A Songwriter and Mercy
Lyrical laziness, a Manuel jacket, and words are everywhere
In my “vocation” of songwriting, I’m not much fun.
The standard of editing and care of the written word that I was exposed to as a young man is almost unattainable.
That’s why most of the music I listen to for enjoyment is instrumental.
I can’t help but listen to lyrical songwriters with a razor blade in my hand.
I’ve started to notice lately that songwriters often use the word “Mercy” as incorrectly as they use the word “Ironic.”
Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary definition.
Mercy- compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.
When I see the word “mercy” in songwriting it is usually being used as a stand in for the word “charity.”
Charity- the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.
I don’t offer mercy to anybody because I don’t believe myself to be superior to them.
Charity, on the other hand, especially in the form of kindness, should be my daily philosophy. At least, I try to make it that.
My crush mentioned that “charity” can often imply condescension, but we hashed it out and decided that there was nothing condescending about being “charitable” to others, so this was not anything to worry about.
I think it’s lazy songwriting to like the way a word sounds so much you use it incorrectly.
I won’t name the songs. You can find them.
There’s a Christian rock band call MercyMe. Their name is comical, because there’s no way they are referencing Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy, Me” but instead are likely to be using clever wordplay to ask for God’s mercy while using “mercy” as a verb.
Youth Propaganda conversation in the Christian world is full of this stuff, like “fellowshipping.” The preacher I’ve irritated by pointing out that his church is homophobic and that I hope his church coffeeshop business suffers has mentioned that we should “dialogue.” Not “have a dialogue.” I guess once you start justifying discriminating against people by using your interpretation of mythology, screwing up our language isn’t that big of a deal. I think it’s a kind of secret pop Christian language used to make vulnerable people feel like they belong, so they dig deep in their pockets.
MercyMe sells a ton of stuff and plays everywhere. And other than making “mercy’ into a verb in their name, based on their song lyrics that indicate they see God as judge and jury (with a side of unconditional love and all-seeing, all-knowing approval) they use the word correctly.
See what I did there? I credited an act from a musical genre, that I despise for its propaganda driven idiocy and lyrical dishonesty, for actually using language more correctly than most well-meaning kind-hearted and progressive songwriters.
Here’s my usual disclaimer: Who am I, a marginally successful 62 year old songwriter, to tell you what songs you should like?
Nobody. Please, love what you love, worship as you see fit.
But for the love of everything good in this world, use this beautiful language well.
And don’t expect to be cut any slack if you ruined my coffee with your homophobia.
From his Church/coffeehouse website- “We believe in God's design for marriage & relationship as one of male and female.”
There’s only one stand alone coffee shop in this town.
To paraphrase a scene in the Sopranos, now you can never say you haven’t been told.
Worship- the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity.
"the worship of God"
One of the few people I came close to worshipping was Pops, (he wasn’t a deity, so he couldn’t really be worshipped, but you get the point) and it was worship/admiration based on his unerring ear for language. I was a lousy poet, but I was determined to be an emotionally honest and accurate songwriter who would be considered poetic.
Poetic- having an imaginative or sensitively emotional style of expression.
"the orchestral playing was colorful and poetic"
I listened hard to Dylan, Neil Young, John Martyn, but my lyrical influences weren’t songwriters. They were William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck, and Jack London, to name a few American writers.
Pop’s opinions on how I used language meant a great deal to me.
This is Dwight Yoakam in a jacket that is either a Manuel jacket or styled after the Manuel Cuevas 80’s look.
I wrote a song in 2007 (one of my first after returning gradually to playing) that my crush still likes as much as anything I’ve written, “Manuel Jacket,” the true story of my decision not to buy a rhinestone encrusted blue bolero jacket from the Manuel store in Nashville because it cost an unaffordable-at-the-time, $500.
This happened during my first few months in Nashville and I didn’t really know the way things worked, so it never occurred to me to ask for an advance from my publisher. The jacket really did look that good, like it was tailored for me.
And it was a Manuel Jacket!
I could have looked legitimate, in the way that the right stage clothes make a performer look like a PERFORMER.
And yes, then I could have done the Dwight shimmy!
So imagine my shock when Pops calls and tells me that he AND my mother (whom I worship in a different way, but still for her understanding of words) really, really, really don’t like one line in my otherwise great song.
It’s the line “shone in the night like the Star of Bethlehem.”
They disliked that line so much that they had run the line by their friends and their friends didn’t like it.
I was stunned. That line makes perfect sense to me. Mythologically speaking, the star of Bethlehem was the guiding light for a journey that would change the world, if you believe that kind of thing.
