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SXSW: Jarvis Cocker, Artist of the Lyric

March 19, 2009 | 11:40 am
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With a long wooden pointer and a shaggy beard, Jarvis Cocker spurred inevitable comparisons to a young Dumbledore during his lecture Wednesday at the South by Southwest music festival. Cocker, the erstwhile, suave young brat of the Britpop pack as the leader of Pulp, took on a new role -- that of educator -- for "Saying the Unsayable," a whip-smart and sometimes poignant lecture on the art of lyric writing.

"Maybe it would be better to think of lyrics as an optional extra, like a sun roof on a car or a patio," the author said of some of the most acerbically telling lyrics of the alternative-rock era, in songs like "Common People" and "The Fear." "They may not be a necessity, but they improve the quality of life."

Cocker prefaced this rather humble remark with an exposition on the famously mumbled verses of the Kingsmen's version of "Louie Louie" -- not the freshest topic in the history of pop. But his lecture took another turn when he considered "Heroes," by David Bowie, one of his own role models.

After playing a vintage video of the Thin White Duke, Cocker noted that what made the somewhat banal lyric of "Heroes" work was that Bowie sang it heroically. "You can almost imagine him coughing up blood after singing it," Cocker said.

This wholly expected example was followed by a less likely one -- a brief homage to Canada's beloved national folk icon, Gordon Lightfoot. Then Cocker sang the first song he wrote as a teen, the dubious "Shakespeare Rock," which puts quotes from the Bard into the mouth of a recalcitrant girlfriend.

This melding of autobiography with wise and clever larger observations continued for two hours, as Cocker considered the lyric from many angles: through the work of Cocker's heroes -- Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker and Lou Reed -- and his betes noir, sappy contemporary songsmith James Blunt and dance-pop diva Des'ree. At times this highly literate post-punk artiste seemed like he might veer off into snobbery, but he never settled there. And he praised Rihanna and rap as well as his beloved bohemian balladeers.

Cocker is one of current pop's great wits, and it would have been easy for him to focus on the superficial. But he took risks, performing several of his own songs in heartrendingly spare settings, and putting forth new ideas like "radical nonsense" -- something he said John Lennon practiced in the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" -- and "the usefulness of 'yeah, yeah, yeah,'" which he illustrated with a version of Pulp's "Babies."

His observations would qualify him as an A-list rock critic, should he ever put down the microphone for the pen. He noted that the musical reputation of the Velvet Underground has sometimes overshadowed the importance of the deadpan but cut-throat narratives Reed wrote within the band's songs, and chastised the British press for not seeing the humor in Cohen's work.

Breaking his presentation into categories with snappy titles like "Inappropriate Subject Matter" (a good thing) and "Should Songs Rhyme" (yes, but don't be a "rhyme whore"), Cocker played at being a wise elder, but he proved to be one too. He's ready for the lecture circuit. Could a double bill with David Byrne, a fellow pioneer of pop PowerPoint, be in his future?

-- Ann Powers

Photo courtesy www.scottwalkerfilm.com

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