Caught by the River

Mother, Brother, Lover

28th November 2011

Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics of Jarvis Cocker (Hardback)
Review by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

What are the lyrics for?
Clearly there are some – a handful – of rock and pop lyrics that communicate a universal emotion with clarity and power – Jolene, Folsom Prison Blues, That’ll be the Day, Rainy Night in Soho. But some of my favourite songwriters produce lyrics that are barely comprehensible. What exactly is “a pink monkey bird”? Just who was watching the detectives and why? And Bob … Bob … Bob … what were you ever on about?

In the introduction to his collected lyrics Jarvis Cocker points out that the FBI tried to decipher Louie Louie in case it was obscene. After months of intense and expensive technological investigation they proved that it was completely meaningless. And yet we all do love to shout “Louie, Louie ….ooooh ohhh”. Because the lyrics are a handle – a way of holding onto the song, keeping it in your memory, bedding it into your hard drive. If you sing along while dancing, it does not imply any real emotional resonance or intellectual agreement. We didn’t really kiss the tortoise shell or even want to. We didn’t especially look back in anger or know what a wonderwall was. We were all just trying to karaoke ourselves into the moment. And in a way therefore the more meaningless a song was, the more powerful. The less it said, the less there was to disagree with. Without a meaning to tie them down, beautiful images can float forever in your brain – the Mississipi Delta shining like a national guitar, my melon being twisted, justified ancients arriving by ice cream van.

Even so, every now and then some twit will pop up and claim that rock and pop lyrics are “just as good as proper poetry if not better” and should be studied in schools or carved on gravestones. Jarvis Cocker has never been one of these people. “Do not read the lyrics while listening to the recording” said the instructions on Pulp’s album sleeves, while on their lyric sheets, the words were laid out not like wannabe poetry but like chunks of prose. In the introduction to this collection, Cocker admits that he only wrote lyrics because no one else in the band wanted to – it was just part of the the singer’s job. He describes reading the lyrics to Dark Side of the Moon and realizing the fact that they were rubbish somehow did not detract from the greatness of the music.

So why has he now put his name to a “collection” of lyrics all tastefully laid out with lots of blank space on lovely laid paper and bound between hard covers for all the World like Seamus Heaney? I don’t know why. But I’m glad he did. This book is an absolute joy. The introduction alone – a witty, modest and learned attempt to grapple with the point of songwriting – is worth the cover price. One reason it works so well is that Cocker’s great gift (which he calls “a limitation in disguise”) is for narrative so the book reads like a collection not of inferior poems but of brilliantly elliptical short stories. Seeing them all gathered together in one place like this, I was taken aback by how political they are. Orgreave, Thatcher, and of course the Cunts who are still running the World all get coverage. If any of these are before your time, then don’t worry because Cocker has provided you with footnotes. And it’s the footnotes that really did it for me. Some are surprisingly personal – here is Deborah’s surname, the address of the fountain down the road, the identity of the woman who made love beneath a poster of Roger Moore (it was Cocker’s aunty!). Most touchingly, the little girl in Little Girl turns out to be his Mother. But it’s the sociological minutiae – rather than the autobiographical revelations – that really give the book its weight and charm. The power of a great pop song is that it can turn up anywhere – on the station forecourt, as well as on the dancefloor, when we say goodbye as well as when we say hello. Pop songs collect memories the way ornaments collect dust. A great writer catches the details and Jarvis has been a terrific writer – for a long time. As a result you can trace in the songs and in their footnotes a vivid miniature social history of Britain, a history that covers the nature of Milk Tray, the significance of Bar Italia, the story of Peter Sutcliffe, the details of Sheffield City Council cheap bus fares policy. Riparophiles will be pleased to hear the notes include the full text of Cocker’s lovely essay about the River Porter. Cocker is alert to the poetry of the shopping aisle, the school playground and the TV schedule. He’s John Betjeman with a bass line. Honestly Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics are just as good as proper poetry. I think they should be studied in schools and carved on gravestones.

Copies of Mother, Brother, Lover can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.99