That Manuel Jacket, rhinestone encrusted, shining silver on blue, could not be any more like a guiding star. And by turning down the chance to follow whatever came from choosing to buy that jacket, I might possibly have changed my life.
Pops was a brilliant poet, death on wasted words and cheap ornamentation. He was a great teacher, rarely wrong when he spotted something in need of changing.
You may even agree with him about the “Bethlehem” line.
You’d both be wrong.
Not only does the line work, it does exactly what I intended it to do. I meant for it to imply that a an almost religious experience was possible with this jacket.
Manuel Jacket is on a set of demos I released under the title “In Tune, On Time, Not Dead.” The demo production is raw but the hooks are there and it’s got one of my friend’s favorite songs, “1966 Telecaster.”
You can get Manuel Jacket here. Be warned, it’s musical chaos! But the lyrics are solid and I think they pass muster.
I wasn’t going to change it, so I never let the subject surface again.
Even the Buddha said to reject your teacher.
Pops taught and wrote in a time period mostly defined by older definitions of what made legitimate poetry. Before everybody had access to publishing (Substack and this blog/journal being a perfect example of this access) themselves, self-publishing was considered a sign that the writer wasn’t good enough. A lot of legitimacy came from having been published, officially.
The internet has changed that.
Now everybody can publish every word of of their journals, every record review that they write for their newsletter, every opinion piece, every short story and fan fiction. You can literally create your own publishing business.
If you are a songwriter, you can pretend to be a poet. A poet can pretend to be a journalist. Journalists can write every day and be at the tip of the social justice spear. Journalists can also fear for their lives, precisely because their words are so easily found.
It feels like a mixed blessing because as more avenues for expression have become available I think that this ease of entry to the various word fields may have lessened the overall quality of writing that is considered “serious.”
Since most people self-edit and it’s very hard not to fall in love with your own words, missing out on the rigor provided by having an editor to collaborate with does them a disservice.
But in the name of people being able to get the word out, tell it like it is, tell their story, let it be known how they feel, and explain their position, it’s 75% positive.
Having this Substack has been an adjustment for me. The blog/journal format, with its quick turnaround time and potential for typos and errors, isn’t my natural home.
I’m lucky that Pops was such a brutal editor, my mother is a fantastic first reader, and my crush is merciless with all things literary. That gives me a fighting chance at writing well
I’ve had to let go of my usual writing process where I go back over and over my work, sometimes for months, until a piece, usually a song, is down to the only words that work, like sculpting a figure out of a block of stone.
Instead I’ve counted on what I learned from Pop’s attitude toward young writers coming up with a different idea of what counted as successful writing.
He used to quote a conversation involving the poet Robert Creeley that he witnessed while walking with Allen Ginsberg . I may have used this example elsewhere but in the name of my new, more modern, approach to writing, here it is again.
Creeley’s new book had caused some consternation among the people in the poetry world, who like to pick at things and each other, and another poet walking with Pops and Ginsberg asked Ginsberg, looking to open a discussion about the merits or lack thereof, how he felt about Creeley’s new work.
Ginsberg simply said, “whatever Bob’s doing, I’m for it.”
Whatever you writers are out there doing, I’m for it.
It might just not be for me.
Jeep has committed a language crime with Rubicon
The only way this works for me is if the owner of this jeep is okay with me crossing over the hood to get to the other side. An even more stupidly named vehicle is the Nissan Armada, which is only one very large vehicle.
I’ve tried to bring the words “groovy” and “far out” back, but to no avail. They are gone, just like the words like “hooch” and “gnarly.”
Trying to keep language the same as it ever was is a losing battle, dig?
“Irregardless” is officially in the dictionary now. People used it instead of just saying “regardless” for so long that the denizens of the earth just gave up and said “okay, I give up, it’s a word!”
Isn’t that ironic?
No, no it’s not.
Maybe “mercy’ will achieve such a large volume of incorrect usage across the globe that it will become an official substitute for “charity”
If that happens, I’m out of here. I’ll move to Mars where language is just getting started. Regardless of how dangerous the journey.
But words are everywhere now.
I’m for it.
You can call me if you want to “dialogue” this.
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Love reading your writing Nathan! I’ve been meaning to tell you that your words remind me of a poet I once worked with as a publicist, his name is Reginald Dwayne Betts. Check him out! He’s a remarkable human and creative thinker. There’s something about your prose that reminds me of his essays. I think it’s how you both are truth tellers and say it how it is. 😎