Songwriting 101: 'Strength of Strings' from No Other



Audacious and ambitious in its breadth and scope, ‘Strength of Strings’ epitomizes the cursorily vague philosophical core of No Other, and provides best evidence of the heights to which Gene’s muse might have taken him, had he not been emotionally eviscerated by the failure of his Grand Artistic Statement.
It also refutes any compulsion to pigeonhole Gene as just another sensitive, laid-back 70’s singer-songwriter. Yes, it is true, the stark, acoustic-based love songs on White Light certainly leaned in this direction. As a result, it is often lumped in with the 1971's graduating class from the James Taylor School for Sensitive Denim-Wearing Balladeers. While the often esoteric nature of the lyrics does not always support this categorization, the relative harmlessness of the music does.
What I mean to say is that the lyrics on White Light easily outshine any of its sometimes meandering, often innocuous, melodies. To anyone who did not read the lyrics of 'Spanish Guitar', it might seem like a pleasant little ditty. The title track features a loping melody over a non-stop barrage of largely impenetrable lyrics. Obviously a great deal of work went into the symbolism and complexity of White Light's words, but the blandness of their presentation does not reflect this intensity(cf. the anemic White Light version of 'One in a Hundred' with the definitive, simply glorious take on Roadmaster featuring the original five Byrds).
I sometimes wonder if Gene, as on earlier songs written during his cerebral Sings for You period (''66/'67), concentrated on honing his lyrics to the detriment of his melodies. (It is my theory it was for this reason that the Sings for You demos were permanently shelved.) But ‘Strength of Strings’ obliterates any conception of Gene as just another Dylan-worshipping, acoustic guitar-toting words guy. Consider this: it is a full two minutes into this six-and-a-half-minute epic until a single word is sung. Two full minutes. To my knowledge, no other Clark song from his officially released canon features a comparable interlude that is wholly dependent upon what its writer sought to communicate through pure, wordless music.

Beginning with a dual acoustic/electric guitar riff with an insistent, distinctly Native American texture, other instruments gradually join, as though awakened by, and compelled to replicate, the notes. Drums and bass soon enter, accentuating the final notes of the pattern, as if to gently presage the thundering climax of the song still some minutes away. But the pattern resumes; and each time it is repeated, the song’s intensity rises. An eerie chorale enters in the next cycle, interpreting the riff as hypnotic tribal chant.

But all of this is merely prelude.

Russ Kunkel’s dramatic, resonant tom-tom fill at the 1:30 mark launches the song into its next section, wherein an ethereal slide riff (presumably played by Gene’s partner-in-crime, Jesse Ed Davis) soars heavenward on the wings of the seraphic chorale. What occurs in those thirty seconds (1:30-2:00) constitutes some of the most exhilarating, deeply soulful music I have ever heard. For those brief seconds, Clark’s case for music as a profound, mystical-spiritual force is made without having uttered a word. It is, quite simply, a moment of transcendence.

The sweeping, cinematic grandeur of the first two minutes does present a problem. How does one follow this intro without rendering the remaining minutes of the song as pure anticlimax? Where do we go from here? And after such a dramatic stage has been set for his lead vocal, shouldn’t Gene’s opening salvo feature lyrics that aspire to the same lofty goal as the music? But when Gene makes his verbal entrance into the song a strange thing occurs. In a nice bit of ironic undercutting, he readily admits his impotence to craft language to adequately match the power of the music surging within him:

In my life the piano sings
Brings me words that are not the strength of strings.


But just listen to how Gene sings these lines. Think of the hushed, bedsit-romanticism of ‘With Tomorrow’, or the weathered but stoic reading of ‘Echoes’—this is something else entirely. Empowered by Kaye’s epic, Wagnerian production, Gene sounds as though he’s poised on the bridge of a ship, cursing into the eye of a fearsome gale. Pushed to the edge of his range, brimming with operatic gusto, Gene’s magnificent performance carried the day.

One of the things that makes Gene’s lyrics so deeply compelling was his ability to convey abstract concepts in very few words. In the above he affirms the inherent power of music over language, even as he explicates the vagaries of songwriting methodology: Music fires his imagination, compels him to write lyrics, but he concedes that his words could never embody the power he absorbs from the music.
It is this tension between aspiration and failure which results in the compulsion to capture, interpret and disseminate this power into language (lyrics). This cyclical phenomenon constitutes an artist’s creative surges; they are his self-regenerating lifeblood.
While it’s doubtful that Gene read Robert Browning, he had an intuitive knowledge that any artist’s reach must exceed his grasp.
With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Gene, notwithstanding his earlier admission of impotence, goes ahead anyway and attempts to capture in words exactly how he internalizes music as a series of startling visions:

Notes that roll on winds with swirling wings,
Brings me words that are not the strength of strings.
Fiery rain and rubies,
Cooling sun
Now I see that my world has only begun.


