to-mouth existence, filled with frustration and, occasionally, humiliation.
When one considers the odds against succeeding as a writer, it probably makes more sense to invest heavily in lottery tickets or betting on the ponies.
In my case, if I had it to do all over again, I probably would have become a lyricist. Of all the writers, I believe they have the best deal. That is to say, I think they’re the only wordsmiths in the world who are actually over-paid.
It has always amazed me that a lyricist shares equally with the composer in the revenue generated by a song. I have heard that the great Jerome Kern insisted on a 60-40 division with his collaborators, but I think even he was getting short-changed.
It’s one thing when George Gershwin split 50-50 with his lyricist, for inasmuch as the guy was his brother, the money at least stayed in the family. Giants such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim, avoided settling for 50 cents on the dollar by writing the words as well as the music.
Even though I have never composed a single note, I simply can not fathom why the composer should have to fork over half the loot. The music, after all, is the thing that grabs us, the tune we whistle, the memory that lasts. In some cases, in fact, the instrumental versions, with their often banal lyrics removed, are much better than the vocal renditions.
I recall hearing an anecdote about the wife of a lyricist who, upon hearing the composer’s wife claim that her husband had written, let us say “Some Enchanted Evening,” announced, “No, your husband wrote la-la-la. My husband wrote ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’”
The lady was right, and I don’t wish to diminish the lyricist’s contribution. Without the words, singers would have to hum. But to me, the cut should be more like 80-20. The composer’s contribution is far and away the greater part of the whole. The music, after all, is always able to stand on its own, whereas without the music, most lyrics would be second-rate poetry, and the author would be lucky to get five cents-a-line from some college quarterly.
It’s true that there have been a handful of brilliant lyricists. Such people as Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer, Oscar Hammerstein, and Alan Jay Lerner, spring to mind. But it’s also true that, except for the Italians, nobody understands the lyrics to the arias of Puccini, Bizet and Verdi, and nobody except maybe the lyricists’ wives seems to care that it’s all la-la-la.