Lenni Sanders

The lyrics of Jonathan Richman: a writing prompt

Note: This blog post, written by me a couple of weeks ago, explores the lyrics of a Jonathan Richman song about walking in the evening. I had some concerns about sharing this piece in the aftermath of the murder of Sarah Everard. Walking at night is not as simple as it felt when I was writing this. Though it is a sensitive subject at this moment in the UK, it feels important to highlight the fact that everyone has the right to a peaceful and safe experience whilst out at night – people of marginalised genders, racially minoritized people, all people who are at an increased risk of suffering violent attacks. I wanted to go ahead and publish this piece, as a depiction of how it ought to be.

I love Jonathan Richman. His songs! Which tell such great stories. (And also his incredible dance moves! Which are so loose-limbed, and uninhibited.) I think his lyrics can often have a wonderful innocence to them, which feels at once authentic and quite deliberate. Like in ‘Chewing Gum Wrapper’ – he knows what he’s doing, writing a whole three-minute pop song about how much he likes the colour of an old chewing gum wrapper, discarded on the pavement:

“Cruddy little chewing gum wrapper,
dried up by the sun –
someone else’s got to feel this way, because I can’t be the only one
who loves the faded colours like what end up at the dump –
my heart goes bumpety, bumpety, bumpety bump.”

All very daft! But I think this disarming innocence carries over into his serious songs as well. Just something about how he phrases things and his approach to life. One of my favourite things about his lyrics is how he categorises things he knows about as ‘something I know about’, like ‘twilight in Boston’ in ‘Twilight In Boston’, or ‘a g-i-r-l-f-r-e-n’ in ‘Girlfriend’. He sings that about both of those things. I feel reassured and I find myself thinking ‘now that’s something I know about’ as I lean over a pot and make a filthily big soup with a random assortment of vegetables in, or whatever the hell else I’m doing, I don’t know these days…

Today a writing prompt I would like to share with you is the song ‘Twilight in Boston’. I would like you to treat it as a meditative experience if you want to, and let Jonathan lead you through the streets of Boston, on an aimless wandering journey. It’s a flâneur song.

I do think the music is a big part of the mood created, but I think the lyrics stand by themselves as a kind of stripped back monologue – when reading them, if you imagine long silences between each line, this is the way Jonathan delivers them in the song, which is soft, quiet, spare and slow, only his voice and the guitar. My favourite moment is when he declares, ‘Time for adventure now.’ I love ‘Twilight in Boston’ because it is so gentle and so sweet and at once a little ambiguous and melancholy. I think it is like a lullaby. It closes the album it’s on (I, Jonathan) and you can just imagine a listener sighing sleepily at the end of the song, turning off the bedside lamp.

I was listening to this song and thinking I’d like to write something that does a similar thing, describing an ambling here-and-there wander around somewhere I know well. It was a little hard to choose my place, but I settled on Withington, a south Manchester suburb I used to live in a few years ago. It was a good time!

What I would like to suggest is, take ‘Twilight in Boston’ as your framework to write a poem. Choose somewhere you know well or even somewhere you love, name some streets or buildings, describe what’s happening and what you like about it. What time of day is it? What time of year? Where are you headed? Are you with someone? How are you travelling? Is it time for adventure?

Here are the lyrics to read (with alternate lyrics from a live version below).

Here is a link to listen to the song on Youtube.

Here’s an extract from what I wrote and have been working on:

Withington, Manchester

Wishing my byes and goodnights,
see you soons, unlocking the bike now,
I fumble for the padlock in the dark.
(This is one bicycle ago, the magic blue
one. It was almost so light I could have
thrown it like a wrestling prop. You remember.) 

I ride to my old apartment I shared with you,
with the starlings raising up their yelling babies
in the vent in the kitchen wall. The black air feels
sweet against my neck as I go, fast, trees on either side,
on Burton Road, hardly moving, leaves scattered
emeralds in the light of the streetlamps, brighter
and greener than should be allowed
at this time of night, the way I am feeling.

Just a little bit of it! Still working on the rest. Most of it so far seems to be about going in and out of various pubs and bars. Shout out to Fuel, and to The Red Lion, forever in my heart.

If you try this I’d love to read what you write, so if you want you can post it in the comments here on the Poetry Business Blog, or DM me on Twitter (@LenniSanders) or Facebook (Lenni Sanders). Maybe if there’s enough interest I can put together a little self-published zine? We could call it ‘Twilight in Boston’ or ‘[time] in [place]’ or something.

More from Lenni Sanders