“Notes that roll on winds with swirling wings” is one of the most exquisite lines Gene Clark ever wrote, and yet, in spite of this, he concluded that these words do not adequately reflect the power of music burning within him. Next come a series of seemingly conflicting images: a rain of fire; a sun that cools. Is this just hippy-dippy mystic babble, or is there maybe something more going on here?
With these words, Gene has constructed images in which naturally occurring opposites are harmoniously reconciled in the act of musical creation. He has created a sphere of musical perfection within his mind.
Some might find the “cosmic range” line a tad irksome, but this is just another way of saying “out on the end of time”, as he did some nine years prior with ‘She Don’t Care About Time’. In this instance, it is an expression of the boundlessness of a songwriter’s imagination in communion with the unseen (yet seen) musical-spiritual divinity.

‘Strength of Strings’ is a hymn to this divinity.

Comments

A song that just gets better each time you listen to it. No wonder they placed it last on Side 1. How do you follow something like that? You need a break in order to come down from this.

Thank you for your analysis.

/Andreas
jkevin lally said…
beautifully put!

I better get off my ship and get on the phone and finish the interview--me bad--you great!
Kevin

J.Kevin Lally
Sha said…
Hi Tom,

as usual your analysis provided an intriguing read for me. I'm very happy you chose one of my very favourites this time.

It had not occured to me earlier that there is indeed a strong transcendentalist motif present in 'Strength of Strings'. Apart from the cyclical repetition of the opening riff you mention the dilemma of the poet who is unable to adequately verbalise the inspiration given to him by/through music. I was instantly reminded of R. W. Emerson's poem 'The Harp' here. Emerson portrays the poet Merlin as a sinner who is locked within the harp. Thus, the poet cannot perfectly communicate his inner message to the audience. The aeolian harp, however, is able to play alone and convey a divine message. To me this sounds very similar to the the superiority of music over lyrics expressed in Gene's song.

What still puzzles me about the lyrics is the piano: Why does it not possess the strength of strings? Doesn't a piano have strings - aren't the keys connected to strings? Or is the piano a mere metaphor for singing?

Thank you for making me think.

Sha
The Clarkophile said…
Hi Sha,

I'm unfamiliar with that particular poem by Emerson, but I'm going to read it asap---I love poems which touch upon the mysterious nature of music.

Re the piano. I don't think it's the piano that lacks strength, it's the words inspired by the music. I always took it that the piano was a metaphor for Music itself---as the music washes over the songwriter, it pushes him to write words he hopes will match the power of the music, but in the end the music brings "[him] words that are NOT the strength of strings."
I believe it is the innate knowledge of this inability which creates a cycle of creativity: the music inspires the artist, who drafts words to accompany it, but in the end the music always triumphs because, as we all know, music often tells us things that are otherwise ineffable.
John Rose said…
This was always a difficult song for me to wrap my brain around. Your analysis sheds new light on it for me.
Interesting that this song was the only one of the album's "complicated songs" (as I think of them) not to have an alternate version or early take added to the c.d. Perhaps this is appropriate given the importance of the arrangement to getting the song's meaning across. Do you know of any alternate takes?
The Clarkophile said…
No, I don't, unfortunately. I do have a suspicion that the song was crafted out of separately recorded sections. I'm pretty sure I can hear edits in a couple of places.

Thank you for your comment.
noomninam said…
Not taking anything away from the song or your insightful analysis, did anyone else notice that "strength of strings" is from "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" by Dylan, which the Byrds recorded on "Turn, Turn, Turn"? I'm sure we're meant to notice . . .
The Clarkophile said…
Hi noomninam,
Yes, I agree that the title was taken from Dylan as a tip of the hat. Gene's lyrical explorations were as a direct result of Dylan's influence, so I'm sure he wanted to use the phrase as both an acknowledgement of Dylan, and as a springboard for his own unique visions.
Anonymous said…
I cannot stop listening to this epic masterpiece
skipway said…
Brilliant, Tom. You really opened my ears to this song which is truly the transcendent heart of this masterpiece album. Did Geffen really LISTEN to this album? I don't think so, or he wouldn't have quibbled over the number of tracks.
Unknown said…
if you think-that Gene was not known for talking shit about fellow musicians behind their backs...you musta never heard him talking about mcguinn
Tom Sandford said…
Having never met the man, I defer to your assumed knowledge. I was speaking about comments made *publicly* for the record. So, in that respect, my comment stands.