Jarvis Cocker, frontman of the Britpop band Pulp, willed himself to come to Yale in order to see the dinosaur mural at the Peabody. He has a song about dinosaurs (“I met her in the Museum of Paleontology / And I make no bones about it / I said, ‘If you wish to study dinosaurs / I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted”). He didn’t read its lyrics on Wednesday afternoon in Green Hall. He also likes space, and not having already exhausted that scientific subject (no time for the observatory), he talked a little more about that.
“When I was a child, there was a lot of space exploration going on, I guess that’s over now, but it had the effect of making me really disinterested in a lot of things on earth, because I thought by this age I would be living on another planet, or at least on a space station of some sort. Like riding a bike. I thought, ‘Are they going to have bicycles in space? I do NOT think so.’”
Then he read the lyrics to a song he wrote about space. He was reading from the book “Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics,” a collection of Cocker’s lyrics which was published last year by Faber & Faber. His appearance at the Art School was not a “book talk” per se — he made no effort to try to sell the book — but the subject of the talk revolved around it. The readings were accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation of photos plucked seemingly straight from Google Images.
At the beginning of the talk, he asked the provocative question: “What’s the point of lyric writing?” Rather than trying to purvey the book to starving art students, it seemed he was generously asking them to grant him an audience for a consideration of the very premise of the book: the value of lyrics.
And what IS the point of lyrics, Jarvis? Even by the end of his talk, it was not yet apparent. Cocker explained the moment when he first started a band, and realized only secondarily that he would have to write words to go over as lyrics. “At that stage,” he said, “there are two ways you can go: ironic, or overly earnest.” Early Pulp (as in, still students at Sheffield City School), to those ends, had one song called “Shakespeare Rock” (“It didn’t make it into this book”) and another called “Life is a Circle.”
But then Cocker learned that you could find your inspiration “right below your nose,” in the commonplace that is so easily overlooked. He read aloud the lyrics to “Inside Susan,” and accompanied them with pictures of buses, tickets, and markets in his home city of Sheffield. And Cocker’s commonplace did not end there. He moved to London soon after, and met a girl who had recently been to a large festival on Spike Island, which she described as full of “dodgy guys from Manchester who kept saying, ‘Well, we’re all sorted for e’s and whizz.’” The phrase stuck in his mind for six or seven years, he explained, “until it finally popped out.” So, Cocker arrived at a second method of finding lyrics: building a narrative around those fragments that revolve in your head long after they ought to have left.
By the end of his talk, the question of the point of lyrics was unresolved. But it was not lingering: it was left behind entirely. An art student in the audience asked, “How do you make the lyrics fit the music?” Cocker answered that music attaches itself naturally to the lyrics — and pointed out that most of the lyrics he had read during the last hour had been “spoken word”-style. The question of the lyrics was lost entirely. Suddenly, accidentally, the music was made subservient.